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OPINION: What the lack of access to safe abortion means for migrant women

by Viviana Waisman | @womenslink | Women's Link Worldwide
Saturday, 28 September 2019 09:00 GMT

A woman looks at the Tachira river from the Francisco de Paula Santander cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela in Urena, Venezuela February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Even in countries where abortion is legal, there are still barriers that disproportionately affect migrant women

Viviana Waisman, President & CEO, Women’s Link Worldwide.

Like thousands of Venezuelan women, Patricia* migrated to Colombia, fleeing the humanitarian crisis in her country in search of a better life for herself and her three young children. Once in Colombia, her husband abandoned her and their children when she got pregnant again. Unemployed and without a partner, Patricia felt unable to raise another child. In a state of severe emotional distress, she sought to terminate her pregnancy. In Colombia, abortion is allowed if there is a risk to the health of the pregnant woman, including to her mental health. Despite having completed all the required psychological evaluations, the hospital refused to perform the abortion, telling her that, as an undocumented migrant, they would not perform the procedure in the public healthcare system.

Unfortunately, Patricia’s story is not isolated, and this is not just something that happens in Colombia. There are an estimated 258 million international migrants worldwide[1], and even though world leaders included the right to universal health coverage in the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the reality is that migrants with irregular migratory status have limited access to services in public health systems around the world.

Many women migrate to flee violence and lack of access to healthcare for them and their children. However, once in their destination countries, they face barriers again, especially to sexual and reproductive health services, even where it is a right guaranteed to all women, at least on paper.

In countries across the European Union,[2] undocumented women and girls have limited access to contraception and to the voluntary termination of pregnancy. If they are unable to access abortion services, they often resort to unsafe procedures.

Many countries have laws that grant rights to women, but at the same time they restrict migrants’ access to healthcare, especially if they do not have residence permits, creating societies that balatently discriminate against migrant and refugee women and girls. For example, in Spain, women have fought for and obtained liberal abortion laws for all women, regardless of nationality. And yet, other laws and lengthy administrative wait periods operate in a maner that effectively denies this right to undocumented migrant women, treating them as second class citizens.  

This discrimination impacts women in the most vulnerable situations, such as women who have been victims of human trafficking. Women who faced severe violence, including sexual violence, at the hands of traffickers are then subjected to treatment that impacts their physical and mental health, such as being forced to wait weeks for legal abortions or being treated in a degrading manner by those that have the responsibility to provide them with needed healthcare services.

In order for governments to live up to their obligations to respect and protect the rights of women, it is crucial that they view abortion as a healthcare service that women and girls may need at any point in their lives, and that when they do, it is urgent. Not providing the reproductive healthcare services that women need throughout their lives, including prenatal care and access to safe abortions when necessary, constitutes discrimination. At the same time, if a government fails to extend these services to migrant women, they are blatently disregarding the needs of an entire population.  

There is much work to be done to ensure that all women have full access to all the health services that they need, including abortion. Even in countries where abortion is legal, there are still barriers that disproportionately affect migrant women. In order for access to abortion to be meaningful, it must be legal, safe, free, and accessible for all women. Without exception.

* The name has been changed to protect the identity

[1]UNITED NATIONS. International migration report. 2017 https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/publications/migrationreport/docs/MigrationReport2017_Highlights.pdf

[2] PICUM. The Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights of Undocumented Migrants: Narrowing the Gap between their Rights and the Reality in the EU. February 2016. http://picum.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Sexual-and-Reproductive-Health-Rights_EN.pdf