In a new report released this month, the United Nations is encouraging countries around the world to preserve women’s right to health care by removing “unnecessary” restrictions on abortion services. The report, produced by the UN’s Population Fund (UNFPA), calls for new policies to address the barriers to reproductive health care that economically disadvantaged women continue to face — including hurdles to safe abortion services.
“The fundamental human rights to life and to security of the person, as well as freedom from cruel and inhumane treatment, and from discrimination, among others, means that unnecessary restrictions on abortion should be removed and governments should provide access to safe abortion services,” UNFPA’s report states on page 97 of the online copy.
The authors note that, according to a wide body of research, harsh restrictions on abortion services don’t actually lower the rate of women choosing to end their pregnancies. Instead, they simply contribute to a rise in preventable deaths from illegal procedures. Indeed, an estimated 47,000 women around the world die from unsafe abortions. Young, poor women in developing nations are most at risk for losing their lives because of botched abortion procedures in unsafe conditions.
According to UNFPA, ensuring access to legal abortion will help “safeguard the lives of women and girls” as well as fulfill individuals’ overall “right to health.” Nonetheless, the global survey that formed the basis of the U.N.’s new report found that just 50 percent of countries took steps to address the issue of “providing access to safe abortion services to the extent of the law” during the past five years.
The UNFPA has long been a proponent of safe and legal abortion services. It endorses the World Health Organization’s “Technical and Policy Guidelines for Access to Safe Abortion,” which were first published in 2003. In that document, WHO also advocates for dismantling the policy barriers that prevent women from being able to access the full range of family planning services. “An enabling policy environment is needed to ensure that every woman legally eligible has ready access to good-quality abortion services,” the guidelines stipulate.
Although the U.N.’s report highlights the stark health discrepancies between impoverished nations and wealthy nations, its policy recommendations apply to the United States, too. Even though abortion is technically legal under Roe v. Wade, states have enacted an increasing number of unnecessary abortion restrictions that puts the right to choose far out of reach for many women. Here in the U.S., poor women are also more likely to resort to illegal abortion methods because they don’t have the resources to access safe medical care.
The UNFPA report holds up the Netherlands as an example of a country that is approaching abortion policy in a productive way. The authors note that the country’s “pragmatic and comprehensive approach to family planning” — including free contraceptives, universal sex ed, consistent encouragement of women’s empowerment, and easily accessible abortion services — has contributed to one of the lowest unintended pregnancy rates in the world.