Public health and human rights leaders from over 30 countries are calling for expanded access to abortion care to prevent women from dying from botched procedures, urging governments around the world to “make safe, legal abortion universally available and accessible to all women regardless of age, income, or where they live.” The international figures issued their recommendations for achieving that goal in a new declaration released on Wednesday.
The declaration is the culmination of a two-day meeting that brought together about 60 global leaders to review the progress in reproductive health over the past two decades. Twenty years ago, the UN convened the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo to discuss issues of maternal mortality, family planning access, and unsafe abortion. There’s been some important progress since then, but there’s also more work to do — particularly when it comes to women’s access to abortion services. According to estimates from the World Health Organization, a woman dies from complications due to an unsafe abortion every eight minutes.
“While we’ve seen maternal mortality drop substantially in the years since the Cairo conference, we’ve seen very little change in the number of unsafe abortions. We’re sobered by the fact that 21 million women have an unsafe abortion every year because they can’t access safe care,” Elizabeth Maguire, the president of Ipas, the international reproductive health organization that convened this week’s meeting, told ThinkProgress.
The leaders who gathered in Cairo agreed that abortion should be made “safe where legal,” a guiding principal that continues to inform the United Nation’s stance today. But for the public health officials who met this week, that doesn’t go far enough. They point out that since the 1994 meeting in Cairo, more than one million women have died because they lacked access to safe abortion care, and an additional one hundred million suffered preventable injuries from illegal abortions. They’re interested in removing the existing criminal penalties on abortion services to save more women’s lives.
“We gathered to make an unprecedented commitment of support for access to safe and legal abortion for women and girls,” Maguire explained. “We’re very excited. We feel very energized and ready to take these actions forward. I’m personally very pleased to see the level of commitment coming out of this meeting from leaders from all around the world.”
Maguire convened the meeting along with Dr. Nafis Sadik, who was the secretary general of the Cairo conference and the former director of the United Nations Population Fund; Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro, the president of the Global Fund for Women; and Ivens Reis Reyner, a member of the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Health. Others in attendance included representatives from Uruguay, Uganda, Nicaragua, Brazil, the Philippines, Ethiopia, the Netherlands, Canada, Malawi, and Vietnam.
There are some relatively simple steps that the U.S. government could take to start making progress on the goals laid out in the new declaration. For instance, the United States could bring its implementation of the Helms Amendment — the decades-old policy that prevents U.S. foreign aid from funding abortion — in line with the way the legislation is actually written. Although Helms technically has exceptions for women who need abortion care as a result of rape, incest, or life-threatening health issues, that’s not actually how it works in practice. Health workers are so afraid to break the law that it’s essentially resulted in a total ban on abortion services, and a gag order on information related to abortion.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, Helms’ current interpretation has created a world in which “NGOs are needlessly refraining from providing abortion counseling or referrals in health facilities for women with unwanted pregnancies, including those who have been sexually assaulted; incorporating abortion information in Web sites, training materials and other publications; participating in discussions and meetings on unsafe abortion; and partnering or identifying with NGOs that openly support abortion access.”
“The first thing we’re asking for is totally legally permissible: Implement the Helms Amendment correctly, which would allow for foreign assistance to be provided to women who have been raped, or who are victims of incest, or whose lives are in danger,” Maguire told ThinkProgress. “Of course, we’d want to see the full repeal of the Helms Amendment, but we don’t see that happening anytime soon. So we’re asking this administration to implement it correctly, and in the process, we think that would save the lives of many women around the world.”
And there are other ways that lawmakers here in the U.S. could model the type of reproductive health care standards that global leaders are calling for. Although abortion is technically legal under Roe v. Wade, unnecessary abortion restrictions on the state level put the right to choose far out of reach for many women — so even here in the U.S., some low-income women are resorting to illegal abortion methods because they don’t have the resources to access safe medical care. Lawmakers could fight to remove some of those policies here at home, too.
“This is an issue that knows no boundaries,” Maguire noted. “Our focus has been on the developing world, but we’re very concerned about the regressive actions taking place in the United States and other countries that are currently installing barriers for women. It’s a very deep concern. That’s why all of these world leaders came together united for safe, legal abortion.”