By Becky Crocker
Worldwide, women are facing attacks on and erosions of their abortion rights. 4 November saw a significant protest in Poland against a recently-proposed amendment to the constitution that threatens to virtually eliminate abortion rights. Polish Vice Prime Minister and president of the hard right League of Polish Families (LPR) party, Roman Giertych has proposed this amendment with the aim of defending the right of an unborn child from the point of conception. A group of women’s rights campaigners and trade unionists called the demonstration with the slogan; “NO TO WOMEN’S HELL. WE DEMAND LEGAL ABORTION!”.
They issued a statement which is emphatic that there can be no compromise with this new proposal: it comes from a right wing religious perspective that imbues an unborn child with life from the point of conception, and privileges the rights of the child over the rights of women. They say ‘the ban on abortion is in violation of the rights of women to planned parenthood and is at variance with human rights’.
Abortion rights in Poland are already significantly restricted, with termination allowed in only three situations: when life is threatened, when there is foetal deformation, or when the pregnancy is the result of rape. Backstreet abortion is already big business. Official figures say there are only 150 abortions annually, but independent research indicates that the number of illegal abortions is anything from 80,000 to 200,000. Attacking abortion rights would force this figure up, and expose more women to unsafe backstreet practices. The campaign is clear that limited access to abortion hits the poorest in society hardest. Private surgeries cost 2000-3000 zlotis (500-750 Euros), beyond the budget of most women. Women who can’t afford abortions are forced to give birth, and there has been a noticeable rise in numbers of abandoned babies by people forced to give birth for economic reasons.
The majority of people in Poland recognise the importance of abortion rights, not only for health, but also for social reasons. The Polish Federation of Family Planning suspects that the government are playing ‘pre-election games’ to appeal to Catholic sentiment . They say, “As women, as people, as citizens, both male and female, we cannot agree to this”.
Further key battles are being fought in the US. In March The South Dakota legislature passed a bill to make abortion illegal, even in the case of rape or incest. Its aim was to force a case to go to the Supreme Court. The right wing hoped that the current Bush-backed anti-choice composition of the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court verdict that brought in abortion rights in 1973. Grass roots campaigners in South Dakota collected enough signatures to prevent the bill coming into force in July, forcing a state referendum on the issue on 8 November. The referendum’s verdict was 56% in favour of maintaining abortion rights. Women have survived this particular challenge, but others rumble on. In July this year, the Senate voted through a bill to criminalise young women who cross state borders to have an abortion without their parents’ permission. This would cut off a lifeline given that poor funding makes abortions unobtainable in most US counties and state crossings are necessary. The new Democratic Congress is unlikely to take these measures further, but this month poses a further challenge. A law signed by Bush will go before the Supreme Court that aims to ban abortion after the foetus is 13 weeks old. With this so-called ‘partial birth abortion’ ban, the Republicans want to prevent abortion after 13 weeks, calling it ‘infanticide’, describing the baby is ‘partially alive then killed’. This is being seen as a test case. Again, the right are hoping that the anti-choice Supreme Court will back this measure to curtail abortion rights — even where a woman’s life is at risk. Although early abortion is available ‘on request’ in most European countries, struggles are taking place where restrictions remain. Portugal limits abortion to cases of risk to physical health. Campaigners are hopeful that a referendum in January 2007 will overturn this outdated law.
In Italy, where abortion is legal, 250,000 demonstrated in January of this year against Berlusconi and Pope Benedict. They were determined to that the “right to choice, health and work” would not be violated by an attempt to shore up the moral order. In 2003, Russia passed the first assault on abortion rights for over 50 years, reducing the eligibility for abortion to cases of rape and medical risk, eliminating social justifications. Ireland has the most restrictive anti-abortion law in Europe, where abortion is permitted only to save a woman’s life.
A recent challenge to this law in the European Court of Human Rights fell on a technicality but has provided the public mood for a new campaign, ‘Safe and Legal in Ireland’. Closer to home, the Scottish Executive have funded a pilot education scheme, ‘Call to Love’, which advocates an abstinence-only method of contraception. The Scottish Socialist Youth women’s group have taken direct action against this measure, distributing sex education and contraceptives outside the schools affected. Abortion remains illegal except to preserve a woman’s life in most Latin American Countries.
This year, Columbia modified its total ban to allow abortions where a woman’s life was in danger.
In Chile, a total ban is still in force, with only limited progress this year as women in Chile were allowed access to the morning after pill for the first time.
With abortion totally outlawed in Egypt and Iran, and allowed only to preserve a woman’s life in countries such as Senegal, Zimbabwe and Ireland, it is clear that abortion rights are still a key part of the international struggle for women’s liberation.