For a Global Fight For a Woman’s Right To Choose

Geraldine Santoro was alone and naked when she bled to death on the floor of a hotel bathroom, aged 28. She had become pregnant as a result of an affair with a colleague called Clyde Dixon, and – afraid that her abusive husband would find out – she and Dixon attempted a self-induced abortion.

The year was 1964 and Santoro was living in the state of Connecticut, USA, where abortion was not yet legal.

The photo police officers took of her body face down on a bathmat became a grim symbol of the dangers of restricting abortion, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that American women had the right to an abortion in 1973.

The right of women to control their own reproductive choices is still hotly contested territory across the world.

Despite the 1973 decision, most US states carry abortion restrictions.

In Europe, Malta carries a complete ban on abortion, and though Ireland technically allows abortion to save a woman’s life, in 2012 Savita Halappanavar died after being denied an abortion by Irish doctors. In Latin America, some countries carry complete bans on abortion.

But let’s be clear: abortions are still carried out in countries where there is an abortion ban. They are carried out at the same rate as countries where abortion is completely liberalized.

The only thing abortion bans do is move the location of the abortion from a sanitised clinic to a hotel bathroom. Bans mean the people who perform abortions are not caring professionals, but frightened women, opportunistic quacks, and controlling men.

Misogynistic legislation and the attitudes that accompany it are responsible for the preventable pandemic of women dying as a result of unsafe abortion across the world. I

n fact, in the time it has taken you to read from the beginning of the article to the end of this sentence, it is likely that another woman will have died from complications arising from an unsafe abortion.

This issue must surely unite feminists across the world, regardless of social class, race, ethnic background or nationality.

Most women in countries where abortion is liberalized will come into contact with it at some point in their lifetime – either through helping a friend or undergoing an abortion themselves.

And despite the stereotype of abortion as the preserve of reckless teenagers, most abortions in the U.K. for example are administered to women in their 20s, and nearly half of those who have abortions are in a relationship.

In other words, the puritanical rhetoric that often accompanies abortion debates obscures the fact that – for women in countries where abortion is legal – it is moderately common, chosen carefully and is not usually a source of regret or trauma.

But even for these women, abortion is not something that can be taken for granted. In all countries where abortion is liberalized, there is a virulently anti-choice movement, which sees itself as part of a global mission to end abortion. Clinics in the U.K. are frequently picketed by anti-choice groups, which consciously borrow rhetoric and tactics from similar U.S. movements.

In that respect, women across the world must forge a global pro-choice movement whose focus must begin with ending outright abortion bans across the world.

In Chile, where Michelle Bachelet has shown herself to be open to abortion reform, there is a growing movement of women attempting to end the ban that was first introduced by dictator Gen. Pinochet. The governments of Uruguay and Cuba, have already liberalized abortion.

Feminists, and governments which claim to support women, must see abortion as a global issue, where restriction of access in one country sets a precedent which threatens women’s rights in another. Those seeking to end abortion see the issue in this way, and they are right to.

The choice we are presented with; that we either end abortion or permit it; is false. The only real choice is whether we make abortion safe or dangerous – whether we are brave enough to put women’s lives first or not.

Feminists across the globe must force governments to face up to this reality, and make an honest choice about how to proceed. Restrictions to abortion are nothing more than a devaluing of women’s lives, and right now the governments that institute them are evading responsibility for the consequences.

Ellie Mae O’Hagan is regular columnist for a range of UK outlets writing mainly on worker’s rights unions, activism, feminism and Latin America. She tweets @MissEllieMae

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