Thursday, December 20, 2007

Repeal All Abortion Laws

By Joyce Arthur, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada
October, 2007

Canada is the only democratic country in the world that has no abortion law or restrictions of any kind, and it has proven that such laws are completely unnecessary. An expanded version of this article describing Canada's experience can be found here:

No country needs to regulate abortion via criminal or civil law. All anti-abortion laws and restrictions, throughout the world, should be repealed as unconstitutional violations of women's rights and equality.

Anti-abortion laws kill and injure women, violate their human rights and dignity, impede access to abortion, and obstruct healthcare professionals. All abortion restrictions are unjust, harmful, and useless because they rest on traditional religious and patriarchal foundations. Only when abortion has the same legal status as any other health procedure can it be fully integrated into women's reproductive healthcare.

Laws against abortion do nothing to stop abortion

Every year, about 19 million desperate women seek out illegal abortions, because the countries they live in have banned safe abortion. 68,000 women die every year as a result, and at least five million suffer serious injury or permanent disability.

Countries with strict abortion bans (mostly in the developing world) usually allow an exception to save the woman's life. Ironically, such bans result in many times more maternal deaths than in countries with more liberal abortion laws. The hypocrisy of laws that pretend to save women's lives, but which actually slaughter them by the thousands, demands their immediate repeal.

Anti-abortion laws have nothing to do with good healthcare.

Abortion laws around the world vary wildly. While some countries ban abortion totally, others have few or no laws, and many enforce statutes regulating various aspects of the abortion decision and procedure. Such laws are generally not required for any other medical treatment. Examples include mandatory waiting periods, parental consent laws, obligatory counseling, early gestational limits, and other restrictions. Differing legal frameworks also lead to "abortion tourism," forcing women to travel out-of-country to obtain the care they need, and discriminating against women without the resources to travel.

The sheer diversity of legal situations around the world is proof that abortion laws have nothing to do with quality healthcare, and instead are politically-motivated. Abortion laws are unrelated to women's real medical needs and concerns, and divorced from the best practices of medical professionals. They are simply holdovers from the days of criminal abortion, or recent products of religious ideology.

In practice, many abortion restrictions impede good medical care, such as delaying treatment unnecessarily and providing false information to patients. This increases the medical risks of abortion and causes psychological and physical distress to women. Also, when abortion is illegal or restricted, it blocks or hampers medical research that's needed to improve abortion care and protect women's health.

Abortion laws are frequently hollow anyway, because it's assumed they reduce abortion when they don't. For example, abortions in the third trimester are very rare and done only in dire circumstances, so passing a law that prohibits late abortions except for health reasons is pointless, as well as insulting to women and doctors. The natural limiting factors for third trimester abortions are the very low demand for them, and the miniscule number of doctors willing and trained to do them.

Anti-abortion laws hurt healthcare professionals.

Anti-abortion laws punish healthcare providers and further reduce access to abortion by:

marginalizing abortion care and abortion providers outside the mainstream healthcare system
shifting the focus away from basic healthcare to legal issues
turning abortion into a political target for legislators and extremists
disrespecting professional medical judgments made in the patient's best interests
interfering in the confidential doctor/patient relationship
threatening health workers with prosecution

The imposition of anti-abortion laws says, in effect, that legislators can make better medical decisions than doctors. No other medical procedure carries with it the threat of criminal punishment - abortion is singled out for special treatment. But physicians should never work under the shadow of prosecution simply for providing medical care.

Anti-abortion laws institutionalize the stigma of abortion. Laws imply that abortion must be restricted because it is wrong and bad, and people who need or perform abortions are also wrong and bad. But no law will change the fact that a woman desperately needs an abortion, and a doctor wants to help her. As a result, abortion restrictions foster hypocrisy and disrespect for the law because they often force providers to interpret laws loosely, skirt them, or even disobey them.

Anti-abortion laws violate women's equality.

Women are different than men because of their capacity to bear children. Child-bearing has a much more profound effect on women's lives, than for men. To truly achieve equality with men, women must not be disadvantaged under the law because of pregnancy. There should be no laws regulating pregnancy in any way, because that puts a special obligation on women that is not placed on men. For example, a law that requires women to pay for abortions, but not childbirth costs, is discriminatory.

It's the uniquely important role of courts to uphold peoples' constitutional rights by striking down laws that infringe on those rights. Since any restriction on abortion unacceptably limits women's rights, abortion restrictions can (theoretically) be struck down in a constitutional democracy that protects women's equality. Likewise, abortion rights should never be subject to a vote by the electorate, and anti-choice laws should never be enacted based on public referendums. That's because we cannot trust citizens to fairly protect the constitutional rights of minorities and disadvantaged groups. In the case of abortion, social opinions are often rooted in stereotypical assumptions about women's "proper" role as child-bearers, and in religious beliefs about the value of fetal life, at the expense of pregnant women's lives.

Canada is the only democratic country in the world that has no abortion law or restrictions of any kind, and it has proven that such laws are completely unnecessary. Current abortion care reflects what most Canadians are comfortable with, and women and doctors act in a timely and responsible manner, without regulations. Women's equality is guaranteed under Canada's constitution, and it's considered unlikely that any anti-abortion law would withstand a constitutional challenge in Canada today. The courts there have consistently protected women's right to abortion since 1988, when the old abortion law was struck down by Canada's Supreme Court as violating women's constitutional rights to "life, liberty, and security of the person," and "freedom of conscience."

Even in national constitutions lacking an explicit guarantee of equality for women, there are usually other clauses that will support the repeal of abortion laws. For example, the 14th Amendment in the American constitution says no state can "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." This clause, and similar clauses in other national constitutions, should require the repeal of abortion laws because they unfairly apply only to women.

Anti-abortion laws hurt and devalue women.

Besides violating women's equality rights, anti-abortion laws also hurt women by:

affecting disadvantaged women the most, such as the poor, young, immigrant, and uneducated
turning women into criminals, or state-controlled baby-making machines
fostering prejudice against women who need one
rejecting women's moral reasoning
distrusting women to make their own decisions about their lives
protecting fetuses instead of pregnant women
punishing women for having sex for pleasure
punishing women for "shirking" motherhood

Abortion restrictions are meant to reduce the incidence of abortion, but instead, they put cruel obstacles in front of a woman. The just and sensible way to reduce abortion is to make contraception universally accessible, teach responsible sex education, and give people positive incentives to raise kids, such as financial bonuses and family support programs.

The state has no legitimate interest in protecting the fetus at any stage, except to provide social and medical resources to pregnant women to ensure good outcomes for their pregnancies. And a good outcome can be an abortion. Pregnant women are in the best position to take care of their fetuses, so we should trust women to make decisions on behalf of their fetuses, not the state.

Anti-abortion laws are rooted in patriarchy and religious tradition.

The following patriarchal myths are the root cause of all abortion restrictions, and form the basis of the anti-abortion viewpoint. The main anti-abortion goal is not to "save babies," it's to keep women in their traditional roles.

Motherhood is a woman's highest calling
All women should be (and want to be) mothers.
Women should endure the discomfort and pain of pregnancy and childbirth as their natural duty.
Women should sacrifice themselves to raise kids.
Women who have abortions are "bad" or "victims."
Women who have abortions suffer psychologically (at least they should).
Women are irresponsible or too emotional, and need direction and guidance
To "protect" women, we must restrict abortion.

Laws against abortion also rely on tradition, for example:

Pro-natalism - societies have a preference for birth over abortion
The right to have babies is unquestioned and unrestricted, but abortion is frowned upon.
Children are treated like possessions of parents, instead of individuals with rights.
The Church, God, and Bible are anti-abortion.

This traditional thinking no longer works for our modern society with its focus on human rights. Why should we favour birth over abortion when we live in an overpopulated world; when society will never reach agreement on the moral status of the fetus; when we know that unwilling mothers and unwanted children tend to suffer; and when becoming a parent should be the private decision of the woman and her family? Many people may not be ready or able to provide properly for a child. But children have rights, and they deserve respect, love, and the best chance at a good life. Of course, the right to have a child is fundamental and should not be restricted, but abortion is also a fundamental right on an equal basis.

Churches and religious doctrines should never dictate how we live our lives in a secular society with secular laws. Besides, the Bible is pro-choice. Several passages say it is better to die in the womb than live an unhappy or wicked life.

How to repeal anti-abortion laws.

Here's some suggested solutions to get rid of harmful anti-abortion restrictions:

Guarantee women's equality in countries' constitutions
Collect evidence of laws' harms, find plaintiffs, and challenge laws in court.
Lobby government against abortion restrictions (meet with legislators, submit briefs).
Educate media, government, health professionals, and public about the harm and futility of abortion restrictions.
Challenge the religious basis of anti-abortion laws, and keep church and state separate.
Change the rhetoric: Abortion is not a "necessary evil." Abortion is a moral and positive choice that liberates women, saves lives, and protects families.
Empower women in society by changing public policies
Change patriarchal attitudes about women and motherhood through advocacy and education.
Prioritize childcare and child-rearing as a universal concern, not a "woman's issue."

Some of these proposed solutions are obviously very difficult and would take many years. But one has to start somewhere. Because no country needs laws against abortion. We can trust women to exercise their sensible moral judgment; we can trust doctors to exercise their professional medical judgment, and that's all we need to regulate the process.

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