Politics

From Poland to the US, this week was a reminder that abortion rights are never guaranteed

Around the world, abortion rights are being threatened, stripped away or disregarded by those in power. Here’s what we should take away from a grim week for reproductive rights.

If there was ever a week to remind us that abortion rights are hard-won and never set in stone, it was this one. In Poland, terminations are now set to be banned in almost all circumstances, after the country’s top court ruled that abortions in cases of severe and irreversible foetal abnormalities are incompatible with the Polish constitution. Abortion will now only be permitted in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s health is at risk, factors that currently account for just 2% of legal terminations in Poland.

Esther Major, senior research adviser at Amnesty International, describes the judgment as “the result of a coordinated, systematic wave of attacks on women’s human rights by Polish lawmakers and represents their latest attempt to ban abortion in Poland”. The ban is certainly a victory for Poland’s ruling right-wing nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS), which has repeatedly tried to roll back abortion rights since gaining power five years ago. PiS dropped proposals to ban abortion entirely in 2016 following huge street protests, but later began attempting to criminalise terminations in cases of foetal disabilities. After the court’s judges (most of whom were appointed by PiS) announced their decision on Thursday, police in Warsaw used pepper spray against pro-choice protesters, thousands of whom have demonstrated across the country.

Abortion protests in Warsaw, 22 October 2020
Pro-choice protestors face off with riot police in Warsaw on 23 October following the court ruling on abortion

Persistent attempts by right-wing politicians to roll back reproductive rights are also reaching a tipping point in the US. This week, Amy Coney Barrett – President Donald Trump’s pick to replace the late pro-choice justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court – got one step closer to her goal, after Republicans voted to advance her nomination to the Senate.

A final vote on the nomination will now take place on 26 October, but all signs indicate Barrett will be appointed to the Supreme Court. During her confirmation hearing, she refused to say whether she would protect Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that gave women across the US the right to abortion. But she has previously made her views on the subject very clear. In 2006, she signed her name to a newspaper ad calling for Roe v Wade to be overturned – the ultimate goal of the anti-choice movement in the US.

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While Barrett has insisted that her political views will not affect her interpretation of the law, evidence shows that judges’ personal ideologies do affect their legal decisions. What is certain is that pro-choice groups in the US are sounding the alarm about Barrett’s appointment. Rachel Sussman, vice-president of state policy and advocacy at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, has warned that this is “a pivotal … moment in time where many of the freedoms that we have held dear really hang in the balance”.

Amy Coney Barrett
Amy Coney Barrett and abortion: the Supreme Court nominee has refused to say whether she would vote to overturn Roe v Wade

Even in countries where the abortion debate has supposedly been settled, women are still facing barriers to reproductive healthcare. This week marked one year since abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland – yet despite the change in the law, the Northern Irish health department is still refusing to take charge of abortion services, arguing that it isn’t legally required to do so.

Instead, local health trusts have been left to provide terminations with no extra funding from the Department of Health. Unsurprisingly, these trusts have been stretched to their limits as Covid-19 has swept Northern Ireland – with the result that many fledgling abortion services have now been suspended. There are currently no early medical abortion (EMA) services in 10 out of Northern Ireland’s 26 local areas. Unlike in the rest of the UK and Ireland, Northern Ireland has also refused to allow abortion telemedicine (where abortion-inducing pills, ruled safe to take at home by the World Health Organisation, are delivered in the post) during the pandemic.

All this means that people in need of abortions in Northern Ireland are – at best – being forced to travel unnecessarily into clinics, running the risk of contracting Covid-19. Those in areas with no abortion services face even greater challenges.

“Despite the best efforts of dedicated healthcare professionals, this service is far from what we hoped for,” Naomi Connor, co-convener of Northern Irish reproductive rights group Alliance For Choice, tells Stylist. “Ultimately, this means women and pregnant people are being denied the fitting and adequate abortion healthcare they require.”

northern ireland abortion protests
Pro-choice activists in Belfast on 21 October 2019, the day abortion was decriminalised

Contrary to anti-choice ideology, research shows that women do not continue with unwanted pregnancies when their reproductive rights are rolled back or their access to abortion is limited. Many will travel to find the care they need. Since April, more than 150 women and pregnant people have left Northern Ireland to have abortions elsewhere in the UK via the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). It’s estimated that at least 100,000 women leave Poland every year to seek terminations abroad. In the US, where several states have passed legislation tightening abortion access in recent years, women cross state lines for terminations. Those who cannot make these journeys are often the most vulnerable and marginalised: those living in poverty, with disabilities or in abusive relationships.

A woman’s right to choose will always be up for grabs. It’s up to us to protect it: by supporting pro-choice politicians, charities and activists, and by donating to grassroots organisations that help women and pregnant people access abortion care, from the Abortion Support Network (which helps fund transport costs for women who need to travel for terminations) to Women On Waves (which sends safe abortion pills to countries where the procedure is banned). The war for reproductive rights will never be won – and so we have to keep fighting. 

Images: Getty