By Amanda Louise Bolann Håland

Having access to reproductive services is essential for women’s control over their own body, reproductive system and life. Through better access to contraceptives, sexual education and legal abortions, women have been empowered to an extent that did not seem possible before these services became legal and accessible. Nonetheless, reproductive rights are still not upheld for millions of women, and looking at the issue today we can even see countries restricting and pushing back on the practice of these essential rights. 

Having reproductive rights included in a sub-goal of the UN Sustainable Development Goals shows the global attention on the topic. Despite this, changes in the wrong direction recently has become particularly evident in Europe and the United States. These changes are often led by political forces, taking the shape of men hiding behind “Christian values”, something we have seen both on federal and state level in the US and represented in Europe by current proposals in Poland. 

The US seems to be the prime example of a Western democratic country restricting women’s access to reproductive health services. The state of Alabama outlawed abortion in May 2019 and other states have restricted the amount of weeks you are allowed to take an abortion. At the same time, the NGO “Power to Decide” estimates that 19 million women in the US live in so-called contraceptive deserts, meaning they lack access to medical clinics offering a full range of contraceptive methods. 

As if the situation in the US is not disappointing enough, the admittedly “liberal superpower” also use their power through the so-called “Global Gag Policy” to restrict women in other countries from access to reproductive health services. The policy was originally established by Reagan, and has been reinforced by every republican president ever since, including President Trump. It states that all overseas non-governmental organisations that do any work related to abortions or give out information about it will stop receiving funding. 

The Global Gag Policy shows how non-liberal the american liberalism can be and the policy has had severe consequences for NGOs dependent on US Foreign Aid. These NGOs are put in a situation where they have to choose between still receiving funding or to keep working with abortion-related issues. NGOs that are already in tight economic situations have no choice but to give in to the US’s requirements. The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) estimates that this policy affects NGOs in 32 countries and that the blocked funding, among others, could have prevented 1.7 million unsafe abortions and 4.8 million unintended pregnancies if it was distributed. 

Times of crisis particularly shows women’s vulnerability when it comes to reproductive rights, even in the least expected places. Amnesty International,among others, and maybe even more unexpectedly, criticising Europe for having “reduced reproductive health services to a bare minimum”, in particular affecting more deprived women all over the continent.

Furthermore, Poland is taking this to the extremes as a proposal making abortions completely illegal as well as making sexual education a criminal offence, was discussed in the National Parliament on April 15th. The proposal has been criticized all over Europe as 100 European organisations have jointly signed a statement demanding safe access to abortion and contraceptives during the covid-19 pandemic. Why the proposal has been put forward around exactly this time has also been controversial as many claim it to be a strategic move from the government’s side in a situation where people can’t publicly protest like they usually would, and previously have when similar proposals have been discussed. 

Even though the proposal has not passed, it has been forwarded to subcommittees that will discuss the issue further. As I am writing this, a date for when these discussions will be finished has still not been set. However, this does not seem to be the last we will see of reproductive rights restrictions in Poland and Polish women still have to face insecurities about when and if they can ever see their rights actually be upheld.  

One might ask, how can we still be so far away from achieving global reproductive rights for women? The answer is complex and for an expert to answer, but sure is disappointing. Women all over the world, and often closer to home than you would expect, are still fighting for autonomy over their right to choose. Over their right to safe abortions. Right to contraceptives. To sexual education. In times of a global pandemic and conservative political waves women seem even more vulnerable, trying to fight for rights we should have been able to take for granted long ago. 

Illustration: Josephine Karlsson

Amanda Louise Bolann Håland

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