Mary Luke

(WOMENSENEWS)–President Bush’s scheduled signing today of the misnamed Partial-Birth Abortion ban–which has no health exception–will almost certainly cause anguish for American women and families in extremely difficult situations. The president’s support of this law, I believe, is another sign of his administration’s reckless disregard for women’s reproductive health and rights.

Already, those of us working overseas havewitnessed how recent U.S. policies–instigated by the religious right–have wronged girls and women in the world’s poorest countries. Two recent conferences in Asia, for example, underscored the enormous, tragic impact of unsafe abortion and the extent to which this administration’s policies disregard the realities of women’s lives.

Every day thousands of Asian women driven by desperation, poverty and social stigma seek help from unskilled providers, or quacks, to end unplanned pregnancies. Every day more than 100 such women–many of them young girls just beginning their lives–die as a result. Tens of thousands more suffer life-long disabilities. In Asia, unsafe abortion accounts for 12 percent of all maternal, or pregnancy-related, deaths and claims the lives of 38,000 women each year, according to the World Health Organization.

With political will and commitment from leaders, advocates, health care professionals and women themselves, this human devastation can be prevented. In fact, unsafe abortion is much easier to address, through preventive measures, than other causes of maternal death, such as severe bleeding, obstructed labor and other complications of pregnancy.

U.S. Policies Hampers Efforts to Protect Women’s Health

Recent conferences in Malaysia and Thailand concluded that unsafe abortion has reached such epic proportions in Asia that political leaders must address this issue. Participants stressed that fulfilling international mandates such as the Millennium Development Goals–a series of health and development-related commitments that United Nation member states have pledged to meet by 2015
–requires confronting unsafe abortion.

Unfortunately, anti-choice Bush administration policies–notably the Mexico City policy–have led to clinic closures, cuts in healthcare staff and medical supplies in numerous countries. This leaves women, children and families without access to vital healthcare services. The Mexico City policy, reinstated by Bush as one of his first acts in office, prohibits any organization receiving population funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development from using those or other, private funds, to provide abortions, inform their patients about abortion, or advocate for change in their nations’ abortion laws. The policy, known as the Global Gag Rule, severely hampers efforts to free women from the deadly cycle of unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion.

The Global Gag Rule–along with the U.S. abortion ban that Bush is signing today–fly in the face of crucial international efforts to protect women’s health.

Asian Countries Beginning to Address Unsafe Abortion

In late September, more than 120 representatives of governments, donors and nongovernmental organizations from 11 Asian countries attended “Saving Women’s Lives: The Health Impact of Unsafe Abortion” in Kuala Lumpur. Again and again, noted reproductive health experts emphasized the urgent need to end needless deaths and disabilities by making abortion safer and treating complications of unsafe abortion.

A week later, about 1,400 women’s health advocates and program experts from 41 countries convened in Bangkok, Thailand, at a conference called “Move into Action to Realize Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights.” There, Senator Mechai Viravaidya of Thailand–also known as the “Condom King” for his work promoting condoms for family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention–made an impassioned plea to help end unsafe abortion and apologized for his lack of action to date on this vital issue. He vowed to speak out on unsafe abortion at every future opportunity.

Governments and NGOs in Asia are already taking action to end unsafe abortion. For example, in India, which has long had a liberal abortion law, the government has undertaken a series of important initiatives including removing regulatory barriers so that women can obtain abortion care closer to their villages and expanding training for healthcare workers in quality of care. In Nepal, which reports Asia’s second-highest maternal mortality ratio, lawmakers last year replaced what was one of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws with one making early abortion available on request.

But to be fully successful, these and similar actions must take place in an international environment that values women’s lives. Bush’s policies clearly undermine the development of such an environment.

During his recent whirlwind tour of Asia, Bush tackled a gamut of issues of mutual concern to the United States and Asian nations, including global trade, terrorism and the impact of HIV/AIDS. One topic he evidently did not address–but which these recent health summits indicate is of increasing concern to Asian leaders–is the toll of unsafe abortion in Asia. It is a subject the Bush administration steadfastly ignores but in which it is shamefully complicit. Both his global and domestic policies demonstrate a lack of respect for women’s ability to make safe, appropriate choices about their own lives that has catastrophic and heartbreaking consequences.

Mary Luke oversees international programs at Ipas, a 30-year-old international nongovernmental organization dedicated to ending unsafe abortion.

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