Politicising Reproductive Rights – Help or Hindrance?

In 2013, reproductive rights dominated the headlines. From Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’ thirteen-hour filibuster to the jailing of a woman in El Salvador for the manslaughter of her unborn foetus, the attention given to these issues is on a high. While the politicising of reproductive freedom is nothing new, the awareness and response to new legislation regarding women’s freedom in reproduction has heightened in recent years. It is no longer acceptable for a government to pass laws on abortion, contraception or sterilisation without the loud response from citizens and supporting NGO groups. Yet despite raised awareness in both the public and political sphere, the restrictions being put on reproductive rights are often heading in the opposite direction. In the United States alone, greater restrictions on abortion have been passed in 2011-2013 period than in any other previous decade(1).  Can we really speak of moving towards reproductive freedom when the newly passed Michigan “Rape Insurance” bill puts party politics before liberty of the individual?  It is with this in mind that I ask the question: is the politicisation of reproductive rights a help or hindrance to allowing better freedom for reproductive rights?

Image courtesy of Thinking Development, © 2011, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of Thinking Development, © 2011, some rights reserved

Reproductive rights encompass many different issues, ranging from the choice of when to have children to allowing individuals and couples adequate access to reproductive education. According to the Department of International Development, the “vast majority of those denied access to reproductive rights are poor women, men and young people in developing nations”(2). The principles of reproductive freedoms are enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights but are not legal requirements of individual states. This allows governments to pass legislation that can contradict the principles of reproductive rights. The concept of reproductive freedom began to take major steps forward on an international level during the 1990s, with conferences such as the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development that set goals for universal access to reproductive health care by 2015. Individual governmental policies towards reproductive health have since come under scrutiny and face criticism from the international sphere should their policies be seen to reverse or block progress that has been made.

And progress has been made – since the late 1980s, there has been a steady rise in the number of organisations who offer both legal and non-legal advice regarding individuals standing on reproductive issues. Statistics surrounding reproductive health do show some improvement. Between 1995 and 2005, 12 countries increased access to legal abortions(3). Among these countries was Nepal, which made abortion legal on broad grounds in 2002. Statistics show a drop in abortion related complications in the country from 54% in 1998 to 28% for 2008-2009. Furthermore, there has been a shift in social attitudes towards sexual education from politicians and parents alike, resulting in more comprehensive approaches towards educating about sexual and reproductive health in schools. A UNESCO study in Estonia found that between 2001-2009, following the implementation of compulsory sexual health education in schools, there was a marked improvement in the sexual and reproductive health of young people. The implementation of HIV/AIDS awareness projects for young people in Sub-Saharan Africa is another example of pragmatic approaches to not only overcoming health issues, but also countering social and cultural stigmatisation that can prevent these issues being discussed in a safe and open environment.

However, despite the overwhelming social good the implementation of reproductive rights effects, breakthroughs are continuously masked by far right and conservative governments who push for more restrictions on reproduction, resulting in injustice and hardship for the individuals involved. By simply looking at the policies of the US in the last few years, the Tea Party and Christian right have been able to implement gender discriminate policies that prevent women from accessing care and education. Even in cases where deliberate restrictions are not made on ideological ideals, the lack of access for policy makers to current information on the appropriate aspects of reproductive care is astounding. It seems that when there is information available, it is commissioned by non-governmental organisations and rarely reaches the hands of government officials. Furthermore, these less-informed domestic decisions are felt on the international stage. In Ethiopia, where the majority of health clinics are funded by USAID, the recent controversy over abortion has limited clinics in the area that are willing to carry out abortions, despite the practice being legal within the country.(4) The injustice that women living in this area should be discriminated against due to restrictions on funding further emphasises that the gagging of US health donations is contributing towards sustaining the unsafe global abortion rate.

As we move into 2014, it becomes important to question whether or not allowing governments to have monopoly over reproductive legislation, both domestically and internationally, is advancing reproductive freedom. In a climate where donor countries are under pressure from their citizens to justify spending on development, where reproductive issues are often brushed aside as “women’s issues” and where the view of women’s sexuality is still overwhelmingly conservative – it is the work of NGOs and academics who can provide in-depth research and analysis as to what policies are effective in providing the best means of reproductive health care. By giving individuals and organisations directly involved with reproductive rights more say in matters of governmental policies, the issue of political agendas dominating over basic rights and liberties may be avoided. Removing reproductive rights from the political sphere can create a more neutral platform for individuals and governments to speak freely and openly about this pressing international matter.