12 July 2013

Progress in Ireland, But Abortion Rights Are Hollow Without Access

By Julie Kay, Ms. Foundation for Women Senior Strategist, Advocacy and Policy

Women in Ireland can breathe a small sigh of relief today. New legislation allowing abortion when a woman’s life is at risk has moved the country one step closer to removing extremist legislative blockades on women’s human and reproductive rights. Yet, the reality is that for women in Ireland, like their American counterparts, these legal rights will be hollow if access to abortion information and services remains out of reach.

In ABC v. Ireland, a lawsuit I argued on behalf of a woman unable to access lifesaving abortion services and information, the European Court of Human Rights found that the denial of access constituted a violation of human rights. Mounting public pressure after the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, a young woman denied a lifesaving abortion in an Irish hospital last winter, combined with the human right court’s order, has forced the government to enact reforms after decades of delay and wrangling over abortion restrictions in courts, in legislative bodies and on the streets in Ireland. Since 1992, an anti-abortion majority in government had even ignored its own Supreme Court’s ruling calling for access to legal lifesaving abortion.

Worldwide, women’s health gets treated as a political pawn by anti-abortion politicians who prioritize personal political gain over women’s human rights and health. This year, in the United States alone, women face increasing barriers to necessary abortion information and services from anti-abortion forces that continue to exert control over the legislative process. Intensified anti-abortion efforts have brought legislation from conservatives nationwide, including bans on abortion both early and late in pregnancy, regulations designed to shutter clinics in Texas and other states, and false claims about fetal development. The nonsensical push to make both reproductive health care and abortion inaccessible to women in poverty continued through bans on insurance funding for abortion through the Affordable Care Act, which occurred simultaneously with conservatives’ objections to funding for family planning programs.

The fact is that abortion in the U.S. is legal, yet inaccessible, for many women, particularly for marginalized women. Women of color, immigrant women and low-income women face greater barriers to reproductive health care nationwide. As a result, these groups experience higher instances of maternal mortality, increased health risks as a result of delayed access to abortion and outright denial of necessary and often life-saving reproductive health care. Such violations of women’s human rights occur even with greater legal access to abortion services than in other countries, like Ireland.

Unless we take affirmative steps to ensure genuine access to the full range of reproductive health care, American women will not be able to realize their full human rights of liberty, bodily integrity and full participation in society.

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