The Criminalization of Abortion Access
Abortions are common and very safe procedures when performed in line with medical guidelines. However, an estimated 35 million unsafe abortions take place every year, usually as a consequence of laws and policies that restrict access to safe abortion services. Highly restrictive environments do not eliminate the need for abortion nor its practice–they only serve to stigmatize and criminalize women and girls seeking abortions and force pregnant persons to seek out abortions that may take place in unsafe conditions. Approximately 3.9 million unsafe abortions among girls aged 15–19 years occur each year, contributing to maternal mortality, morbidity, and lasting health problems.
People from low-income and marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by these restrictions as they are unable to access other options such as out-of-country travel or private health services, options available to those with the economic means. These laws and policies exacerbate social inequality and put lives at risk. Globally, unsafe abortion remains among the five leading causes of preventable maternal death and causes significant injury and lifelong complications. An estimated 20,000 women and girls die each year from unsafe abortion complications and approximately 7 000 000 million women are admitted to hospitals every year as a result of unsafe abortion. Almost every abortion death and disability could be prevented through sexuality education, use of effective contraception, provision of safe, legal induced abortion, and timely care for complications.
Restricting Abortion Access is a Human Rights Violation
Human rights bodies have repeatedly affirmed that the decriminalization of abortion and ensuring access to safe abortion and post-abortion care are fundamental to the rights to life, to health, to freedom from gender-based discrimination and violence, and to freedom from torture.
Laws that restrict access to abortion stigmatize a safe and common medical procedure. This stigma has repercussions at many levels, from the personal to the political. Abortion stigma deters people from accessing lifesaving services, impedes healthcare workers from providing services, and creates an awareness gap where misinformation and disinformation can be freely spread and exploited. Stigma also enables governments to avoid their obligations to guarantee access to safe abortion.
Everyone has the right to accessible, high-quality abortion care and no one should be criminalized for seeking or accessing abortion services.
Everyone has the right to make autonomous decisions about their own body, including the decision to continue or terminate a pregnancy.
Comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion, are necessary health interventions to guarantee the right to life, health, privacy, and non-discrimination for women, girls, and others who can become pregnant.
Globally, unsafe abortion remains among the five leading causes of maternal death and causes significant injury and lifelong complications. This is preventable when access to safe, legal abortion is secured.
Why Canada must Continue to Invest in Safe Abortion Access
Abortion has been and continues to be neglected in overseas development assistance and national health funding mechanisms. This contributes to a lack of integration of abortion services into health systems and creates vulnerabilities to disruption of services during crises such as COVID-19 and when abortion is used as a political wedge such as in the case of the USA’s Global Gag Rule.
Between 2017 and 2021 the USA’s Global Gag Rule (also known as the Mexico City Policy) was reinstated by President Donald Trump. This policy prevented foreign organizations receiving U.S. global health assistance from providing information, referrals, or services for legal abortion, including advocating for access to abortion services in their country even with funding from other sources. As a leading funder in development aid, the global political and financial impacts of the U.S. policy were far reaching and resulted in serious harm and regression on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women, girls, and others around the world who can become pregnant.
During this period, Canada stepped up to fill part of the monetary gaps left by the U.S. policy, and support for access to full reproductive health services, including abortion care. In 2019, Canada made an additional historic commitment to invest $700 million annually in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) with a particular focus on the four neglected areas of SRHR: access to abortion services, comprehensive contraceptive care, SRHR advocacy, and adolescent SRHR (including comprehensive sexuality education).
Ensuring an effective and transparent roll-out of these funds and support for quality programming that meets the needs of women, girls, and all persons of diverse genders and sexual orientations is key to fulfilling this commitment.
As an SRHR champion and in line with its Feminist International Assistance Policy, Canada must continue to finance and speak out in support of accessible, safe, and legal abortion services and quality post-abortion care. These services are part of an essential, comprehensive, and integrated package of sexual and reproductive health services and are fundamental to securing the right to life and the highest attainable standard of health. Abortion is both a health issue and a human rights issue essential to gender equality.
Canada must continue to advocate for the recognition of the right to safe abortion and the repeal of all legal, social, and financial barriers to abortion (including all laws and policies that criminalize abortion) and barriers that deter or jeopardize people from accessing these lifesaving services (such as counselling requirements, third-party authorization, and parental consent).
As a global SRHR champion, Canada must continue to center a human rights-based approach in its advocacy, and use its diplomatic strength to mobilize other countries and donors in support of safe abortion access.