Protect the right to abortion for marginalised women

Protect the right to abortion for marginalised women

The US Supreme Court’s devastating decision to overturn Roe v. Wade carries horrifying implications, particularly for marginalised women, including women who use drugs in the United States and beyond. Experts caution that this regression will result in increased unsafe abortions as well as increased intimidation and stigma towards those in need of safe abortion services and abortion providers. This decision represents a broad assault on many reproductive and civil rights, such as the right to access birth control and marriage equality.

Lack of access to safe, affordable, timely and respectful abortion care poses risks to women’s well-being. Overturning Roe does not reduce the need for abortion and serves only to compound risk for marginalised women particularly women who use drugs. Restrictive laws further compound stigma, discrimination and marginalisation experienced by women who use drugs, creating access barriers to necessary health services.

In some jurisdictions, pregnant women who use drugs already face criminal sanctions. For example, in the US, women who use crack cocaine have been convicted on a number of charges including ‘foetal abuse’, ‘delivering drugs to a minor’, and even murder. Contrary to scientific evidence, misinformation and discrimination contribute to the promotion of ideas that any type of drug use during pregnancy will result in harm to the foetus. As the ripple effect of the regressive decision takes hold, it is clear that this obsession to control the bodies of women who use drugs will be redoubled.

Granting legal status to fertilized eggs at the cost of women’s lives is an attack on women’s rights. Extending personhood rights to fertilized eggs dehumanises women. Bodily autonomy is a fundamental human right and is not negated by the state of pregnancy. By defining fertilized eggs as citizens, the legality of most hormonal birth control methods can be questioned. Ironically, this will not prevent abortions but it will lead to higher death toll among women of reproductive age. Indeed, abortions occur as frequently in the most restrictive countries as they do elsewhere. Restrictive abortion laws make safe abortion a privilege for the rich and drives socio-economically disadvantaged women to seek unsafe abortion services.

Accordingly, human rights bodies have created guidance on the need to provide unfettered access to abortion to uphold women’s right to health. as non-negotiable, with its denial amounting to a form of gender based violence. Ensuring access to these services in accordance with human rights standards is part of state obligation to eliminate gender-based discrimination, and to uphold the right to health as well as other fundamental human rights. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) underscores that ensuring that women have access to abortion care that is evidence-based – which includes being safe, respectful and non-discriminatory – is fundamental to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relating to good health and well-being (SDG3) and gender equality (SDG5).

Disregarding all standards and evidence while posing a direct threat to women’s rights with this ruling, the US has joined a small group of countries that have cracked down on abortion laws in recent years including Poland, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. WHO reports that globally, around 45% of all abortions are unsafe, of which 97% take place in the global south and among groups in marginalised situations. Unsafe abortions are the third-leading cause of maternal death globally and an estimated 47,000 women die from unsafe abortions annually.  

 Policies such as the global gag rule which prohibit foreign NGOs who receive U.S. global health assistance from providing legal abortion services or referrals, and bar advocacy for abortion law reform, disproportionately impact the world’s marginalised women who already experience access disruptions in reproductive health and HIV/AIDS services.

 WHRIN joins other agencies determined to defend the humanity and dignity of all people who use drugs capable of pregnancy, to confront stigma, scientific misinformation, and non-evidence based laws and policies.

  • We promote access to medication abortion, both self-managed and provider supervised, as a safe and effective option for pregnant people.
  • We urge governments to commit to resourcing and delivering essential contraceptives, safe abortions and post abortion care including a focus on low and middle income countries.
  • We demand that governments to respect, protect and fulfil the inalienable sexual and reproductive health rights of all including women who use drugs.

To read more about sexual and reproductive health services attuned to the needs of women who use drugs, see for example WHRIN and Frontline AIDS: Advancing the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Women Who Use Drugs.

(Referenced version available on request)

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