As soon as I entered parliament in 1976 as the sole female member, I took a stand and managed to do what many nations have failed to perform, or are threatening to reverse: decriminalise abortion.
Lately, President Michelle Bachelet of Chile succeeded in advancing legislation which made abortion legal under certain conditions. Chile’s new law is merely a first step in providing complete access to safe abortion care, but it’s a momentous change that required the vision of a strong, outspoken, feminine leader who took a stand on saving women’s lives.
Stories like these are all too infrequent. To withstand these efforts requires perseverance, carefully crafted coverage and insistent voices. My home state, Barbados — that has a population bigger than many cities — can share some insight on this.
When authorities deny women access to legal and safe abortion, it does nothingto lower the speed at which abortions happen. On the contrary, it leads to more accidents and deaths. In the absence of maintenance, women resort to all types of methods to disrupt unintended pregnancies — unqualified healthcare providers, self-made drug concoctions, coat hangers — each more dangerous than the next.
In Barbados, before we changed the legislation, women and health care providers might be criminally prosecuted for hunting or helping with abortion services. At the moment, I’d read the obituary sections of papers and highlight the deaths of young girls. Their deaths haunted those people on the frontline, for we guessed many were due to unsafe abortions.
Unplanned pregnancies are a reality, particularly when girls don’t have enough access to family planning techniques or when they are victims of sexual violence. Girlsacross the world die or suffer needlessly when authorities restrict their access to critical health.
Barbados’s parliament had considered the problem before, but never found the will to replace the punitive, colonial-era law.
I was vastly outnumbered — an adventure that remains all too familiar to a lot of female leaders. But I talked out and sought to convince my male colleagues. If they were serious about improving health for women in Barbados, this was a problem they couldn’t ignore. Civil society groups, such as the Barbados Family Planning Association, maintained the pressure in my colleagues, noting that the vast majority of women in our nation — youthful, middle-aged, single, married, mothers and people without kids — wanted a complete assortment of choices when deciding when and when to begin a family or have more children, such as whether to continue a pregnancy.
Outside government, I needed broad grassroots support to aid the passing of new laws and ensure its success. Equipped with information and women’s stories, I travelled the country and spoke to anybody who would listen, including religious leaders, medical providers, social workers and teachers. I explained how dangerous abortions were unnecessarily killing women in the prime of their lives, and introduced a simple question: “Is preserving our present law value women’s lives?”
Finally, in 1983 — seven years later I started my effort — parliament passed the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, allowing girls throughout the nation to access abortion services lawfully and safely.
This success made Barbados a regional leader, the first English-speaking Caribbean nation to generate abortion widely legal, doing away with laws that criminalised girls for seeking health services. The act permits the termination of a pregnancy to protect a woman’s life or physical and psychological health, for social and economic reasons, in pregnancies caused by rape, and in instances where the foetus suffers severe abnormalities. Beyond just passing the legislation, we worked with suppliers to ensure these services are available to all.
Over the following 25 years, our maternal mortality ratio plummeted by 53 percent, turning Barbados to a regional leader on women’s health.
However, the progress we have seen here hasn’t been echoed elsewhere. Politicians around the world are encouraging policies which force women through pregnancies they don’t want to continue. Leaders seem to not understand, or not to care, about the consequences of those activities. Annually, an estimated 47,000 women die because of complications from unsafe abortion and 7 million girls seek treatment for harms caused by risky, dangerous procedures. In countries with legal restrictions on abortion care, political leaders are condemning women to suffer death or injuries.
On International Day for Safe Abortion, we’re reminded that saving women’s lives requires persistence and resistance.
Many girls and more than a few great guys came along — and it made all the difference.