Abortion is not a crime, yet the North Carolina General Assembly just came a step closer to making it one with the recent controversial abortion bill that Gov. Cooper rightly vetoed. Let’s be real: the bill was an outrageous attempt to criminalize the doctors and nurses who provide abortion care and erect a huge barrier for people seeking it.
More than that, it is an attempt to make abortion synonymous with infanticide and murder. Once the American public, which is exhausted and confused by the never-ending controversy over abortion, conflates those two acts, it is an easy step to criminalizing pregnancy, pregnant people, and all pregnancies that don’t result in a live birth.
Clearly, many North Carolina legislators, like those in other states, feel emboldened by the Trump administration’s anti-abortion rhetoric that seriously threatens women’s reproductive health and rights. They’ve been single-mindedly working to dismantle the right to abortion for a while and the pace has picked up. Just this year alone, 28 states have introduced bills that attempt to ban abortion.
As the drumbeat intensifies across the United States, it highlights how stunningly out of touch the U.S. is with the rest of the world.
While North Carolina legislators were coming up with new ways to criminalize abortion, on April 6, Rwandan President Paul Kagame pardoned 367 people “convicted for the offenses of abortion, complicity in abortion and infanticide” and a ministerial order was issued legalizing abortion. Also in early April, South Korea decreed its 66-year-old ban on abortion illegal. In July 2018, the Democratic Republic of Congo legalized abortion. And we can’t leave out the historic vote in Ireland to decriminalize abortion late last year.
Criminalizing abortion drives women and girls to terminate a pregnancy under unsafe, clandestine conditions and makes women and abortion providers vulnerable to criminal prosecution. What criminalizing abortion does not do is reduce the number of abortions.
In Rwanda, for example, women have continued to have abortions even though the procedure was illegal except in cases of rape, incest, forced marriage, or fetal impairment. But they did so under unsafe and clandestine conditions – and have been prosecuted for doing so. Some women who had abortions were charged and imprisoned for infanticide, and some women who miscarried have been charged and imprisoned for abortion. In 2015, Ipas and Rwandan researchers found that from 2013 to 2014, more than 300 women and girls were in prison for ending a pregnancy. That was nearly a quarter of all women inmates.
In El Salvador, women are frequently sent to jail for abortion—even when they’ve miscarried. And this is exactly the sort of confusion that those opposed to abortion rights are creating here in the United States by blurring the lines among abortion, miscarriage and infanticide so that providers, law enforcement officials, women, and the public at large don’t know right from wrong.
And yet abortions still happen. Globally there are 55 million abortions that take place every year with 25 million of them being unsafe. Now that’s a crime: 25 million unsafe abortions when we know how to provide safe care, millions of women suffering and thousands of productive, vibrant women and girls dying needlessly.
Clearly, many politicians in the U.S. and North Carolina don’t believe the evidence and don’t seem to care that women, out of desperation, will cause themselves terrible harm to end an unintended pregnancy. They will even risk jail time. But that’s just it, isn’t it? They don’t care about women.
?They don’t care that reproductive health is central to women’s lives. They don’t believe women should have the power—and the right—to make decisions about their lives and bodies.
Access to safe, legal abortion is as relevant to gender equality as women’s equal access to education, employment, adequate food, and housing—it puts women’s and girls’ lives, health, and human rights at the core of human development.
And we’d do well to look around—outside the U.S.—at the examples other leaders are setting to have laws that clearly support women’s right to safe abortion and eliminate the confusion. The U.S. is out of step with the world and American women and girls will bear the burden of such regressive policies and politics.
Dr. Anu Kumar is the president and CEO of Ipas, an international women’s reproductive health and rights organization based in Chapel Hill.