Abstinence and abortion

Georgia Lewis

Image © Juliette Culver

Nadine Dorries’ bizarre abstinence-education for girls bill gets its second reading today. Prochoice people across the UK will be holding their breath and hoping that commonsense prevails and it is howled down as soundly as her proposal to prevent the likes of Marie Stopes and BPAS providing pre-abortion counselling was last year.

The timing is superbly tragic – in the same week, the Lancet published a study demonstrating that the number of unsafe abortions is rising around the world and the steady decline on abortion rates of the 1990s has stalled. It doesn’t take a genius analyst of statistics or sociology to figure out that abstinence-only education doesn’t work when it comes to preventing unplanned pregnancy – and to only subject girls to this absurd, outdated, discredited form of sex education is only going to cause an increase in the abortions Ms Dorries hates so much.

Abortion statistics are routinely massaged by people from all sides of the debate, but sensible analysis of these latest findings by the six academics involved in the study concludes that investments in family planning services and safe abortion care are the answer. This will serve the dual purpose of reducing the number of women dying in unsafe abortions and reduce unwanted pregnancies which inevitably leads to a growing number of women seeking abortions, whether they are legal or not.

This is especially prevalent in developing countries. Countries such as Malawi, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan have virtually no access to safe, legal abortion, poor access to birth control, extremely limited or breathtakingly inaccurate sex education for young men and women, and, as a result, appalling rates of maternal death. These deaths include those suffered by women who have sought to terminate pregnancy by whatever means possible, no matter how unsanitary the conditions or untrained the abortionist.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a list of UN-endorsed goals aiming at alleviating poverty by 2015. Given the current global economic situation, meeting this deadline is looking more and more unlikely, but the Lancet study emphasised that improving access to family planning and safe abortion will help in reaching these goals. Healthy women are essential to a healthy economy and women who are in control of how many or how few children they have are empowered women.

In developed countries with access to safe, legal abortion, the rates of death at the hand of backyard abortionists are certainly lower. However, with a US presidential election being run with abortion as a major issue, women in America may find their reproductive rights radically compromised if the Republicans win the election. It’s ironic that the American conservatives are running on an anti-big government platform except, it seems, when it comes to the gynaecological privacy of women.

Even with David Cameron declaring Britain to be a “Christian country”, it doesn’t appear that the rising tide of conservatism on abortion that is dominating the American political scene has had a major impact here.

If Nadine Dorries’ attempt to limit where women could obtain abortion counselling had succeeded, the result could have been women delaying getting abortions until the pregnancy was further advanced and thus more dangerous. Now she wants an abstinence-only system of sex education for girls only, while ignoring study after study that shows this narrow, often faith-based form of sex education is ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancy. More teenage pregnancies mean more teenagers needing abortions.

But regardless of whether one woman or one million women a year need abortions, it is a procedure that must be kept safe and legal. Women’s lives depend on it. This is one of the great advantages of living in a developed country with a healthcare system that gives women choices in situations that can be extremely challenging. Women in many developing countries are not as lucky and in many cases, they pay with their lives. Add to this poor sex education, and the result is disempowered, unhealthy women who cannot reach their full potential. This is not good enough in any country. But all it takes is the eroding of a few rights and the taking away of sane sex education and it could happen anywhere.

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