The Global Safe Abortion Conference 2007 organised by three NGOs: Marie Stopes International, Ipas and Abortion Rights, was held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London on 23 and 24 October. The conference addressed both national and international issues surrounding abortion, focusing on rights, access, advocacy and funding. The conference marked the 40th anniversary (27 October, 2007) of the United Kingdom’s 1967 Abortion Act.
Whose Right? Whose Choice? Who Cares?
Report by Frans Baneke*
Some 800 participants from 60 countries gathered in London for this conference organised by Marie Stopes International (MSI), Ipas and Abortion Rights. As Dana Hovig, new CEO of MSI, said: we are here proudly, not in any defensive mood. The misery caused by unsafe abortion – unsafe because often illegal – constitutes up to one third of maternal mortality and morbidity. Fighting unsafe abortion is a just cause. The title of the conference was provokingly put on the façade of the prestigious QEII conference centre, and the organizers were almost disappointed by the small number of demonstrators who had to be controlled by the police.
After numerous presentations, breakout sessions, workshops and posters, I conclude the following:
• In spite of the noisy anti-choice lobby, support for legal and safe abortion internationally is on the increase. Setbacks in the USA (more noise than real setback so far), and Nicaragua, are more than compensated by liberalization in South Africa, Ghana, Portugal, Colombia, Ethiopia and some other countries.
• Many countries report that the real issue is not the law, but affordable access within the framework of the law. Most participants agreed that with the present state of medical technology, 24 weeks (not 28) should normally be the limit.
• Medical abortion (the “abortion pill”) is the best bet for the immediate future. Misoprostol is certified in most countries as anti-haemorrage drug, but in a higher dose it is a highly effective low-cost abortion pill. What is mainly needed is education and training of pharmacists and first-line medical staff.
• Abortion is less controversial for Islam than for Christianity.
• Outlawing abortion does not diminish the number of abortions; it only makes them unsafe, for which there is ample empirical evidence.
• Legalizing abortion does not increase the number of abortions, but it saves lives. Again there is ample empirical evidence, including quite spectacular evidence from Romania
• The best way to reduce the number of abortions is preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Three stages in the abortion debate can be identified:
1) Abortion is murder. This argument is losing steam internationally. Women do not accept being called murderers, and scientific insights gain ground over unfounded religious beliefs.
2) Society must protect women for their own interest. Apparently women – especially when pregnant against their wishes – are too emotional to be able to take good decisions. They must be told that they will regret their decision for the rest of their lives. They need “cooling off” periods, counselors and co-deciders, adoption as alternative, etc. Prof Malcolm Potts was clear that “opposition to abortion is patriarchy; it has nothing to do with the sanctity of life”. (The Dutch women at the conference were quite concerned about the creeping return of the “sanctity of life” argument within the present Dutch government).
3) Human rights and social justice are paramount. It is discriminatory to single out one particular medical procedure that only concerns women and to introduce wholly abnormal legislation against it.
The most conspicuous absentee from the conference was UNFPA. This was a serious cause for concern given that the 1994 Cairo conference and subsequent international agreements, including “Maputo”, all accept that safe abortion should be available where legal. UNFPA has nothing to fear from the USA – they receive no funds from that source anyhow. Important countries such as France, Germany and Italy were also almost invisible.. Attendance from Asia was mainly from South Asia, not from SE Asia. In China, abortion is not an issue.
Dutch Minister Koenders was the highest ranking official. No UK government minister participated. Koenders’ presentation was well received; he is passionate after his visits to Afghanistan, Darfur and especially Congo where rape is systematically used as a weapon of war. Why does UNHCR shy away from safe abortion? Refugees need this more than anyone else, even in their camps. Koenders called for measures to combat sexual violence, increased access to safe abortion, and prevention – including sexuality education – and said that he would monitor UNFPA closely on these issues.
The two Dutch-facilitated organisatons CHOICE and YouAct were the only youth organisatons present.
Among the strong international leaders present were:
Fred Sai (84 years old, very courageous and inspiring) – got the longest stormy applause (“in Africa, we inherited the old British/Victorian restrictions; in the UK, they were changed, in Africa we still adhere to them”)
Jon O’Brien (worthy successor of Frances Kissling as president of Catholics for a Free Choice) “Most Catholics on the ground, and an increasing number of their leaders, approve of abortion in a number of circumstances”
Dana Hovig (new CEO of MSI),
Anne Quesnay, Director of Abortion Rights
Prof. Malcolm Potts and his wife Martha Campbell, pushing the “return of the population factor”.
Monica Rio (media-icon who brought about a complete change in Colombia, where the Catholic bishops were publicly ridiculed because they were quick to excommunicate abortion lawmakers while they never move against the murderers and terrorists of the FARC militia. ).
Wanda Novicka (Poland/Astra, now temporarily teaching in the USA)
Laura Villa Torres, youth-representative from Mexico – got the second-longest applause
For more information: see www.globalsafeabortion.org
*Frans Baneke is Executive Director of World Population Foundation, the Netherlands