Family Planning And Safe, Legal Abortion Go Hand In Hand
One in three women in the UK will have an abortion in her lifetime, most of whom will have been using contraception of some kind.
by Marge Berer, Reproductive Health Matters
Yet since as long ago as the late 1930s, there has been a split in the UK between those who insisted on promoting contraception on its own because they thought abortion was too controversial and would hold back acceptance of family planning, and those who insisted that the two go hand in hand. This split exists in many countries, not just the UK, and also within many organisations with a large membership in different countries, such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). It is reflected most recently in a comparison of the list of 600 groups and individuals who have endorsed the International Campaign for Women's Right to Safe Abortion this year, and the 1300 that signed a letter circulated by the IPPF supporting the Family Planning Initiative – very different groups are on those lists. Yet all of them support the right to control fertility.
In 1994, the ICPD Programme of Action, a consensus document on the integration of sexual and reproductive health and rights, was only able to be passed if it included a "compromise" clause that called for abortion to be safe only where it was legal. This compromise was and remains a violation of public health principles and women's human rights. ICPD failed to condemn the often 19th century, often colonial laws on abortion still in place in the criminal code in many countries. However, the Programme of Action did recognise that unsafe abortion was a major public health problem, one which to this day still affects some 22 million women every year, among whom 5 million end up in hospital with complications annually and tens of thousands die (WHO, Guttmacher). And young women, whom everyone wants to be seen to be supporting these days, are in fact most at risk of unsafe abortion and also have the least access to contraception (Shah & Åhman, RHM, May 2012).
The answer is not to promote contraception in order to reduce unsafe abortion, as the FP Summit did. The answer is to promote contraception to reduce unwanted pregnancy and provide safe abortion to every woman who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy. That is the way to make unsafe abortion history. Abortion will not go away unless men and women stop having sex with each other or everyone is sterilised. So forget it! The growing number of countries in both the north and south, east and west, where there is 60-80% contraceptive prevalence, but the need for abortion persists, proves that.
Research shows that women and men take up contraception in large numbers if they feel they have the right to control their fertility and have access to the means to do so. There is a huge need for information, because every new generation of young women and men will know nothing about contraception or abortion unless they have access to this information. But there is no need for "demand creation", a retrograde concept which implies lack of interest. The steadily falling fertility rate globally, falling since the 1970s, disproves that, and in every country, abortion is there, safe or unsafe, contributing to reducing the number of births. Forty-four million abortions globally and hundreds of millions of people using contraception and sterilisation prove the huge demand for the means of fertility control. "Unmet need" is more than just lack of knowledge or interest on the part of the women and men who aren't using contraception, or using it erratically or unsuccessfully.
Women seek an abortion if they have an unwanted pregnancy, legal and safe or not, because it's too late for contraception. There is no split between contraception and abortion from women's perspective, they are two sides of the same coin. Even so, many of the biggest supporters of "family planning" refuse to support women’s need for safe, legal abortion. Even worse, they always talk about abortion in negative terms. They mention it along with STIs, as if it were a disease, or treat it as an annoying problem that they wish would go away, and consider it inferior to use of contraception. They even claim that use of contraception will (or should) make it go away. But this is about the realities of people's sex lives and how sex happens, not just about well-thought-out, planned-in-advance decisions about family formation. Many pregnancies are started without any forethought at all, and all too often as one of the consequences of sexual pressure and coercion.
Campaigns for women’s right to safe, legal abortion have been going on for at least 100 years. Many of us involved in these campaigns are still seen as annoying by people who are supposed to be our colleagues. We're told it's sensitive, controversial, difficult, it can't be put on the agenda, including in the FP Summit. At the same time, many of us who are fighting for abortion rights stopped supporting "family planning" years ago, because of what happened in the past, when coercive programmes put many people off "family planning" and gave it a bad name. Some family planning supporters have blamed ICPD for the neglect of family planning, because it placed family planning in a wider context. But as Gita Sen said at the Summit, ICPD in fact sought to rehabilitate family planning and restore its good name, while the barriers to safe abortion were left in place.
Today's supporters of family planning would like everyone to forget the coercive programmes of the past, which were target-based. But they may yet become target-based again because of "results-based financing". So let's not confuse opposition to coercive family planning policies with being anti-family planning. Yet, it is absolutely true that provision of contraception has been neglected in recent years – and yes, this neglect must stop. At the same time, neglect also characterises how women's unmet need for safe abortion is treated. What needs to change is that both forms of unmet need should be taken into account – together – starting with donor and national government policies.
For example, although DFID's development aid policy has long been to fund both family planning services and abortion services, in their roll-out of these policies, funding for family planning is (I am told) separated from funding for safe abortion. That is, it is managed by different people and in different programmes within DFID and in the recipient countries, and these different people may not work closely together or know what each other are doing. Yet DFID did not see a problem in agreeing to a family planning initiative in which funding for abortion is excluded. They fund abortions anyway, they say, so what's the problem? The problem is that separating abortion from family planning at the programmatic level allows some countries to keep abortion legally restricted and not take responsibility for unsafe abortion.
Then there's the US, where support for family planning by USAID has been the highest in the world for many years now, while safe abortion services are not funded by them at all. Since ICPD, however, the US has funded post-abortion care, which was invented at ICPD as a way to save women's lives who had had an unsafe abortion. Unfortunately, the evidence that post-abortion care has in fact saved many women's lives since ICPD is sparse and not compelling. Yes, the number of deaths from complications of unsafe abortion has fallen a lot, but this may be due to self-medication with misoprostol replacing life-threatening methods.
In fact, once ICPD was over, this so-called post-abortion care should have been rejected as unethical, because it allows harm to be done unchallenged and forces health care providers to clean up the mess without the support of the law. Under US aid policy, even countries where abortion is legal who tried to use USAID funds for safe abortions as well as for contraception and sterilisation, in integrated programmes, had their "family planning" funding stopped. Research has now shown that this leads to higher rates of unwanted pregnancies and abortions in those very same countries, proving how illogical such a policy is/was. Will that evidence, published only recently, lead to a change in USAID policy? Unlikely. Too sensitive. And meanwhile, a violent and fanatical anti-abortion movement flourishes in the US, where some of the most punitive and misogynistic barriers to safe abortion are being implemented with near impunity, in one state after another.
The anti-abortion movement is also anti-family planning. For years, they were very circumspect about this as they feared, quite rightly, that it would lose them support. But the current Vatican has helped to bring anti-abortion opposition to contraception and assisted conception out in the open again. This is evidenced in campaigns to ban emergency contraception and assert conscientious objection to providing contraceptives, e.g. by pharmacists. But still, many in the family planning movement do not support the right to safe abortion.
In light of the Family Planning Summit, it is a good time for abortion rights activists who have ignored family planning to link up with the family planning movement, and help to ensure that services have a rights-based approach. It is also a good time for all family planning colleagues to support the right to safe, legal abortion alongside the right to access contraception and sterilisation – and talk about abortion as a legitimate part of fertility control, a solution to unwanted pregnancy, a public health necessity for women, and a legitimate health care service. All of us should acknowledge the huge unmet need for safe, legal abortion services as well as for contraception and sterilisation services, and ensure that they are provided – and funded – together.
Many effective contraceptive methods, condoms, two types of emergency contraceptive pill and two very safe methods of early abortion – all on the WHO essential medicines list – can and should be provided at primary health care level. This includes medical abortion pills and manual vacuum aspiration for abortions up to 9-10 weeks. Some of these can even be provided during home visits by community-based health workers – the pill, condoms, injectables, emergency contraceptive pills and medical abortion pills for early abortions – as long as there are nurses, nurse-midwives or other mid-level providers who have been trained to do so. The evidence is there– this is all safe and effective. Moreover, the legitimate sort of post-abortion care, i.e. the kind that happens after safe abortions, needs to include information about and provision of contraception, just as post-partum care ought to do. So, even programmatically and clinically, the integration of family planning and abortion makes more sense than ever.