The annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women kicked off this week in New York City, with delegates discussing ways to end violence against women. Among the thousands of presenters were groups working to stop female genital mutilation, feed starving girls in Somalia, prevent HIV infection in rape survivors—and end abortion.
The pro-life crusaders included self-described “international women medical experts” from the U.S., Chile, and Ireland who believe abortion is an act of violence that constitutes a human-rights abuse, is never medically necessary, and is linked to maternal mortality rates.
“I think it’s time for the entire world community to step back from the abortion rhetoric and take a look at what really lowers maternal mortality rates,” Dr. Donna J. Harrison of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG) said at a press conference Wednesday following her U.N. testimony. What really impacts maternal mortality, Harrison said, is “a clean facility, drugs like oxytocin, women’s education, and infrastructure that allows them to transport back and forth to a hospital.”
That’s true, just as it’s true that abortions are linked to maternal deaths. But what Harrison leaves out is that unsafe abortions kill women—68,000 women die this way annually, by some estimates—not safe abortions, which are those practiced by skilled providers in countries where it’s legal. “Countries where abortion has recently been legalized have seen a dramatic dip in abortion-related deaths,” said Gilda Sedgh, the primary abortion researcher at the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights group.
Harrison is part of a lesser-known faction of the anti-abortion movement: doctors. “Life. It’s Why We’re Here,” reads the homepage for the 2,500-member AAPLOG, a “special-interest group” within the far larger American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. She was joined Wednesday by three others, including Elard Koch, a molecular epidemiologist from the University of Chile. Koch stroked his long beard as he cited a study he authored that found maternal deaths had declined since abortion was banned in Chile. Dr. Eoghan de Faoite, a practicing physician in Ireland, where abortion is also banned, stressed what he believes to be his country’s superior standard of maternal health care in relation to other Western countries like the U.S.
In the small audience was Peter Smith, who describes himself as a “pro-life lobbyist and preacher” and has represented pro-life groups at the U.N.’s CSW for 18 years. At the press conference, he posed this question to de Faoite: “Is Ireland a good place for a woman to have a baby because of the attitude of the doctors? Because in the U.K. the same doctor that aborts one baby in the morning is delivering another one in the afternoon. One would imagine they would be conflicted.”
What Harrison leaves out is that unsafe abortions kill women—68,000 women die this way annually.
Ireland may be a fine place to have a baby, but it’s a terrible place to be if you don’t want to have one. More than 5,000 women left Ireland last year to seek abortions abroad, which de Faoite dismissed as, apparently, having nothing to do with Ireland’s supposedly superior maternity care. “We have data that shows women are not leaving Ireland to get access to so-called life-saving abortions abroad," he said, referencing figures he cited at the UN.
One woman in the audience, an obstetrics nurse who said she has been delivering babies for 44 years, said the fact that women in developing countries are suffering from a lack of maternal health care while U.N. delegates push make abortion legal and accessible in these same countries constitutes a “crime against humanity.” She continued, “They say they care about women, but I don’t believe them!”
After the conference, Dr. Monique Chireau from Duke University spoke to me about why she believes abortion is an act of violence that can lead to severe mental-health problems. “I think there’s a strong association with abortion and depression, even suicide,” she said, and added that the procedure is a “clear invasion of a woman’s body.” (Despite remaining a common pro-life talking point, studies showing a link between abortion and depression have been debunked.) She also cited links between abortion and eugenics, abortion and female “infanticide,” abortion and human sex trafficking—all of which are frequently hyped in various corners of the pro-life movement, but are often exaggerated from scant historical and scientific evidence.
“For many women, abortion is an act of desperation,” Chireau said. “I think surgical abortion and increasingly medical abortion is often used as a cover for statutory rape, exploitation of teens, abusive relationships. Women in these scenarios may not be given the choice to have a baby.” Neve rmind the mandatory waiting-period laws that have passed in a number of U.S. states, and evidence that such laws make no difference on whether women go on to have abortions. The choice to not have a baby, and the possibility that some women are completely comfortable with making it, was simply not up for discussion.