A new year starts with Pro-Choice activists gaining ground across the global arena.

By Chiara Castro: Politics Editor

Despite the new COVID strain Christmas and the third national lockdown announced just right after the hangover of New Year’s Eve went down, 2020 ended up with a positive image coming from the women’s rights battlefield.

On the 30th of December hundreds of people were gathered across the street of Buenos Aires to hear the result of an important vote: abortion legalisation.  The tension was high.  It has been a hot topic for years.

Both side were there, impatiently waiting.  The religious faith was supporting the Pro-life activists.  Whilst memories of the failure suffered two years before were probably shadowing the green crowd.  They could not know yet that they would have made history this time, after decades of fights.

With 38 votes against 29, the Senate approved the bill that Pro-choice movement has been long fighting for: legal voluntary abortions at any stage up to 14 weeks of pregnancy.  Before this new legislation, it was possible just in case of rape and danger to the mother’s life.

After the announcement, screams of joy filled the feminist ranks.  Tears, hugs and green banners accompanied the celebrations, in that historic night right at the door of 2021.

Good omen for the new year?

Argentina’s abortion legalisation is not just a national victory.  It is the first large country in Latin America to go that far. 

It could trigger a wave of legalisation sentiment in a region known for though restrictions in reproduction laws.

As the director of the Americas of Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco wrote in a tweetas it occurred when Argentina legalized same sex marriage in 2010, this new law could have a domino effect in the region”.

Others countries across the areas are fighting for a lifting of restrictive policies.  If Chile and the Mexican Oaxaca succeeded, for El Salvador, Brazil and Colombia the run is not over yet.

Pregnancy terminations are still completely banned in Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua.  The latter are also the only two countries to have even worsened their legislations since the 1994 Cairo Declaration.  The document recognises reproductive health as critical to development.

However, Argentina has not been the only rosy moment of the years for the abortion legalisation movement across the world. 

In Brazil the law allows abortions only in cases of rape, risk to the life of the mother or certain foetus malformations.  Many nations allow the practice just under certain restricted circumstances.

In March, New Zealand decriminalised the abortion practice previously punishable with up to 14 years of prison.  As Andrew Little, NZ’s Minister of Justice, declared: “New Zealand has long been regarded as a country in the vanguard of women’s rights and the status of women…But our abortion laws were from a different time.

“It is clear most New Zealanders see a woman’s decision about abortion as one for her.  Our new abortion law is not in the vanguard, but it is principled and truly reflects New Zealand in the 21st century.”

The Spanish government announce the will to change the law to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to seek an abortion without parental permission. While legislations revisions are also ongoing in Seoul and South Korea.

Although access to safe abortion has been established as a human right by several international watchdog organisations, reproduction laws varied a lot across the world.  Almost every country allows abortion under some circumstances.

Globally, only six nations have banned abortion completely.  Among these Malta is the only member of the European Union with such strict rules, imposing jail terms up to three years.  In terms of Europe, Gibraltar, Andorra, the Vaticans and San Marino join the blacklist.

Generally speaking, women from Europe, North America and Oceania benefit from the most liberal legislations.  Some have just recently acquired that.  It is a moment of changes. 

In 2018 Ireland brought to end one of the strictest abortion bans in the EU, with up to 14 years of jail for who was breaking the law.  The year after, it was the time of the neighbouring Northern Ireland to legalise the practice.

Despite the difficult year, the Maltese abortion taboo is finally breaking.  The debate has reached the national level.  The public opinion is changing.  According to a study conducted by the NGO Doctors of Choice that Malta Today reported, after 18 months of campaigning abortion opposition has fallen from 95% to around 80% with half of under 26-year-olds reporting to be pro-choice.

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The main trend seems to be leading towards more liberalisations then.  Although, some countries are experiencing a slow regressive decline in the opposite side.

Even though in the United States the abortion has been legal nationwide since 1973, it is still a polarised matter. 

As the CNN reported, more than two in five states restricted in some way abortion access between 2019 and 2020.  Only ten states plus the Columbia district have introduced protection in favour abortion rights.  Whilst 21 decided to toughen their legislations.

US is also one of the co-sponsor, together with Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Hungary and Uganda, of the Geneva Consensus Declaration.  The controversial document, de facto a pledge to defend life, was signed by 32 countries, among which Belarus and Poland.  All nations where reproductive rights are currently under attack.

In Eastern and Central Europe conservatory groups took advantage of the pandemic for promoting their opposite views.  With the Istanbul Convention out of the game, some ‘family rights convention’ pushed by the Polish government across the neighbouring countries took place instead.  As the name suggests, their views were coming from the pro-life front.

Poland was indeed the most suffered amongst the 2020 downs for the abortion rights fight.  It has not been just a failure towards a progress and liberal society.  The recent Polish abortion ban represent a backlash from its past legislation.

Already one of the strictest laws in Europe, in October the Constitutional Court ruled that abortions due to birth defects were banned.  Even though the rule has not came into force yet, doctors have started to refuse to execute the practice for fear of breaking the law.

A worrying side of this event is that the attack against reproductive rights appear to come from a judicial power too linked with politics, rather than through a democratic path.

As Ursula von der Leyen stated in March: “Backsliding is not an option for a continent that aims for winning the future.” However: “Progress is hard won, but easily lost”.

As part of the backsliding trend initiated across Eastern and Central Europe, Slovakian Christian lawmakers have tried to push a bill for tightening abortion rules.  The parliament voted against it, one more time.  It was indeed the last of many attempts that got rejected between 2019 and 2020 only.

While the Pro-choice movement in Gibraltar has been heavily affected by COVID-19 regulations.  An historic referendum, due to happen in March, would have given Gibraltar’s citizens the unprecedented chance to decriminalise abortion and overturn one of the harshest legislation in Europe.

The health pandemic has not certainly helped the normal access to abortion for logistic reasons either. 

Some European countries, amongst which UK have promptly reacted making it possible to execute at home through abortion pills following a tele-consultation. In others, like Italy, government inaction has created many obstacles.  Especially taking in consideration that the Italian law allows pregnancy termination just during the first 90 days, only three countries in Europe have a shorter limit.

The conscientious objection matter is another burdensome that many Italian women face.  Under the Law 194, health workers can refuse the practice unless danger for the woman’s life.  In 2018 the statistics where showing a national average of 69% of gynaecologists and 46% of anaesthetists being conscientious objectors.  In some areas the numbers counted the 80% of gynaecologists refusing to carry out pregnancy terminations.

During the past year, the global community has experienced some ups and downs for the abortion rights fight.  Many others over the past decade.  The debate is ongoing and need to be treated with care.

Despite religious beliefs, abortion legalisation is a matter of health safety.  Legal or not, everywhere in the world women find a way to end an undesired pregnancy.  What changes is that the risk of dying for carrying out illegal and unsafe practice is extremely high.  All deaths that could be prevented instead.  Liberal legislations mean, also, an open sex education that could lead to safer and more responsible reproduction activities.

Argentina’s victory trigged a wave of positivity worldwide, necessary for facing the burden that 2021 will bring to the cause.  The Polish Pro-life sentiment is not willing to stop to fight for its cause.  Neither are others movements worldwide.  The union is making their fight even bigger.  After all, the year seems to have started on the right foot.

MACKAYAN: ups & downs for the abortion rights fight