1995: an Ebola virus epidemic in Zaire had a death rate of 81 percent, the internet was privatised for the first time, and Braveheart won Best picture and Best director at the Academy Awards. In Beijing, starting on the 15th September, the Fourth World Conference on Women set an agenda for women’s rights which was unanimously adopted by representatives from 189 nations: the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This document promoted equality, freedom and opportunities for women and girls everywhere. It continues to be a global framework for feminist activism 25 years later. Sadly, gender inequality remains a problem worldwide, with a recent United Nations report suggesting that, as a result of the COVID pandemic, 435 million women and girls are likely to have been reduced to extreme poverty by next year.

Competing Concerns

Yet within the vision of empowerment for women articulated at Beijing there was support for “The explicit recognition and reaffirmation of the right of all women to control all aspects of their health, in particular their own fertility”. While stating clearly that abortion should never be promoted as a method of family planning, the need for universal legal and safe abortion was strongly implied. The same document also determined the need to “Prevent and eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls”. The tension between these two statements was ignored.

According to the WHO, there are approximately 40-50 million induced abortions each year, which corresponds to roughly 125,000 abortions daily.

The continued lack of awareness of the potentially negative impact of elective abortion is a tragedy. While very occasionally an elective abortion is required to save the life of the mother, most abortions involve healthy women and babies. According to the World Health Organisation, there are approximately 40-50 million induced abortions each year, which corresponds to roughly 125,000 abortions daily. Some people thought that the availability of reversible contraception would reduce the abortion rate, but in fact the opposite occurred. By creating the perception that sex and child-bearing no longer had to coincide, willingness to endure an unwanted pregnancy withered. Legal abortion was the predictable outcome, euphemistically proclaimed as ‘reproductive healthcare’. It seems like the easy way to deal with the problem, often described as a way of ending a pregnancy with no mention that a baby’s life is involved. How many women find out too late the true cost of aborting a child?

Unacknowledged Risks

The procedures used to induce an abortion vary according to the stage of the pregnancy. A pregnancy can be ended by drugs (medical abortion), where drugs cut off the support system for the child and expel it from the woman’s body. More commonly used in Australia is surgery, where instruments are used to pry open the cervix and remove the fetus from the womb. Short term complications include pain, bleeding, infection, and (rarely) uterine rupture. Sometimes surgery is required to complete a medical abortion. The research on whether abortion increases the risks in subsequent pregnancies is mixed, but damage to the cervix or uterus can occur in a surgical abortion.

Despite decades of academic debate about whether there is a ‘Post-Abortion Syndrome’, or psychological problems following abortion, those at the coal-face have seen it again and again. Long-lasting and recurring sadness, depression, anger or guilt. Preoccupation with the aborted child and what it would have looked like as the years pass. Flashbacks of the abortion with nightmares. Substance abuse, suicide and self-harm have been reported following abortion. While the existence of this disorder was denied, affected women did not receive the help they needed to recover. Recent research showing that abortion does increase the risk of mental health problems in women with unwanted pregnancy will hopefully start to turn the tide.

Abortion disproportionately impacts female children … Millions of girls go missing each year including over 170 million girls in Asia alone.

Violence inflicted during an abortion procedure is obviously not restricted to the woman involved. One particularly ironic twist, in the context of the Beijing Declaration, is how abortion disproportionately impacts female children. A United Nations Human Rights Council report in 2016 found that female infanticide is a problem worldwide, with Liechtenstein having the highest skewed sex ratio at birth with 126 males/100 females, followed by China, Armenia, India, Azerbaijan, Viet Nam, Albania, Georgia, South Korea, Tunisia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Nepal. The male/female ration should be 105:100. The reasons for this include a preference for sons in families where they are expected to support their parents throughout their life, and where a daughter brings the financial burden of a dowry. In jurisdictions which have fertility restrictions, parents who want both a son and a small family size tend to resort to sex selection. Technological growth of prenatal diagnosis allows parents to know the sex of their unborn child and both ultrasonography and IVF screening can promote female foeticide. Millions of girls go missing each year including over 170 million girls in Asia alone.

Violence against women and girls is an international disgrace. As long as elective induced abortion is framed as a way to promote women’s health, it will continue.