In May 2019, the Alabama Senate approved legislation that would ban abortions and criminalize performing the procedures for doctors. The ban encompasses rape and incest and only includes an exception for cases in which the mother’s life is in jeopardy.
The case underscores the need to understand and promote women’s reproductive rights — a topic that encompasses many different issues and responsibilities beyond abortion, from contraception to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) to violence against women and more.
History of sexual and reproductive health
Sexual and reproductive health encompasses a wide range of issues and topics, such as sexual identity, pleasure, bodily autonomy, fertility and reproductive rights.
In 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) adopted the term “reproductive health” through the Cairo Programme of Action. The Programme stated that global governments must meet the reproductive needs of their citizens through the provision of services that promote reproductive health — the first international policy to define the topic:
“Reproductive health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in all matters relating to the reproductive system and its functions and processes.”
Reproductive rights had been a topic of concern in the global landscape previously. The United Nation’s (UN) 1968 International Conference on Human Rights produced the Proclamation of Tehran, the first international document to recognize any subset of reproductive rights in stating, “Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children.”
This document was nonbinding, and some nations still have yet to adopt it.
Women’s sexual and reproductive rights
Women’s sexual and reproductive rights involve numerous topics. Below are some of the major areas of emphasis and concern surrounding the larger discussion.
Contraception is important to women’s physical and mental health and plays a pivotal role in family planning. Not only does access to contraception facilitate planning for many aspects of and stages of life, but it also decreases the risk of unwanted pregnancy and the need for abortion.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than 200 million women who do not want to be pregnant do not have access to modern contraception.
As discussed above, Alabama is currently attempting to ban abortion almost completely throughout the state. In the U.S., Roe v. Wade (1973) protects a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, although the ruling is not without exceptions. Many states have passed similarly extreme abortion measures and bans in the hope that the cases will reach the Supreme Court and challenge Roe v. Wade.
Abortion is currently illegal in many countries around the world with varying consequences and levels of extremity. For example, in El Salvador, abortion has been criminalized for several decades. In 2018, more than 20 women and girls were imprisoned for violating the country’s law, some sentenced to decades in prison.
Until last year, Ireland banned almost all abortions under a 1983 amendment. The law was amended in 2013 to make an exception for women whose lives were in danger. In 2018, however, the law was repealed, enabling women to have abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy with no restrictions and after that time if there are some health risks present.
HIV/AIDS and STDs/STIs
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that more than one million people acquire a sexually transmitted infection (STI) every day. Without treatment, some STIs can be fatal.
In sum, approximately 1.8 million people acquire HIV infections every year, according to the Guttmacher Institute. With antiviral drugs, HIV can be suppressed to an undetectable level in many cases. However, without proper treatment, the disease can progress to AIDS and become fatal.
STIs are not only responsible for death in some cases. They can cause pregnancy-related complications such as stillbirth and neonatal death. Testing and treatment are essential for women’s health and preventing the spread of infections to others.
Young people often face obstacles with regard to their reproductive health, making them a particularly at-risk population for STIs, pregnancy and other concerns. According to the United Nations Population Fund, young people are disproportionately affected by HIV.
Adolescents also face obstacles concern access to abortion. In the U.S., some states require women under the age of 18 to involve their parents in their decision to have an abortion, meaning one or both parents must give permission, be notified or both prior to having the procedure. Planned Parenthood provides a comprehensive review of individual state laws for minors.
LGBTQ + reproductive rights
LGBTQ+ people face challenges and restrictions concerning their reproductive health, freedom and more. In 10 states, foster care and adoption agencies can legally prevent LGBTQ+ people from adopting or fostering children from their organizations. Throughout history, members of these populations have faced discrimination in many facets of their lives, including reproductive rights.
The National LGBTQ Task Force provides information about and resources concerning reproductive health and more.
WHO has aggregated a number of sobering statistics concerning maternal mortality. For example:
• Ninety-nine percent of maternal deaths occur in developing countries
• Approximately 830 women die from preventable causes regarding pregnancy and childbirth each day
• Adolescents are at a higher risk of pregnancy-related complications and death than other women
Still, there’s some good news. For example, maternal mortality has dropped by 44 percent around the world between 1990 and 2015.
Violence against women
Women around the world face violence daily. WHO estimates that more than one in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, a large proportion of which results from an intimate partner.
Violence, sexual or otherwise, can take an enormous toll on women’s mental and physical health, as well as increase the risk of acquiring HIV and other STIs.
Some countries have introduced laws and legislation in effort to protect women from violent acts. For example, the U.S. passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. Currently, VAWA has not been reauthorized as of 2019.
Why women’s reproductive rights matter
Women’s reproductive rights are in the headlines currently, but these freedoms are always essential. Women deserve autonomy, integrity, respect, safety, support, information and pleasure with regard to and from their sexual and reproductive experiences. These aren’t just female rights — they’re human rights.