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SINGH: Stigma around abortion can lead to lethal consequences

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A recent study published in the medical journal, The Lancet has brought some light to a matter not talked much about these days: Unsafe abortions. The study has revealed that about half the abortions performed worldwide are unsafe. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines unsafe abortion either as pregnancy that is terminated in an environment that does not meet medical standards or is performed by someone who lacks the necessary medical skills to do so. Either approach has a high chance of leaving the mother with many complications including uterine perforation, hemorrhage, an incomplete abortion (the failure to dispel all of the pregnancy tissue), and damage to the genitals and internal organs. Such complications make unsafe abortions the leading cause of maternal mortality and morbidity. Every year 4.7 percent to 13.2 percent of maternal deaths are due to the malpractice of abortion and each year there are more than 55 million abortions that take place worldwide, but close to 25.5 million are unsafe.  Among this half of unsafe abortions, at least 8 million were carried out in harmful environments and over half of them were carried out in Asia. Overall though, the rate of abortions was higher in developed countries, but the rate of unsafe abortions was greater in undeveloped countries, with the risk of dying from one was greatest in Africa. About 97 percent of unsafe abortions take place in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In North America, 99 percent of the performed procedures are regarded as safe. A trend that is noticed here is that countries that offer a larger selection of safe abortion procedures tend to have less restrictive abortion laws.

Dr. Bela Ganatra, a scientist working in WHO’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research, says that even though underdeveloped countries with conventional mindsets try to implement prohibitory abortion laws, research backs up the fact that such laws in fact will not result in a decrease of women receiving abortions. Ganatra went on to say, "Women are going to have abortions when they are faced with the situation where they need it and if they can't get access to safe ones they will go further down the spectrum to less safe and perhaps even dangerous.” When left with no option or help in getting an abortion, women will naturally take matters into their own hands which simply ends up being lethal. Many times a woman ends up taking unprescribed medications without having the knowledge of the effects of the pills on their bodies. Other examples include using sharp objects such as coat hangers, sticks, knitting needles and even glass to reach the tissue in the uterus. In Kenya, abortions are largely illegal and the only way a woman may receive one is if her pregnancy is severely detrimental to her health. This leaves no space for others who cannot go through the pregnancy for whatever their reason may be. A grievous example was the sister of James, a member of the Nairobi slum, in Kenya. His sister was the victim of a gang-rape that ended in pregnancy. “She told us that she saw three men rape her and then she lost consciousness,” James said. “She was just quiet most of the time after the rape. She didn’t want the baby. She tried to abort three times.” After she tried and was declined a fourth time, James’s sister, who was eight months pregnant at this time, took matters into her own hands by consuming non prescribed medication to kill both herself and the fetus.

Now there is a spectrum of reasons why a woman may not want to go through with the pregnancy and among the top reasons are rape pregnancies, the fact that the mother simply might not be able to financially support the child, the pregnancy and raising the child may interfere with her career, the pregnancy was an accident, the pregnancy may be deleterious to her well-being and other reasons. There are many barriers that women face that disallow them from receiving a safe abortion, such reasons include the restrictive laws, high cost of procedure and stigma. It is important to accommodate women when it comes to pregnancies as females have a right to health and a right to control their bodies, which makes unsafe abortions a significant human rights issue. A pregnancy takes a massive toll on a woman’s body and it is imperative to her well being to have the necessary resources at her disposal. Unsafe abortions can be prevented in many ways including through sexuality education, availability of safe and effective contraceptives, public health seminars especially in third world countries to educate and de-stigmatize the operation, and obviously the services of safe and legal abortions.

Harleen Singh is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. Her column, "Got Rights?", runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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