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How the US abortion war fares globally

Why is a simple medical procedure being reframed as a deeply divisive moral issue in the US?
Last modified: 26 Aug 2012 21:41

"Women are at least passively involved in the act of murder, because they’re hiring an assassin to do away with another human being."

"There is no difference in killing the fetus in a mother’s womb or killing a person after birth."

These are statements made by two men in two different countries where abortion is legal.

The first is a life-long anti-abortion leader; the second is a prime minister (I will tell you later who they are). Taken together, they show how a legal medical procedure is being reframed as a moral issue in a number of countries.

That reframing is removed from the reality of women's lives. Evidence from leading health organisations shows that women who want to terminate their pregnancies will do so, whether the procedure is legal or not.

As the Guttmacher Institute - a US-based organisation that promotes reproductive health – points out, women trying to self-abort will use anything, from a coat hanger to poison; others seek the services of untrained medical practitioners who use unsterilized or no medical equipment.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says 40 per cent of pregnancies globally are unplanned, and almost all women in Latin America and Africa live in countries with very strict abortion laws. Given these statistics, it is not surprising that the WHO says unsafe abortions are a leading cause of maternal death.

Morocco is one country that's seen its fair share of this dire reality. Although abortion is technically legal there, there are so many restrictions placed on it there that it's impossible for many to access it. It's limited to the first six weeks of pregnancy, before most women even know they are pregnant. Unmarried women are banned from having it.

After decades of campaigning by women’s rights activists, Morocco’s newly elected Justice and Development Party has signaled its willingness to relax the law.

The Rwandan government recently legalised abortions in cases of rape, incest, and when a woman's health is in danger. The move was welcomed news for public health advocates in Africa, a continent where only three countries allow full access to the procedure.

Tacit in the cases of Morocco and Rwanda is an acknowledgement that the debate over abortion should take public health into serious consideration.

By contrast, the debate over abortion in America is increasingly taking place within the realm of morality.

Abortion is legal in the US, but top contenders for the Republican presidential candidacy have all fallen in line with the position of the party's far-right Christian base, namely, that life begins at conception and abortion is a form of murder.

In 2011, the party made history by introducing a record number of bills aimed at restricting reproductive rights in state legislatures. Leading Republicans have called for an end to subsidised contraception and the gutting of publicly funded care providers that specialize in women's health care.

At this week's Republican National Convention, delegates will vote on their party's platform, which is expected to include a call for a ban on abortion.

At the heart of this shift is a sophisticated anti-abortion base within the party's grassroots.

"We are the biggest civil rights movement advocating on behalf of the unborn in America," Troy Newman told me. He is the president of Operation Rescue, a leading anti-abortion Christian organisation.

I met Newman in California while filming "The Abortion War", next week's episode of Fault Lines.

He was speaking at an anti-abortion summer retreat where students are trained in direct action activism.

From that summer camp in sunny California, to the secret world of counselling centres dedicated to convincing pregnant women not to have abortions in the swing state of Ohio, we journeyed deep into the world of anti-abortion activists to try and understand why, in a presidential election year where the economy is the most pressing matter, an otherwise simple legal medical procedure has become one of the most divisive issues in the US.

You can catch our Fault Lines episode “Abortion War” on Al Jazeera English at the following times (all GMT) : Tuesday, August 28: 22:30, Wednesday, August 29: 09:30; Thursday, August 30: 03:30; Friday, August 31: 16:30; Saturday, September 1: 22:30; Sunday, September 2: 0930; Monday, September 3: 03:30; Tuesday, September 4: 16:30.

PS Troy Newman is the author of the first quote.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan is the author of the second.

Follow Zeina on Twitter @Zeina_Awad