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Global Leaders Understand Abortion Saves Lives. The U.S. Still Refuses to Listen.

by Julie A. Burkhart

For years, researchers, public health experts and abortion providers have known that abortion is an essential part of health care, and increasing access to abortion reduces maternal mortality rates and prevents dangerous health outcomes due to unsafe, “back alley” procedures. We’ve testified to legislative committees, talked to reporters, issued press releases and reports, and protested--all in service of working to affect policies and laws to protect women’s lives. While our pleas and arguments have often fallen on deaf ears here at home, there are hopeful signs that lawmakers around the world are starting to listen.

While 2020 brought incredible challenges and loss, it also brought hopeful progress in the fight for access to safe, legal abortion care around the world. Countries including Argentina, Sierra Leona and Namibia, who had long refused to consider decriminalizing abortion, either passed unprecedented legislation or began taking steps toward policy change that will save women’s lives.

An incredible protest movement led by mostly young female activists pushed Argentina to pass watershed legislation, making it the largest Latin American country to legalize abortion.[1] After a failed attempt to pass a similar law last year, organizers of the movement continued their organizing and the movement grew. Now the Argentine measure has passed, activists are hopeful for similar progress in Columbia, Chile and Brazil.

In Sierra Leone, which has one of highest maternal mortality rates in the world, the People’s Alliance for Reproductive Health Advocacy is launching a campaign called “Safe Abortion” to educate the community on reproductive health and advocate for women’s health.[2]As part of their campaign, PARHA is connecting national health statistics on maternal death to the lack of abortion care, such as amplifying the disturbing statistic that 25 percent of all maternal deaths in hospitals are caused by unsafe and illegal abortion procedures.

Further south, where the world’s highest maternal mortality rates are found, there is an organized, growing protest movement led by women in Namibia, which currently criminalizes elective abortion due to an apartheid-era law adopted from South Africa.[3] Women are successfully buliding a movement with the help of female-led organizations like She Decides and Voices for Choices and Rights Coalition, which have organized protests and petitions as part of a targeted lobbying effort to repeal the apartheid-inspired law.

In spite of the many hopeful signs of progress around the world that will lead to a reduction in maternal mortality rates, many American lawmakers continue to ignore--or refuse to hear--the overwhelming evidence. While Argentina’s recent efforts will save lives and lower the number of maternal deaths, the U.S. will continue to have the highest maternal mortality rate among similarly industrialized, wealthy countries. When compared to all other nations, as ranked by the World Health Organization, we are 55th, behind Russia and ahead of Ukraine[4]-- and will remain there if we don’t protect and increase access to abortion services throughout our country.

The data is clear--restricting access to abortion increases the rate of maternal death.[5] It is well within our lawmakers’ abilities to pass legislation and implement policies that would protect and increase access to abortion and reduce maternal mortality, saving lives almost immediately. With Democratic control of the House and Senate, the Biden administration has a rare window of opportunity to make this happen. We must learn from the hundreds of thousands of people raising their voices around the world and demand our incoming leaders seize this moment.


[1] The Guardian, Argentina legalises abortion in landmark moment for women's rights

[2] Politico SL, PARHA Discusses Safe Abortion Plan in Sierra Leone

[3] CNN, Abortion is legal in Namibia, but only if a woman is in danger or has been sexually abused. Activists are demanding reform


[4] Vox, We finally have a new US maternal mortality estimate. It’s still terrible.

[5] American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Impact of State-Level Changes on Maternal Mortality