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Global: People defending abortion rights are being 'stigmatised, abused, discriminated against, even killed' - major new report

© Chepa Beltran/Long Visual Press

Estimated 35 million unsafe abortions every year

Health workers feel isolated and unsupported with threats of criminalisation, harassment, verbal and violent abus

Anti-abortion rhetoric, policies and laws stamp a target on the backs of health workers and advocates’ - Agnès Callamard

Violence against frontline sexual and reproductive health care providers is something that continues to happen unabated’ - Alvaro Bermejo

People who are defending the right to have an abortion and those who provide them, and related essential services are being stigmatised, intimidated, attacked and subjected to unjust prosecutions, making this work increasingly difficult and dangerous to carry out, said Amnesty International in a major new report today (24 November).

In the 59-page report, An Unstoppable Movement: A global call to recognise and protect those who defend the right to abortion, reveals how many healthcare workers, activists and advocates around the world face abuse, arrest, prosecution and imprisonment for supporting the right of women, girls and people who can become pregnant to access abortions.

The report is based on testimony from abortion rights defenders, features stories and information shared by frontline and grassroots organisations, and reflects the concerns raised by global healthcare organisations.

People interviewed explained how they often feel isolated, unsupported, and that their work is not recognised, and they are left fearing the threat of criminalisation, harassment, verbal threats and violence, as well as ostracisation- whether it is legal or not - and burnout in the workplace. Some health workers have even seen their personal details leaked online, while others are unsure whether they’ll make it home safely. For example:

  • Venezuela: a teacher and human rights defender Vannesa Rosales was criminalised for helping a woman and her 13-year-old daughter get access to abortion.
  • Poland: Justyna Wydrzyńska, a member of Abortion Without Borders and the Abortion Dream Team, was convicted for helping a woman access abortion pills earlier this year - a safe way of terminating a pregnancy.
  • Ghana: an advocate for sexual and reproductive rights said service providers have experienced physical violence and public shaming by members of the public for educating people about contraception.
  • Northern Ireland: healthcare workers are met with intimidation and verbal abuse by anti-abortion activists outside clinics and hospitals, making this a significant barrier for those accessing abortion services, and taking a toll on those who provide these services.

There are also major barriers for women, girls and all people who need abortion care – particularly those who are most marginalised.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said:

“Many countries around the world persist with policies of over-regulation and criminalisation that generate hostile, even perilous environments for those who defend the right to abortion.

Anti-abortion rhetoric, policies and laws stamp a target on the backs of health workers and advocates. Stigmatised, abused, discriminated against, criminalised, imprisoned, even killed - the rights of those who defend the right to abortion are under attack.

“Those who defend the right to abortion are ensuring and enabling access to essential services. That they should be made to do so in the face of hostility is unacceptable. It is imperative that they be protected by authorities, so they are able to carry out their work without reprisals.

“As part of our global campaign, we are calling on countries around the world to fulfil their obligations to protect the right to safe and legal abortion for all, and to respect and protect the right of all those who defend the right to abortion.”

35 million unsafe abortions every year

Criminalising abortion is the biggest contributing factor to the estimated 35 million unsafe abortions happening every year. It means healthcare staff are constantly caught in the conflict between the ethical and professional duty to provide the best available care and being criminally liable if they do not follow harmful laws.

Dr Anne-Beatrice Kihara, President of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, said:

“Abortion is essential healthcare. Yet, as healthcare providers we are routinely faced by discrimination and violence for simply doing our jobs.

Restrictive abortion laws and attitudes cause harm. They create hostile environments that feed abortion-related stigma that smears healthcare providers and those that seek abortion care as criminals. We all know colleagues, unfortunately, who have battled with stigma, career blocking, intimidation, physical attack, imprisonment, and even in the most extreme cases health care providers have been murdered.”

Midwives are also put at risk, even though they are trusted health professionals who women turn to for help when pregnant, in communities, clinics and hospitals.

Sally Pairman, Chief Executive of International Confederation of Midwives, said:

“A midwife's duty of care includes supporting access to abortion care and upholding the right to freely make decisions about reproductive health.

“Midwives cannot be subject to undue risk, violence, abuse or personal harm for doing their job. State and health authorities have the duty to ensure that all health workers, including midwives, are protected."

Violence against frontline workers

While progressive abortion law reform continues, anti-abortion regressions impede access with the promotion of disinformation and toxic narratives - smear campaigns that hijack public discourse and agitate against the right to abortion and against those who defend it.

Sarah Shaw, MSI Reproductive Choices’ Head of Advocacy, said:

“For many sexual and reproductive health providers this harassment and abuse has come to feel like just part of the job, but we cannot allow this to become the new normal. Enough is enough. It’s time to recognise abortion providers as human rights defenders and stand up for those who put their lives on the line to make choice possible.”

Alvaro Bermejo, International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Director General, said:

“Violence against frontline sexual and reproductive health care providers is something that continues to happen unabated; it's about time the voices, experiences and concerns of our frontline defenders are heard.

“As anti-abortion authorities around the world continue to deploy stigma, fear and hate-speech against those seeking and those providing services, we, as institutional champions of sexual and reproductive health and rights, commit to matching the courage of our frontline defenders.”

Recognising the work of women human rights defenders

Amnesty is calling for countries to recognise that the role of women human rights defenders working on access to safe abortion is legitimate and integral to the promotion and realisation of sexual and reproductive rights; and ensure women human rights defenders working on access to safe abortion, are not criminalised, intimidated or attacked, and bring those who attack them to justice.

It's time for these defenders to be protected and fully supported in the workplace, as Dr Guillermo Ortíz, an obstetrician from El Salvador and Ipas advocate, said:

“I believe it is important for doctors to make abortion accessible in countries with restrictive laws. We are the ones providing care to the poorest women, those most likely to suffer harms. We are at the forefront of healthcare, and we must be part of the movement for safe access to abortion. Abortion is healthcare.”

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