Rio+20 the United Nations sustainable development conference has just finished. Yet again women have been thrown under the bus. Women’s rights were sacrificed for the ‘more important’ issues of trade and financing for sustainable development. In fact The Holy See (The Vatican) championed the agenda, along with other conservative governments, that women’s equality and reproductive rights in particular have nothing to do with sustainable development.
This notion is simply ludicrous. It is impossible to separate women’s human rights, which include reproductive rights from sustainable development. It is impossible to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity (one of the five millennium development goals) without thinking about abortion and contraception. Not being able to control the timing and spacing of children has a massive impact on a mothers body. Many pregnancies close together increase the chance of complications, and tax the ability of the mother to recover properly. Conditions such as obstetric fistula are often completely debilitating for women and end their ability to participate in community life.
Not being able to choose the number and spacing of her children limits a woman’s ability to develop in any sense, let a lone sustainably. Abortions still happen in places where reproductive rights are not granted to women. In fact according to the WHO the rate of illegal abortions is nearly equivalent to that of legal abortions, around 20 million a year. Failure to recognise reproductive rights as women’s human rights simply results in more dead women, as illegal abortions have a higher mortality rate due to unsafe practices. According to World Health Organisation statistics around 68,000 women die from unsafe abortions every year, and many many more are injured, often permanently. 97% of unsafe abortions happen in nations where abortion is highly restricted or illegal.
In arguing for the erasure of reproductive rights from the agenda of development the Holy See is directly contributing to these deaths, deaths that could be prevented by access to safe legal abortion. I understand that the Holy See claims a moral authority, but that authority is not one all or even most women around the world are under. That they should be able to take away choices like this without any accountability is unconscionable. No one on a structural level is forcing devout Catholic women to have abortions, but by limiting the legality of abortions women who want to have abortions are being forced to have children they do not want, or have an unsafe procedure that could leave them permanently injured or dead. This is not a meaningful choice, and women deserve better. We deserve to be able to make decisions about our own bodies, they belong to us.
Women are not a minority group or special interest, our rights are human rights and those rights include reproductive rights because they are essential in order for us to participate fully in the world, these rights should not be able to be side-lined by special interest religious groups. Any conversation about sustainable development that ignores women’s equality and reproductive rights is no conversation about development at all.