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Abortion shouldn’t be a crime, doctors warn governments

20th November 2015, 10:19:27 UTC

Doctors and health professionals from every region of the world today added their voices to the growing pressure for the decriminalisation of abortion, with 838 from 44 countries signing an open letter to governments published today by Amnesty International.

Some of the signatures are health professionals from Ghent University Hospital Belgium, Universidad Nacional del Comahue in Argentina, Harvard and Columbia in the States, University of British Columbia, Facultad de Ciencias Médicas UNAN-Managua, and University of Cape Town in South Africa and Trinity College Dublin. The letter has been signed by some of the most influential figures in Irish healthcare, which include Dr Veronica O’Keane and Dr Peter Boylan. The letter calls on governments to stop interfering with health professionals’ ability to provide care, warning that criminalising abortion puts women’s and girls’ health and lives at risk.

“The criminalisation of abortion prevents healthcare providers from delivering timely, medically indicated care in accordance with their patients’ wishes,” the letter says.

“It impedes and disregards sound medical judgment and can undermine the professional duty of care and confidentiality that doctors bear towards their patients.”

Globally, 40 per cent of women of childbearing age live in countries where abortion is banned, highly restricted or otherwise inaccessible. Unsafe abortion accounts for 13 per cent of maternal deaths, resulting in 47,000 women and girls dying each year.

“So many respected health professionals speaking out reaffirms what women have been saying for years. Governments can no longer claim that criminalising abortion has no impact on the health care that women and girls receive,” said Colm O’ Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.

“Making criminals of women for abortion violates their human rights and can endanger their lives. In numerous countries around the world, Amnesty International has documented shocking cases of women forced to continue unviable pregnancies because of restrictive laws. We have seen women and girls pregnant as a result of rape forced to carry the foetus to term and give birth.

“International law is clear: at the very least women and girls should have access to an abortion when the pregnancy poses a risk to their life or health, in cases of severe or fatal foetal impairment, and in cases of rape or incest. International law also says that under no circumstances should a woman be made a criminal for having an abortion.”

Amnesty International’s global My Body My Rights campaign aims to stop the control and criminalisation of sexuality and reproduction by governments. It has highlighted the situation in El Salvador, Ireland and Chile, three countries where legal barriers to abortion severely limit doctors’ ability to provide women the healthcare they need.

“Doctors in Ireland, El Salvador and many other countries have spoken to Amnesty International of the restrictions abortion laws place on their ability to provide care to their patients.”

Doctors and health care providers in Ireland may face up to 14 years in jail if they provide or assist in providing an abortion other than when the woman’s or girl’s life is at risk. This is even where they act to protect her health, where the pregnancy is the result of rape or if there is a fatal foetal impairment.

“In our June 2015 report, doctors in Ireland told Amnesty International that they face a choice of either breaking the law or providing potentially dangerous – and unethical – care to their patients, Criminalising health professionals for doing their job is clearly something that most people in Ireland reject,” said Colm O’Gorman.

In a Red C poll of people in Ireland for Amnesty International published in July 2015, 72per cent of people did not agree with the possible 14 year prison sentence for doctors. 64 per cent of people did not know it is a crime for a woman to get an abortion when her life is not at risk and only 7 per cent agreed that women should be imprisoned for up to 14 years for having an unlawful abortion.

Dr. Peter Boylan, an obstetrician, gynaecologist and former Master and Clinical Director of Ireland’s National Maternity Hospital told Amnesty International about the legal and ethical tightrope medical staff are forced to walk

“Under the [current law] we must wait until women become sick enough before we can intervene. How close to death do you have to be? There is no answer to that.”

To see the full open letter and list of signatories, click here.

If you would like to take online action calling on the Taoiseach to decriminalise abortion and repeal the 8th Amendment, you can do so here.