Why Trump’s US is wrong on abortion – and what it can learn from Rwanda

The US is going after women with harsh abortion laws. But criminalisation only makes abortion unsafe. That’s why other countries are changing their approach.

Gillian Kane
18 April 2019, 7.18am
Activist covered in fake blood at a rally against Trump. Her shirt says “Abortion on demand and without apology”.
NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images 2018. All rights reserved.

Last week’s developments on abortion were head-spinning: Ohio’s governor signed into law one of America’s most restrictive abortion bans, following the passage of similar “heartbeat laws” in Kentucky and Mississippi that criminalise abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. Meanwhile, legislators in Texas debated a bill that would classify abortion as homicide, making it punishable by death.

As the United States – under the increasingly cruel, anti-woman Trump-Pence administration – continues to restrict access to abortion and considers expanding penalties, to the point of death, remarkable things are happening in other countries.

In equal mind-spinning measure, the government of South Korea decreed their 66-year-old ban on abortion illegal. In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame pardoned 367 women and girls incarcerated for illegal abortions, and a ministerial order was published greatly reducing barriers to accessing legal abortions.

How can we make sense of these parallel movements? In part, countries that have criminalised women for decades through restrictive abortions laws are realising that these laws do not reduce the incidence of abortion (their often-stated purpose).

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Indeed, restrictive laws simply force women to terminate their pregnancies under unsafe conditions, putting their health at risk. And under illegal conditions, which makes them vulnerable to criminal prosecution.

Numerous studies have borne out these facts, yet anti-abortion activists keep insisting – and legislating – on criminalisation as key to ending abortion. But let’s be clear; the reality is that women will always need abortions. Their goal to end it has never been based on women’s needs, wants or experiences.

‘Facade of empathy for women’

The anti-abortion movement in the US has tried different tactics in the fight to criminalise abortion – from its fetus-centric focus in the 1970s (‘Save the baby!’), to its ostensibly more woman-sensitive approach in the 1990s (‘Women are victims of the industrial abortion complex’; ‘The ‘abortionists’ must be punished’).

Anti-abortion arguments claiming empathy for women and children have always been a facade. But now, the mask is off. The Trump administration has enacted or enforced some of the most hostile anti-family policies targeted at women and children in recent memory – including its immigration family separation policy – with total silence from the so-called ‘pro-life’ movement.

The move in Texas to consider barbarous criminal penalties for women signals a dark turn for the anti-abortion movement. But it also shines a light on their real motivation. Their objective has always been to limit women’s reproductive autonomy, even if it means sending them to jail. It’s just been verboten to say so out loud.

“Their objective has always been to limit women’s reproductive autonomy, even if it means sending them to jail.”

Donald Trump was heavily criticised, even by his own supporters, when he said in 2016, while running for president, that there should be “some form of punishment” for women who have abortions. He spent the next three days backpedalling.

Even Michael Pence, now Trump’s vice president and the administration’s most prominent anti-abortion voice, was forced to weigh in: “Donald Trump and I would never support legislation that would punish women who make the heartbreaking choice to end a pregnancy”.

Trump addresses 2018 March for Life.
Sipa USA/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

There are few studies on how criminal abortion laws are enforced around the world, and little data on how many women are arrested, charged and convicted under them. Yet, cases of women going to prison for having abortions have been reported in the press, from Mexico to Senegal.

In many countries with restrictive abortion laws, the fear of going to prison is so great that medical and law enforcement authorities, intentionally or unknowingly, misinterpret regulations and arrest, prosecute or jail women under spurious charges to avoid being accused of concealing or abetting an abortion-crime themselves.

In countries like El Salvador, cases are piling up of women being charged for abortion, when in fact they have had miscarriages. In the US, where abortion is still legal, we have also seen our fair share of women prosecuted for abortion-related crimes (such as infanticide, miscarriage or having or conducting an abortion), including several high-profile cases in the last few years.

“More than 300 Rwandan women and girls were in prison for ending a pregnancy accounting for almost 25% of women inmates”

Rwanda first liberalised its punitive abortion laws in 2012, expanding legal grounds for abortion to include cases of rape, incest, forced marriage and fetal impairment. But cultural stigma and bureaucratic barriers inhibited its full implementation.

Women have continued to have abortions, but under unsafe and clandestine conditions – and have been prosecuted for doing so. There have been cases of women who had abortions were charged and imprisoned for infanticide (which carries higher penalties); and women who miscarried, but were charged and imprisoned for abortion.

In 2015, Rwandan researchers, in collaboration with the reproductive rights organisation Ipas, where I work, found that from 2013 to 2014, more than 300 women and girls were in prison for ending a pregnancy – accounting for almost 25% of women inmates. The next year, in 2016, in a first for any head of state, President Kagame pardoned 62 women and girls in prison for abortion-related crimes.

Much needs to be done in Rwanda to advance women’s full access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare. Still, Kagame’s most recent pardon of imprisoned women and girls last week, along with the government order making it easier for Rwandan women to access legal abortion, is a huge step forward.

It also telegraphs a positive lesson that anti-abortion activists in the US would be wise to heed: if they’re going to pursue their unattainable goal of ending all abortions, criminalising women is clearly not a sound approach.

In the US, the Texas legislative proposal – that would classify abortion as homicide, punishable by death – is unlikely to pass. But its very existence signals the extreme and unbridled direction of today’s US anti-abortion movement.

Women are always going to need abortions. Legalising the procedure and eliminating criminal penalties has time and again proven to be the most effective pathway to safe abortion care. Rwanda and South Korea join Ireland and Chile as the most recent countries to recognise this imperative. The US would do well to pursue a strategy that genuinely cares about women – rather than turn them into criminals eligible for capital punishment for taking control of their bodies.

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