SECTION27 and Sonke deeply concerned with Alabama Abortion Act and US restrictions on sexual and reproductive health rights

Civil society organisations SECTION27 and Sonke Gender Justice (Sonke) are deeply concerned by the recent signing of the “Alabama Human Life Protection Act”, the most recent law in a wave of anti-abortion legislative measures made under the Trump administration. These measures are a direct attack against the advancement of sexual and reproductive rights of women – not only in the US, but globally.

The Alabama law is the most restrictive law passed in the US to date, as it only allows for a woman to access an abortion if her life would be in danger and does not provide for exceptions in instances of rape or incest. Under the law, doctors who perform abortions could be jailed for up to 99 years. There have been other similar laws passed in the US this year, including in Ohio and Georgia where a “fetal heartbeat” law prohibits abortions after a heartbeat is detected in an embryo, as early as 5-6 weeks into pregnancy.

The Alabama Act is likely to be legally challenged by those who believe that it is inconsistent with the US Supreme Court’s decision Roe v Wade in 1973, which protects a woman’s right to abortion within the US. It is also of concern that anti-choice groups have been emboldened by the recent changes in law and intend to challenge and overturn the sentinel Roe v Wade decision.

Women in developing countries dependent on US health assistance have also been bearing the brunt of increasingly conservative US anti-abortion policies for the past two years. This includes South Africa.

On 23 January 2017, President Trump reinstated the Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance Policy, also known as the “Global Gag Rule” (GGR). This policy has applied under every Republican administration since its introduction in 1984. The Policy requires foreign NGOs accepting US global health funding to agree that they will not perform or “actively promote” abortion as a method of family planning. To actively promote, includes the provision of advice or information to women that abortion is an available method of family planning. The funding applies to around $8 billion, and includes funding for HIV/AIDS, malaria and family planning.

There have already been widespread impacts of the GGR, including reduction in access to health services; disrupted referral networks; reduction in provision of contraceptives and HIV services as well as instilling fear in organisations working on women’s health rights.

The exceptions to the GGR are in cases where there is a risk to the woman’s life, or if pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. The Policy also provides an “affirmative defence clause” which states that if a healthcare provider has an affirmative duty under local law to provide counselling about and referrals for abortion, compliance with this law does not trigger a violation of the Policy.

Despite South Africa’s progressive abortion laws, many NGOs in the country are dependent on US global health assistance for the provision of critical health services, particularly relating to HIV treatment and reproductive health. In South Africa, a woman’s reproductive rights, including the right to an abortion, under specific circumstances, are constitutionally guaranteed and the state is required to advance those rights. Various legal provisions place a duty on healthcare workers to provide counselling about and referrals for abortion services, including the Constitution and the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act.

To withhold information relating to the availability of abortion constitutes a violation of the right to bodily integrity; reproductive health care; the right to be informed of a range of diagnostic procedures available; and the right to give informed consent before receiving medical care.

SECTION27 and Sonke Gender Justice have engaged implementing partners in South Africa currently receiving US assistance to clarify their position under the Policy and to highlight their legal obligations to continue to refer for abortion services, even if accepting US funding. We continue to monitor the impact of the GGR.

We stand in solidarity with movements resisting the erosion of women’s rights to dignity and autonomy across the world, and in particular our allies in the US during these times of oppression.

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