State Secretary Laila Bokhari's speech at a meeting in Oslo 28 September marking the International day for Safe Abortions.
Let me first express my appreciation to civil society organisations in Norway and across the world for marking the International day for Safe Abortions. I would also like to pay a special tribute to the women in Latin America who more than 20 years ago launched the first campaign on safe abortion on a 28 September.
If women's rights had their rightful place in the family of nations, this could have been another United Nations' day. We are not yet there. And we will not be there until the day we succeed in convincing all UN Member States that safe abortion should be an integral part of women's right to control and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality.
I am afraid that is not going to happen anytime soon.
The question is: Are we making progress or are we moving backwards in making safe abortion a reality for women worldwide?
Let us start by looking at legislation.
On this score, it seems that, overall, we are on the right track. This is at least what comes out of the UNs latest overview over abortion policies around the world, in the period from 1996 to 2013.
It is puzzling that the negative news are mainly coming from Western countries, and in particular from Eastern Europe. In several of these countries, we are facing the prospect of restrictive abortion laws becoming even more restrictive.
On other continents, women's fights have set in motion processes, which in some countries have already led to liberalisation of restrictive abortion laws. This is the case in Mozambique. I am proud that Norway's support to women's organisations there played a part in this success story. In Chile, president Bachelet's initiative to rewrite the current legislation on abortion has met fierce resistance from some quarters. Still, there is no doubt that the total ban on abortion, which now prevails in Chile, will be abandoned. By the same token, the number of countries which do not allow abortion under any circumstances, even when a woman's life is at risk, will go down from 6 to 5. A small, but still a symbolically important sign since this figure of 6 has remained unchanged for too long.
However, being on the right track does not mean we are up to the right speed.
Progress is painfully slow particularly when it comes to pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. More than 50% of UN member states do not permit abortion in these cases. Some of the most unbearable stories of violence against women are coming from countries which not only refuse access to abortion for young girls who have been raped, but also in some cases charge and imprison them.
Legislation is important but unless it is translated into concrete action to ensure that hospitals and health staff are equipped – and willing - to perform safe abortions, it is of limited value. According to the UN report that I mentioned, 87 countries implemented measures to improve access to safe abortion services and 152 to improve sexual and reproductive health services. So things are moving in the right direction. However, the figures we have about deaths due to unsafe abortion speak about the gaps that remain to be filled. It is about resources - financial, human and technical. It is also about overcoming social norms, such as stigma related to abortion. And it is about women being unable to decide for themselves whether to have an abortion or not. Above all, it is about women's continued status of inferiority compared to men and entrenched discrimination across the board, be it in the political, social or economic sphere.
So: What needs to be done?
What can countries like Norway do to accelerate the positive trends and counter the negative developments when it comes to strengthening access to safe abortion?
First of all, I am convinced that the main actors are those who live in countries where laws, policies and practices must change to permit women's access to safe abortions. What we can and should do is to support agents of change inside countries, primarily local women's organisations. We also need to use relevant opportunities to engage governments and parliamentarians. I believe we must also challenge religious leaders who have an influence in some of the countries with the most backward policies. This includes the Catholic Church's potential role in getting rid of the grimmest and most hideous practices in some specific Latin American countries.
Let me end by summarising how we work to advance women's access to safe abortion as laid out in our new Action Plan for Women's Rights and Gender Equality in Foreign and Development Policy 2016-2020
- At the global level, we consistently intervene in all relevant negotiations in the UN to safeguard the commitments that countries have freely taken on in relation to safe abortion. We also use these occasions to underpin the need for further strengthening of norms by recalling the human and financial costs related to unsafe abortions.
- We use the Universal Peer Review at the UN Human Rights Council systematically, and more than any other country, to make recommendations to relevant countries, from Ireland in the North to Honduras in the South. We use a lot of time to tailor-make our recommendations on abortion so that they fit the particular context in a particular country.
- We support women's organisations both at the regional and country level that work to advance safe abortion.
- We work with countries that benefit from the Global Financing Facility in support of the Global Strategy for Women's, Children's and Adolescents' Health (2016-2030) to prioritize funding for reproductive health services, including safe abortion in their country investment case.
- We also support international non-governmental organizations who promote safe abortion, such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
By way of conclusion, I want to point out that our major priority is to impede, to the extent possible, unwanted pregnancies to occur in the first place. For that purpose, we support effort to increase access to modern forms of contraception, with a particular emphasis on methods that women control, such as implants. While it will never be possible to totally avoid recourse to abortion, we must strive to reduce the need for this service to the strict minimum.
I wish you a fruitful debate that I am sure will contribute to bolster our common resolve to stay the course until the day when all women in the world have access to legal and safe abortion as part of every country's basic health services.