Global Dimensions of Forced Motherhood

By Jacobsen, Jodi L. | USA TODAY, May 1993 | Go to article overview

Global Dimensions of Forced Motherhood


Jacobsen, Jodi L., USA TODAY


As many as 300,000,000 married women have no access to modern birth control because of governmental policy.

DESPITE the Supreme Court's decision Don the latest challenge to Roe v. Wade, the U.S. is poised to join a growing number of countries where women's basic human rights are eroding rapidly. Limits on access to family planning methods, including abortion, violate international agreements. In 1968, the member states of the United Nations unanimously recognized the human right to decide freely on the number and spacing of children. Ten years later, the UN confirmed the universal right to reproductive health care, including family planning, maternal health, and the prevention and treatment of common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Since the mid 1980s, however, the number of females who freely can exercise these rights has been declining, leading to a global increase in coerced pregnancy and motherhood. Today, women's basic human rights are under siege in virtually every country. In the U.S., Germany, and Poland, for instance, they face increasing hurdles to preventing or terminating unwanted pregnancies. Moreover, coerced pregnancy and childbirth long have been commonplace in the many developing nations, where the majority of women lack access to contraception or safe abortion services.

Death and illness often result from such coercion. This year, at least 1,000,000 women will die of reproductive causes--including complications of childbirth, unsafe abortion, and sexually transmitted diseases--while more than 100,000,000 others will suffer disabling illnesses.

Pregnancy and childbirth can not be considered voluntary unless a woman can answer the following questions affirmatively: Can she control when and with whom she has sexual relations? Can she choose when and how to regulate her fertility, free from dangerous or undesirable side effects of contraception? Can she obtain a safe abortion on request? Unfortunately for the vast majority of women worldwide, the answer to one or all of these questions is a resounding "no."

For one thing, fertility is valued so highly in many cultures that newlyweds come under enormous pressure to bear their first child as soon as possible. Indeed, in parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, a childless women is subject to abandonment, abuse, and even murder.

As a result, women may have little bargaining power in the bedroom. Sexual coercion, ranging from marital rape to more subtle forms of pressure, is an issue for women everywhere, but is particularly acute in nations where they are disproportionately poor, insufficiently educated, and politically powerless.

Studies from Africa have shown that economic impoverishment leaves them vulnerable to both unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The African man maintains "unrestrained and unchallenged dominance over the African woman," according to E. Maxine Ankrah, a lecturer at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. Her survey of 144 Ugandan women found that they faced an almost total "lack of decision-making power in matters of sex," and they stated that, concerning family planning, their husbands "won't cooperate."

Women in Mexico face similar difficulties. As many as 60% of those who seek state-sponsored birth control must do so without the knowledge of their husbands, in large part because of the prevailing belief among men that contraceptive use will diminish their manhood or lead to infidelity. A wife may find practicing birth control surreptitiously risks physical abuse. Under these constraints, a woman's ability to negotiate protective measures clearly is minimal.

Aside from social pressures, UN surveys show that as many as 300,000,000 married women of reproductive age worldwide would like to prevent pregnancies, but have no access to reliable birth control. More than 50% of all pregnancies among U.S. women each year are unintended, partly because many can not utilize contraception. …

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