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Story and Perspective

Advancing Abortion Rights: Lessons from Mozambique

In legally restrictive settings, barriers to abortion access can be overwhelming. You needn’t look further than the American South for examples. In recent years, archaic legislation has been passed in numerous states—including Texas, Mississippi, and Indiana—that has effectively turned back the clock on the reproductive rights of American women. In a particularly egregious example, Texas’ 2013 House Bill 2 (HB 2) placed such onerous requirements on the state’s abortion clinics that more than half were forced to close in the law’s wake.

This wave of harmful legislation spreading through the American South has not been a huge surprise to those of us working in sexual and reproductive health and rights in the developing world. From our perspective, America’s “war” on women has been waging for many years already—and has directly affected our ability to support comprehensive reproductive health services and rights around the world. US global health programs are required to comply with the harmful Helms Amendment, which, in practice, completely cuts off the use of US foreign assistance funds for abortions—even in the cases of rape, incest, or when a pregnancy threatens the life of the woman.

That means that in many parts of the world, US global health policy places more stringent restrictions on abortion services than what is actually required by that country’s law. Has America “exported” its war on women? This week, at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen, I will be participating in a panel discussion exploring this very topic.

As the country representative for Pathfinder in Mozambique, I know firsthand how challenging it can be to advance abortion access and rights in settings with restrictive laws. I’m also willing to bet that the US could learn a thing or two from our recent experience successfully advocating for a less restrictive abortion law in Mozambique.

Until 2014, abortion was permitted in Mozambique only to save the life of the woman and to preserve her physical health (and even those criteria were not widely known or acknowledged by civil society or most in positions of authority). Recognizing the shortcomings of this law, in 2011, we formed a coalition with other likeminded organizations to advocate for broader abortion rights. Pathfinder firmly believes that a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy is fundamental to her right to choose whether and when to have a child.

To achieve this goal, the coalition developed a strategy that spanned several fronts. We held awareness raising and opinion-changing events with government bodies, we developed and submitted inputs to parliament for a revised penal code, and we implemented a comprehensive media engagement strategy that recruited and trained journalists in sexual and reproductive health and rights.

And eventually our strategy worked! A revised penal code with a less restrictive abortion law was approved and signed into law in 2014. The new law allows women to electively terminate their pregnancies during the first 12 weeks, and in the case of rape, during the first 16 weeks. Of course, there’s more work to be done—now comes implementation of the law—but this shift in policy is a huge victory for Mozambican women. Perhaps lessons garnered from our experience here could be used to quell the rising tide of restrictive legislation in the US?

Check out the Pathfinder technical brief for more information on our experience expanding abortion access in Mozambique (and three other African countries).

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