Artist Rekik response

The desperate methods women used at the time ranged from traditional remedies like consuming tree roots and herbs to inserting implements such as catheters and metallic tools, causing uterine perforation and organ injury. At that time, it was normal to see half of the delivery and gynaecology wards filled with women who needed immediate medical assistance as a result of unsafe abortions.

Growing up in Addis Ababa, my siblings and I all knew someone who had had an unsafe abortion. My sister had a friend who died by suicide because of unintended pregnancy. I remember girls who dropped out of school after they drank bleach or attempted to terminate a pregnancy through other dangerous means. I often think about where these girls are now and how these tragic stories were all avoidable.

These stories also remind me of how far Ethiopia has come in the last 17 years and how the progress achieved should never be reversed. Instead, it should be emulated.

Ethiopia – like other countries in which MSI Reproductive Choices works such as South Africa, Cambodia, Mexico and Nepal – shows what happens when safe abortion is made more accessible. Since 2005, the law allows abortions in the case of rape, incest, foetal impairment, if the woman is a minor, or if she has physical or mental disabilities. Today, deaths from unsafe abortion only account for 1 percent of all maternal deaths (pdf) in Ethiopia.

Even in relatively conservative societies, change is possible. In Ethiopia, legislators with support from the health sector were able to articulate the grim reality of the restrictive law to their voters, with women of all ages dying or experiencing life-altering damage to their physical and mental health. It was clear expanding safe abortion access was key to lowering maternal mortality rates, an argument that even anti-choice groups could not ignore.

In Kansas recently, pro-abortion rights campaigners framed abortion on similar terms with voters crossing traditional party lines to vote on an issue rapidly becoming one of the top priorities for Americans ahead of the mid-terms in November.

Ethiopia’s example makes it even more egregious for legislators in the US – where maternal deaths could increase by up to 30 percent among women of colour – to seek to overturn decades of progress. But the evidence from Ethiopia should also offer hope: If deeply religious Ethiopia can move the dial forward on reproductive health and rights, and save lives in the process, so can the US.

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