Motherhood is coerced worldwide

Jodi L. Jacobson

March 20, 1992|By Jodi L. Jacobson

A 14-YEAR-OLD Irish girl recounts being forced, out of shame and fear, to secretly endure sexual abuse at the hands of a schoolmate's father for more than a year. When she was 2 1/2 months pregnant, the Irish Supreme Court overturned the court order barring the girl from leaving Ireland, where abortion is illegal under virtually any circumstance. She traveled to Britain for the abortion.

Her story made headlines because state-coerced pregnancy seems unusual. In fact, coerced pregnancy and childbearing is widespread wherever women have sexual intercourse without access to contraception and safe abortion.

Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable. In most countries, a significant share of teen-agers engage in sexual activity well before marriage. In some cultures, there are moral and social, as well as economic, prohibitions on contraception. In others, their status as "minors" more often than not prevents them from gaining access to contraceptive information and supplies, leaving them vulnerable to unintended pregnancy, not to mention AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

In parts of the developing world, urbanization and modernization are pushing up the age at which teens marry, contributing to the age gap between first intercourse and marriage. As a result, the share of teen-age pregnancies occurring out of wedlock is soaring worldwide.

Data show from one-fifth to one-half of unmarried teen-agers in most developing countries have had intercourse. But few are schooled in how to prevent pregnancy. An estimated 10 percent of sexually active teens in Latin America practice contraception, for example, and about half of all births in the region are to unwed teens. It's no secret that we face a similar problem in the United States, where two-thirds of women under age 20 who give birth are unmarried.

Teen-age childbearing has enormous social and economic consequences. It limits a young woman's educational opportunities, thereby curtailing her future economic opportunities, which, especially in developing countries, reinforces the low status of women.

Fertility is so highly valued in many cultures that women are under enormous pressure to marry and bear their first child as soon as possible. Indeed, in parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, a childless woman is subject to abuse, abandonment and even murder.

The same societies that hold women hostage to pregnancy are most apt to turn around and blame them for transgressing social mores. For many, the social consequences of unwed motherhood, which often include ostracism or violent abuse by family members, outweigh the potential dangers of illegal abortion. A study from Bangladesh found that unmarried 15- to 19-year-olds were 10 times more likely to die from abortion as married women in the same age range. Many choose to take their own lives: Nearly three-fourths of all maternal deaths among unmarried women in Bangladesh were related to either suicide or induced abortion.

In some countries, official policies compound the social and cultural problem. In Nigeria, where unmarried teens are prohibited from patronizing government-sponsored family planning clinics, it is nevertheless commonplace for pregnant girls -- but not the boys who impregnate them -- to be expelled from school. Last year in Kenya, 71 female students at a boarding school were raped, and 17 died, in a mass attack by male students; under strict interpretation of Kenyan law, any resulting pregnancies would have to be carried to term.

Dramatic as these examples are, almost everywhere in the world women are faced with a mix of government policies, cultural traditions and economic pressures that conspire to make pregnancy and motherhood a less-than-voluntary condition.

Pregnancy and childbirth cannot 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, the answer to one or all of these questions is no.

For one thing, women may have little bargaining power in the bedroom. Sexual coercion, ranging from marital rape to more subtle forms of pressure, is a problem for women everywhere, but it is particularly acute in countries where women are disproportionately poor, poorly educated and politically powerless.

Even women in a position to withstand these pressures often do not have the means to do so. U.N. surveys show that as many as 300 million married women of reproductive age worldwide would like to prevent pregnancy but have no reliable birth control.

While involuntary pregnancy and motherhood are emotionally traumatic, they can also be deadly. Complications of pregnancy and unsafe abortion are the leading causes of death among women age 15 to 49 in nearly all countries of the Southern Hemisphere.

Relatively few women in most of the world have access to safe abortion services, even in cases of rape or incest. Laws in most of Africa and Latin America and in Muslim Asia prohibit abortion even to save the mother's life. In these societies, it is the rare woman who, facing unwanted pregnancy, has her family's support or can afford a trip abroad to obtain a safe abortion.

In that respect, the 14-year-old Irish girl is fortunate; still, as a prisoner of her government's policies, she may be no better off than the women in less-developed countries who routinely suffer state-coerced motherhood.

Jodi L. Jacobson is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington and author of "Women's Reproductive Health: The Silent Emergency."

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