The World Health Organization (WHO) has been under fire due to a controversial statement made in the first draft of its 2022-2030 Global Alcohol Action Plan. In the plan, which has been called “medieval”, WHO suggests that there should be a “prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing-age.” It is the latter half of this statement that has caused the stir. Since the ‘childbearing age’ for women and people with female reproductive organs spans from the ages of 18 to 50, it’s obvious why the organisation was slammed for its ignorant and patriarchal rhetoric. The story of our lives, isn’t it?
Before I continue with how obviously problematic this is, there must be a clarification made on behalf of WHO. In spite of some of the incendiary headlines you may have seen, the Global Alcohol Action Plan does not call for a ban on drinking for women in this age bracket. In a statement, WHO explains, “The current draft of WHO’s global action plan does not recommend abstinence of all women who are of an age at which they could become pregnant. However, it does seek to raise awareness of the serious consequences that can result from drinking alcohol while pregnant, even when the pregnancy is not yet known.”
Despite this, it’s still pretty bad. Okay, it’s really bad. Most people are aware of the dangers of alcohol and introducing measures to improve people’s health isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We could all try to be healthier, right? However, where a woman’s health is concerned, it’s never really about her, but about the hypothetical non-existent child she may have in the future. Chief Executive of abortion rights charity British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Clare Murphy, released an official commentary on the action plan, “By treating all women—for 40 years of their lives—as little more than vessels, the WHO reduces women to little more than their reproductive capabilities.” Murphy continued on Twitter, writing, “We absolutely have to stand up to an agenda which increasingly treats every woman as ‘pre-pregnant’.”
This controversial statement from WHO, for many, continues to fuel the anti-abortion fire that has been spreading these past few years. With the US Supreme Court passing an anti-abortion decision and Poland passing a near-total ban on abortion in the first months of 2021 alone. But what if WHO is just actually concerned with the health of the future generation? Is it really about controlling women’s bodies? Yes, it is. Let me show you another reason why.
Ironically, WHO’s suggestion sits alongside its own statistics that showcase how alcohol misuse is much more prevalent in men than it is in women. Its statistical findings illustrate that around 700,000 women died globally of alcohol misuse in 2016. When comparing this to men, the number is over three times higher—2.3 million. It also removes men from accountability in childbearing. There have been numerous scientific studies that show the adverse effect alcohol consumption can have on sperm count. In one 2014 study, Professor Tina Kold Jensen of the University of Southern Denmark concluded “that even modest habitual alcohol consumption […] has adverse effects on semen quality.” They found that “alcohol consumption was also linked to changes in testosterone” in general.
If WHO really cared about the health of make-believe babies, then surely there would be fertility advice for men? No. Nothing. It’s almost laughable when you think of the real dangers women face in the environment of alcohol. The Institute of Alcohol Studies highlights “the strong relationship between alcohol and domestic abuse, violence and sexual assault. While alcohol should not be used as an excuse for those who perpetrate violence and abuse, neither should its influence be ignored.”
So maybe, just maybe, we can focus on the lives of actual real, alive women instead of human beings that don’t even exist yet. And hello? What if we don’t even want them to begin with. I don’t. I’m popping open a bottle right now.
Last week, the Polish government enforced a new controversial near-total ban on abortion, which has taken effect from midnight on Wednesday 27 January 2021. This announcement came after a court ruling allowing the prohibition prompted huge protests when it was issued in October 2020. What does this new ban mean for Polish citizens seeking abortion and how will it deprive women of sexual and personal independence?
The October ruling by the Constitutional Court found that a 1993 law allowing abortion in cases of severe and irreversible foetal abnormalities was unconstitutional. According to data from the Polish Ministry of Health, in 2019, 98 per cent of abortions were carried out on those grounds, meaning that the ruling effectively banned the vast majority of pregnancy terminations in Poland.
Understandably, the ruling provoked outrage from supporters of the right to abortion, which prompted the largest protests in the country since the fall of communism. More than 100,000 people gathered in the streets of Warsaw on Friday 30 October 2020.
The tribunal’s decision, which was in response to a challenge from a group of rightwing MPs, has focused anger on the Law and Justice (PiS) party. PiS has ruled Poland since 2015 and has been accused of eroding democratic norms during its time in power by packing the constitutional tribunal with its supporters among other things.
During the nationwide protests, far-right groups attacked protesters, and government figures appeared to stoke the tensions. The PiS leader and deputy prime minister, Jarosław Kaczyński, told people they should “defend churches” from the protesters after some were defaced. Senior figures in the country’s powerful Catholic church spoke out in favour of the constitutional ruling.
However, as a result of the protests, Poland’s rightwing government decided to delay implementation of the controversial court ruling and stated that it was ‘open to dialogue’—until now. From Wednesday 27 January 2021, the ban has taken effect. Abortion is now allowed only in cases of rape, incest or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother.
The court justified its ruling on the grounds that “an unborn child is a human being” and therefore it deserves protection under Poland’s constitution which ensures the right to life. Following the announcement that the ruling would now be enforced, groups defied coronavirus restrictions (again) to protest in Warsaw.
Waving red flares and LGBT flags, some carried placards reading ‘Free Choice, Not Terror’, ‘Abortion without borders’, ‘Abortion is my right’ or ‘You will not burn these witches’. Unsurprisingly, the majority of Poles oppose a stricter ban and activists have called for more street protests in the capital.
“I want us to have our basic rights, the right to decide about our bodies, the right to decide what we want to do and if we want to bear children and in what circumstances to have children,” one protester, Gabriela Stepniak, told Reuters news agency.
Leaders of the nationwide Women’s Strike movement that opposed the ban wore green headscarves in a nod to Argentina’s women’s movement that successfully campaigned to legalise abortion. Banners bearing the lightning bolt emblem of the Women’s Strike movement fluttered overhead, along with the red and white of the Polish flag.
Warsaw’s mayor Rafał Trzaskowski tweeted his opposition to the move, calling on women to reject the decision on the streets.
On the other side, groups who support the ban say it is about the human rights of the child. “We are very happy that this judgement has been published. It is a great step towards the realisation of human rights of all human beings,” Karolina Pawlowska from the Ordo Iuris international law centre told the BBC.
“This also means there will no longer be discrimination against children who are sick or disabled,” she said, adding that the court’s ruling was in line with the Polish constitution and UN treaties on the rights of the child.
It is known that Poland has some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws, and around 1,000 legal terminations are performed each year. An estimated 200,000 women have abortions illegally or travel abroad for the procedure.
During last week’s protests, police were deployed in significant numbers in central Warsaw. Loudspeakers on police cars broadcast the message that the gathering was illegal and called for those gathered to disperse. Video of the protest showed what appeared to be tear gas being used.
But the crowds of demonstrators remained defiant as they walked toward the official residence of PiS chief Jarosław Kaczyński in the city’s northern Żoliborz district. The protesters took detours down back streets to avoid police blockades but a large police presence prevented them from getting close to the residence and the protest eventually broke up after midnight.
This near-total ban on abortion is seen by the law’s critics as the latest attack on social freedoms by a right-wing government that openly disdains Western liberal values, uses homophobic rhetoric and has eroded protections for the LGBTQ community.
The current dispute over women’s reproductive rights has once again laid bare the cultural, moral and political divisions that run deep through Polish society. However, for now, it remains unclear whether the latest protests will persuade the government to pursue a different course.