As Monbiot notes, this stems directly from one of the primary aims of organized religion: the control of women, especially their fertility. The zealous pursuit of this goal leads to rejection of contraception and sex education, which in turn gives rise to more unwanted pregnancies -- hence more abortions. In fact, studies show that the country with perhaps the most "liberal" and "permissive" sexual policies -- the Netherlands-- has the lowest rate of abortion in the world. Monbiot:
A study published in the Lancet shows that between 1995 and 2003, the global rate of induced abortions fell from 35 per 1,000 women each year to 29. This period coincides with the rise of the "globalised secular culture" the Pope laments. When the figures are broken down, it becomes clear that, apart from the former Soviet Union, abortion is highest in conservative and religious societies. In largely secular western Europe, the average rate is 12 abortions per 1,000 women. In the more religious southern European countries, the average rate is 18. In the US, where church attendance is still higher, there are 23 abortions for every 1,000 women, the highest level in the rich world. In central and South America, where the Catholic church holds greatest sway, the rates are 25 and 33 respectively. In the very conservative societies of east Africa, it's 39...
I am not suggesting a sole causal relationship: the figures also reflect changing demographies. But it's clear that religious conviction does little to reduce abortion and plenty to increase it. The highest rates of all -- 44 per 1,000 -- occur in the former Soviet Union: under communism, contraceptives were almost impossible to obtain. But, thanks to better access to contraception, this is also where the decline is fastest: in 1995 the rate was twice as high. There has been a small rise in abortion in western Europe, attributed by the Guttmacher Institute in the US to "immigration of people with low levels of contraceptive awareness". The explanation, in other words, is consistent: more contraception means less abortion.
There is also a clear relationship between sex education and falling rates of unintended pregnancy. A report by the United Nations agency Unicef notes that in the Netherlands, which has the world's lowest abortion rate, a sharp reduction in unwanted teenage pregnancies was caused by "the combination of a relatively inclusive society with more open attitudes towards sex and sex education, including contraception". By contrast, in the US and UK, which have the developed world's highest teenage pregnancy rates, "contraceptive advice and services may be formally available, but in a 'closed' atmosphere of embarrassment and secrecy"....The more effectively religious leaders and conservative [media] anathemise contraception, sex education and premarital sex, the higher abortion rates will go.
Monbiot also points out that while these attitudes cause much suffering in rich nations, "it doesn't compare to the misery inflicted on the poor":
Chillingly, as the Lancet paper shows, there is no relationship between the legality and the incidence of abortion. Women with no access to contraceptives will try to terminate unwanted pregnancies. A World Health Organisation report shows that almost half the world's abortions are unauthorised and unsafe. In East Africa and Latin America, where religious conservatives ensure that terminations remain illegal, they account for almost all abortions. Methods include drinking turpentine or bleach, shoving sticks or coathangers into the uterus, and pummelling the abdomen, which often causes the uterus to burst, killing the patient. The WHO estimates that between 65,000 and 70,000 women die as a result of illegal abortions every year, while 5 million suffer severe complications. These effects, the organisation says, "are the visible consequences of restrictive legal codes".
Monbiot goes on to note something we have been condemning here and elsewhere for years: that the supposedly "pro-life" policies of George W. Bush and his ideological fellow travellers are directly responsible for killing thousands of the most vulnerable people on earth. As Monbiot says:
When the Pope tells bishops in Kenya -- the global centre of this crisis -- that they should defend traditional family values "at all costs" against agencies offering safe abortions, or when he travels to Brazil to denounce its contraceptive programme, he condemns women to death. When George Bush blocks aid for family planning charities that promote safe abortions, he ensures, paradoxically, that contraceptives are replaced with backstreet foeticide. These people spread misery, disease and death. And they call themselves pro-life.
I first wrote about this issue in 2003, after Bush had cut off funding to family planning services and health clinics all over the world to stoke the zeal of his religious base. Nothing much has changed. As I wrote then:
The defining issue of modernity is control of women's fertility. It is this question more than religion, politics, economics or the "clash of civilizations" that forms the deepest dividing line in the world today. It is a line than cuts through every nation, every people, from the highest level of organized society down to, in many cases, the divided minds and emotions of individual men and women.
Control of fertility and its active principle, sexuality has always been an organizing principle of human society, of course, but modernity has presented the world with a revolutionary concept that overthrows millennia of received wisdom and tradition: namely, that an individual woman should control her own fertility. This notion destabilizes state structures and religious dogmas, and uproots cultural mores whose origins reach back to prehistoric times. It is a profoundly disturbing development in the life of humankind.
Little wonder, then, that anxieties over fertility and sexuality are the chief engines driving the frenzied and increasingly violent fundamentalist movements now sweeping through the world. It is here that extremists of every stripe make common cause against modernity. Almost every other aspect of "the modern" science and technology, high finance, industrialization, etc. has been absorbed, in one form or another, by the most "traditionalist" societies. But what today's fundamentalists from Osama bin Laden to George W. Bush to Pope John Paul II, from the American-backed warlords of Afghanistan to the anti-American mullahs of Iran cannot accept, at any cost, is the freedom of a woman's body.
This frenzy, this primitive fear understandable perhaps in the face of such a wrenching upheaval does not in itself make a fundamentalist an evil person. But it can and does lead them into evil: sometimes blindly, in ignorance and panic; but sometimes knowingly, with eyes wide open, a willing embrace of primitive emotions to serve selfish and cynical ends.
And so: last month, George W. Bush quietly cut off funding for a highly praised AIDS program for refugees from Africa and Asia. Why? Obviously, to keep his helots on the Christian Right frothing with passion to do battle for him in 2004. He has already given them control of American social policy, particularly in international negotiations, where they routinely form alliances with Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and other repressive states to derail treaties on women's rights.
But what was his public reason? Bush says he gutted the program because one member of the non-profit consortium running the project is also working with a UN program that was falsely accused of colluding with China's policy of forced abortions. That charge was investigated not once but twice by Bush's own State Department, as well as by the UN, and was shown each time to be completely untrue. The only "evidence" produced to support the slander was an allegation that in a single office in a rural Chinese province a few years ago, the desk of a UN official touched the desk of a Chinese Health Ministry official. That's it. The truth, of course, is that the UN program, and all the non-profit organizations associated with it, are trying to end China's forced abortions.
Of course, this heinous practice that has never stopped Bush from granting massive trade benefits to the "baby-killing Communists." Nor has it ever disturbed the orgy of investment in China's repressive regime by the corporate barons of the U.S.-China Chamber of Commerce, headed by that genial old aristocrat, Prescott Bush Junior known as "Uncle Prescott" to the current president. Naturally, any punishment for China's forced abortions must not fall on the Beijing government itself not when Uncle Press has choice deals on the line. No, instead it must land like a ravening MOAB on the poorest of the poor, in Angola, Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, Eritrea, and other poverty-stricken areas where the Bush family has no investments.
Not content with slapping AIDS-stricken refugees around, Bush has also cut off all U.S. funding to countless family planning services in the poorest regions of the world. This ban applies to any clinic that so much as mentions abortion as an option to its clients, even if it doesn't provide abortions or referrals itself and even if the woman has been raped (perhaps by the goons of a Bush-backed warlord), even if she will die in childbirth. A clinic will also be cut off if its workers take part in lobbying campaigns to secure legal abortion in their countries. Such rights, hard-won by Western women, are to be denied to the world's poor. (Meanwhile, Bush's helots are scheming to roll them back in America as well.)
Many of these clinics provide the only maternal and post-natal care available for millions of destitute women and their children. They are the only place where the world's most downtrodden and uneducated women can receive information about reproduction and birth control, or treatment for AIDs, genital mutilation and rape. All across Africa and Asia, these clinics including many run by Bush's beloved "faith-based organizations" are closing up as they lose their American funding. Yet this funding itself is a mere pittance from the war-fattened federal purse less than one day's spending on Bush's rape of Iraq.
It is simply a fact that thousands of women and infant children will die needless deaths in the coming years because of Bush's edicts. He could have saved them; instead he has killed them. He has chosen to stand with terrorists and tyrants in the fundamentalists' war against women.
This column is republished here with the permission of the author.
Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.
Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.
This story was published on February 26, 2008.