Gayle Edmunds: Women’s most significant human right

The most significant human right a woman has is the right to choose to have an abortion.

This week Argentina’s human rights activists narrowly lost a vote on a piece of legislation that would allow abortion. Significantly for that country, the debate lasted 17 hours and was lost 38 to 31, with two abstentions. That’s close for such a religious country.

In May, Ireland voted in a landslide to allow abortion. As a woman in a country with a Constitution that protects human rights, it is a comfort to know this right is there.

Every time I think about a country where abortion is illegal, my blood runs cold. I would never live in a country like that.

I imagine what it must be like to be a 14-year-old girl unable to give consent for sex yet forced to give birth and provide for a child she didn’t want and who will now be a burden to her and, if she’s lucky, her family. I imagine what it is like not to have the choice to abort a defective foetus or have to carry a child that is the product of incest or rape. Or to be a woman who has as many children as she wants, or wants none at all.

In June, the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, urged families to accept children “as God gives them to us”. This is all very well for a guy who has no one with a womb in his management structure and will never be burdened with child rearing. It also assumes that all people think God is, in fact, there.

Statistics from multiple sources collated by UN Women show women are already faced with so many disadvantages that forcing them to have children they don’t want is an obvious place to start in shoring up their human rights.

Women are still paid less than men; in virtually every country men spend more time on leisure each day while women spend more time doing unpaid housework (and child care); and women are more likely to work in vulnerable, low-paid and undervalued jobs.

In 143 economies studied, 90% have at least one legal impediment restricting women’s economic opportunities; in 79 economies laws restrict the kind of jobs women can do; and in 15 economies husbands can object to their wives working and prevent them from accepting jobs.

Women have less access to formal financial institutions, yet research shows that if women have increased control of household income, their spending changes to benefit children, or more broadly, the next generation.

Nothing is more important than a woman’s right to choose. Nothing.