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Breaking barriers: Universal health coverage and the right to safe abortion

12 Dec 2023

Memory Pamella Kadau, a SRHR Champion on the RCOG’s Making Abortion Safe Programme in Zimbabwe, discusses the right to safe abortion this Universal Health Coverage Day.  

As Zimbabwe joins the rest of the world to commemorate Universal Health Coverage Day on December 12, 2023, under the theme "Health for All: Time for Action," it's a moment to reflect on the fundamental right to health and well-being. This year’s call to action urges leaders to enact policies ensuring equitable access to essential health services without financial hardship; a plea for a health system that recognises health as a right for all, not a privilege for a few. For Zimbabwe, this is an invitation to leaders to take action to ensure access to safe abortion and post-abortion care services.

Foundation of universal health coverage

Universal health coverage envisions a world where everyone can access health services without financial hardship. It's a commitment to leaving no one behind, acknowledging health as a cornerstone of human development and dignity. However, for universal health coverage to be truly universal, it must include a comprehensive range of services, including ones that are often marginalised or omitted, such as safe and quality abortion and post-abortion care services. This is particularly important for Zimbabwe, where a significant number of abortions are happening in unsafe backyard facilities.

Right to safe abortion

Access to safe abortion is undeniably intertwined with the broader concept of health for all. It is not merely a medical procedure; it is a fundamental right, one that is often stigmatised and restricted, disproportionately affecting marginalised communities and the most vulnerable. Denying this right places an undue burden on women, pushing them into the shadows of unsafe procedures with severe health consequences, including death. Therefore, including safe abortion within the realm of Universal Health Coverage is crucial for several reasons.

First, it acknowledges individuals' diverse and complex health needs, affirming that reproductive health is integral to overall well-being. Second, it dismantles the barriers that prevent women from seeking safe abortion services due to stigma, legal restrictions, or financial constraints. Universal Health Coverage ensures that every person, regardless of their socioeconomic status, can access the care they need.

Addressing the Stigma Surrounding Abortion

One of the critical challenges to achieving universal health coverage is the persistent stigma associated with abortion. Cultivating a culture of understanding and empathy is essential to combatting stigma. By recognising safe abortion as a vital health service, we challenge societal norms that perpetuate discrimination and exclusion. Universal health coverage encompasses not only the right to safe abortion but also post-abortion care. This ensures that individuals receive the necessary support and follow-up care, addressing physical and emotional well-being. By integrating post-abortion care into Universal Health Coverage, we emphasise a holistic approach to health that goes beyond single interventions.

Urging Leaders to Act

On this Universal Health Coverage Day, reproductive justice activists must unite and urge leaders to take meaningful action. It is a call to prioritise policies that guarantee equitable access to essential health services, including safe abortion and post-abortion care. Leaders at national and subnational levels must recognise that achieving health for all requires dismantling the barriers denying individuals the right to make informed decisions about their bodies.

Furthermore, in pursuing universal health coverage, we must confront the harsh realities of inequality. The denial of access to safe abortion disproportionately affects those already marginalised. Proper health for all demands a commitment to dismantling systemic inequalities and ensuring that everyone, regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, or geography, can exercise their right to comprehensive health care.

In conclusion, as we champion the cause of universal health coverage, let us not forget that health is an assortment of diverse needs. Including safe abortion and post-abortion care within the framework of universal health coverage is not just a step toward progress; it is a giant leap toward affirming health as a fundamental human right. Together, let us advocate for a world where everyone, without exception, can access the health care they need and deserve regardless of class, race, and geographic location.

Find out more about the Making Abortion Safe programme here.

  • Clinical and research
  • Policy and governance
  • Abortion