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The war on women will continue in 2023… and we will continue to fight back

As the battle for rights continues in Iran, Afghanistan and the USA, new fronts are opening up in Europe

Abortion rights activists at the Monroe County Courthouse in Bloomington, Indiana (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Women are getting angrier. As 2023 approached, that was one of the messages from an annual worldwide Gallup poll which noted that levels of female anger have been rising over the past decade. And when you look at the 46% of those surveyed in the US who feel it is now harder to access medically safe abortion than it was 10 years ago, it is easy to appreciate why.

January 22, 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1973 landmark Roe v Wade decision that recognised the legal right to abortion in the US. It is now a hollow commemoration after the Supreme Court’s decision last June to reverse the verdict and give the final say back to individual states. Roughly half now have individual restrictions in place, and 11 have more or less banned abortion altogether.

The Biden administration continues to look for ways to push back all this, including protection for women who travel out of their state for a termination, protection for organisations that send abortion pills through the mail and a mandate that says even abortion-banning states must provide one if the mother’s life is in danger. But even in the face of surprise Republican defeats in the midterms – partly a payback by women voters angry over the fate of Roe v Wade – the so-called ‘pro-lifers’ are digging in.

One look at the news tells you that the crackdown on choice and women’s rights are not confined to America.

In Afghanistan, the “new” Taliban continue to look more and more like the old Taliban. They ended the year by banning women from working in non-governmental organisations, having already suspended secondary schooling for girls and university education for women. The impact on individuals is devastating, and there are significant consequences for the country’s prosperity too. According to estimates by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), excluding Afghan women from the workplace will cost the economy up to $1 billion – 5 per cent of GDP. Since the Taliban takeover, the country’s economy has shrunk significantly. 

In 2023 and 2024, the UNDP’s ABADEI programme will aim to improve the financial security of vulnerable groups, such as women, and hopes to enter the new year having reached 50,000 women-owned businesses through its emergency initiative. Nonetheless, the report paints a bleak picture of the future. 

For women in neighbouring Iran, the stakes are equally high. January 16 will mark five months since the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after being arrested by the nation’s morality police as her hijab did not correctly cover every strand of her hair. Since then, protests have gripped both Iran and the world. 

At the start of December, it seemed that there may be cause for quiet optimism when Iran’s attorney general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri announced the abolition of the morality police. Yet executions, death penalty verdicts, detentions and torture continue. Among those arrested include actress Taraneh Alidoosti, star of The Salesman, which won the best foreign-language film Oscar in 2017, apparently over social media messages in support of the protests. None of this indicates that the country’s four-decade-long experiment with theocracy is on its way out in the next 12 months. 

In Europe, staunchly Catholic Malta is the only country in the European Union with a total ban, including in cases of rape and incest. Women who terminate their pregnancy can currently receive up to four years in jail and doctors who perform one could receive a sentence of the same length (although no doctor has yet been charged). But, the Maltese parliament is discussing an amendment to ease the ban in cases where the life and/or health of the mother is at risk and the foetus is too young to be delivered. 

Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, an activist from Voice for Choice, the first Maltese pro-choice coalition campaigning for reproductive rights, hopes this will pass without interference by anti-abortion lawmakers. “These changes that the Government is trying to make will only decriminalise abortion in cases of threat of life and the grievous threat of health for women,” he tells The New European. In his view, the alterations are “the bare minimum.”

The case of Andrea Prudente was a catalyst for the proposed change. Prudente is an American tourist who, while in Malta, was refused a request in June to terminate a non-viable pregnancy after she began to bleed. Her case is yet to go to trial but as 2023 approaches she may successfully be influencing Maltese law from 6,000 miles away. The Prudente case brought “negative exposure to Malta and the Maltese government,” explains Dimitrijevic, who has been protesting for years against the law and the damage it causes. If the seemingly inevitable change (albeit minor) comes in 2023, he feels it’s a shame it will have been prompted by bad press, rather than out of a genuine concern for women and girls.

In the same parliamentary session, Chris Fearne, Malta’s health minister, pledged that the government would begin a free contraception rollout if it wins re-election in March. But contraception remains a politically and socially sensitive issue in Malta. The morning-after pill was only introduced in 2016 and remains difficult to procure – current estimates suggest that only 70 per cent of pharmacies stock the medication. While the government’s promises on contraception are welcome, there have been scant details on the process, or on which forms of contraception will be included in the scheme. “We will keep reminding the Government about it until it happens,” says Dimitrijevic. 

Poland, which has its own set of strict abortion laws, also enters 2023 under pressure for change. As of January 2021, following the constitutional court’s ruling in October 2020, women can only legally terminate a pregnancy up to 12 weeks, and do so in cases of rape, incest, or where the mother’s life is at risk. Now, activists are calling for change and for the European Union to take a tougher stance on Poland’s law. 

Most recently the push has been coming from Barbara Skrobol. Her sister-in-law, Izabela Sajbor, died from sepsis in September 2021 after doctors had discovered severe foetal defects, but refused to terminate her pregnancy. During her admission, her family were refused visitation and the doctors waited for the heartbeat to stop before treating Izabela – by which time it was too late. Skrobol and other pro-choice politicians and activists, want to see the right to abortion as part of the EU’s overall strategy for healthcare and reproductive rights. 

The first trial of a pro-abortion activist in Europe will also continue into 2023. This is the case of Justyna Wydrzyńska, co-founder of Abortion Dream Team, who in March 2020 helped a woman in an abusive relationship, who wanted a termination – Wydrzyńska supplied her with abortion pills. This was reported to the police by the woman’s partner and now, despite her since suffering a miscarriage due to stress, Wydrzyńska faces the threat of up to three years in jail. 

Case witnesses failed to attend the first three hearings that were scheduled (and rescheduled) for April, July and October this year. Now, Wydrzyńska’s next court date is 11 January and in the meantime, she is in limbo. Polish elections are due to take place in May and many activists hope Wydrzyńska’s case and the reaction to it will prompt a change in parliament’s electoral make-up.

Will Poland and Malta provide welcome respite from the war on women? The odds look stacked against us – but then they said that about Ukraine.

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