Sexual and reproductive rights on the internet are under attack

Women take part in a pro-abortion rights demonstration to mark International Safe Abortion Day, in Madrid, Spain, September 28, 2021. REUTERS/Susana Vera

Women take part in a pro-abortion rights demonstration to mark International Safe Abortion Day, in Madrid, Spain, September 28, 2021. REUTERS/Susana Vera

Digital rights, the right to information, and sexual and reproductive rights are all linked, and are under attack around the world

Aintzane Márquez is a senior attorney at Women’s Link Worldwide.

In early 2020, Spain blocked the website of Women on Web, an organisation that provides information on sexual health and reproductive rights and access to safe abortion through online and email services. In a year, Women on Web provides on average 10,000 online reproductive health services and answers about 100,000 emails from people seeking information about abortions. The online services are available in about 200 countries in the Middle East, northern Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America.

The blocking of the website in Spain in the middle of the pandemic when more people were accessing online services, left many unable to attain information on how to access a safe abortion in Spain, especially poor, rural and migrant women who turned to Women on Web in search of information they could not find elsewhere.

On behalf of Women on Web, and with support from the Digital Freedom Fund, Women’s Link filed a lawsuit to defend people’s right to access vital information related to their health. In October, Spain’s Supreme Court recognised for the first time that information on the internet is constitutionally protected by the right to information, so the website cannot be blocked without judicial authorisation, and ordered that most of the website be unblocked.

The court’s decision set an important legal precedent for protecting information and freedom of expression on the internet globally and, especially, access to accurate, evidence-based information about abortion and sexual and reproductive health.

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Protecting accurate information about sexual and reproductive rights is crucial for reproductive autonomy. With accurate information that is easily accessible, women and gender-diverse people are better able to experience healthy sexuality, as well as access services to prevent unwanted pregnancy, and for prenatal healthcare, and safe abortion. Without information, it is more likely that they don’t know their rights or their options.

For many people, the internet has become the main - if not the only - source of sex education and information on how to access a safe abortion. Frequently, online information provided by trusted organisations helps to keep those in need of abortion from resorting to unsafe methods.

It is hoped that the win in Spain will help women and gender-diverse people to be better able to access reliable information and make decisions about their own bodies. The court’s decision created an important global precedent at a pivotal moment when misinformation about abortion is rampant, and organisations and activists who provide reliable information about sexual and reproductive rights are constantly under attack.

When websites or social media accounts with reliable information on abortion are blocked, anti-abortion groups fill the vacuum with misinformation, endangering the lives and health of many people.

Women’s Link plans to use this case law in other countries to protect access to information about abortion, especially where activists and organisations that help people access safe abortion are still restricted and persecuted.

Feminist alliances around the world are greatly improving access to abortion. Wins like this give us hope and strength as we to work with allies around the world to expand access to safe abortion by protecting the intersection between digital rights, the right to information, and sexual and reproductive rights.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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