Police as partners in improving abortion access

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Women in Ghana

Police officers can be important allies in efforts to improve women’s access to safe abortion care. Ipas has worked with police in Ghana and other countries since 2009, and in the newly published manual, A Practical Guide for Partnering with Police to Improve Abortion Access, shares lessons and guidance based on that experience.

“Even in countries where abortion is legal, a woman’s ability to get an abortion may depend on the response of police,” says Patty Skuster, an Ipas senior policy advisor who co-authored the new guide. “Police may harass, bribe or arrest women who are seeking services—or they may arrest the health professionals providing the care.”

Research on the criminalization of abortion carried out by Ipas and partners has found, for example, cases such as these:

  • In Malawi, the in-laws of a woman who had experienced miscarriage reported to the police that she had an abortion. She was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison.
  • A 17-year-old Rwandan girl sought to end her pregnancy with pills. When she suffered complications, school officials reported her to the police. She was sentenced to one year in prison.
  • In Brazil, police raided a clinic and confiscated the private medical records of more than 9,600 female patients who had visited the clinic over a 20-year period—a massive violation of the providers’ duty to ensure confidential care.

Partnerships inspired by a case in Ghana

Ipas’s partnerships with police began in Ghana, after a case in which a policeman had gone to arrest a service provider because he thought abortion was illegal. As Dr. Koma S. Jehu-Appiah, director of Ipas Ghana, recalls, “An arrest would have scared all the service providers, so we saw this as an opportunity to train the police, for them to understand that, in certain circumstances, abortion is legal.”

Since then, Ipas has worked with police officers and recruits in Bolivia, Nigeria, Uganda and Zambia. Through pre-service and in-service training, police and cadets have gained a better understanding of women who seek abortion and the legal and human rights framework for abortion services. Police then identify their own role in promoting abortion access as a matter of health and human rights. Officers go on to educate communities about abortion, refer women to abortion providers, or even speak out on the need to reform laws.

In Zambia, Lombe Kamukoshi, the Central Province Commissioner of Police, recently spoke to the media about the important abortion issues police learned about in Ipas trainings. When police are more informed about the legal status of abortion, it will ultimately contribute to women seeking out safe, legal care, rather than clandestine, unsafe services, she said.

“As police officers, we have pursued [abortion providers] without understanding their role,” Kamukoshi said. “This has discouraged most of the doctors in helping out for fear of being arrested. This in turn has forced women to seek services in secretive places where their lives end up being lost—and this can be prevented.”

A step-by-step guide for trainers and others

Informed by the partnerships in Ghana, Zambia and in other countries, Ipas has published A Practical Guide for Partnering with Police to Improve Abortion Access to show how police can help rather than hinder women’s access to abortion care. It provides the “who, why and how” for advocates, trainers, project managers and others who want to involve police in their work.

Steps for beginning work with police are outlined in the guide, which also provides a sample two-day workshop program, with detailed activities and PowerPoint presentations. Also included is information on why police are important allies; who the police are, their structure and roles, along with trends in policing; lessons learned from the work of Ipas and advice from police themselves; and a comprehensive package of training materials.

Download the guide

Read more about Ipas’s work with police