By Todd Cohen
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In 1973, the U.S. Senate approved an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act that was sponsored by the late Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and barred the use of U.S. foreign aid to support abortion services abroad, even in countries in which abortion was legal.
Passage of the Helms amendment ended support by the U.S. Agency for International Development to develop a technology known as “manual vacuum aspiration,” or MVA, a hand-held instrument designed for simple and safe use in uterine evacuation.
So a group of researchers and others associated with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill created International Pregnancy Advisory Services, a nonprofit now known as Ipas, to raise private funds to complete development of the technology and distribute it.
Ipas, with a startup staff of about five people, began manufacturing the instrument at a plant in Carrboro, and in its early years distributed about 25,000 devices a year, while also funding free-standing abortion and family planning clinics in 11 countries, mainly in Latin America and Asia.
This year, as it celebrates its 40th anniversary, Ipas operates with an annual budget of $60 million, mostly from U.S. foundations and six European governments, and a staff of over 370 people, including 142 at its headquarters in Chapel Hill and the remainder at offices in 14 countries, mainly in Africa and Asia plus a few in Latin America.
And while it continues to support the manufacture and distribution of the MVA instrument, including 200,000 in 2012, Ipas provides a broad range of programs, support and advocacy in the area of women’s health.
“Our unique mission is to reduce maternal deaths and injuries due to unsafe abortions, and to increase women’s ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights, with a special focus on the right to safe abortion,” says Liz Maguire, president and CEO of Ipas.
Despite significant progress over the past 40 years, accomplishing that mission faces big obstacles, including continuing stigma about and growing restrictions on abortions in the U.S. and some other countries, says Maguire, who previously served as director of the Office of Population and Reproductive Health for USAID in Washington, D.C.
Every year, over 21 million women throughout the world undergo an unsafe abortion because they lack access to safe care, Maguire says, while 47,000 women a year die from unsafe abortions and over 5 million women a year are injured so seriously from unsafe abortions that they require hospitalization, with over 91 percent of those deaths and injuries occurring in Africa and South Central Asia.
“The women who suffer the most tend to be the most disadvantaged, including women who are poor, or live in rural areas and lack access to services, or young women who may lack information about services, Maguire says.
“There should be no unsafe abortions,” she says. “It’s a simple, safe procedure when done by a trained provider under good conditions.”
Ipas trains and equips health care providers, and provides assistance to health care systems. It works to ensure ready access to medical equipment and drugs needed for safe abortion care, and to make sure women have community-based access to information and care.
It also works with local partners and supports local efforts to ease restrictive laws and policies. It conducts research and evaluation to support changes in programs and policies. And it works with local and regional partners, and has a special focus on the needs of women under age 25.
Despite progress and in the face of severe restrictions that continue to affect millions of women, Maguire says, Ipas is working as part of a global movement to “ensure that abortion is legal and safe and accessible and affordable for all women, not just women who have the means to access safe care.”
Ipas also is working to eliminate the stigma around abortion, to end gender inequality and sexual violence, and to push for continuing policy reform.
“Women have the right to safe abortions, to determine their reproductive futures, but in too many cases women can’t exercise fully their rights,” Maguire says. “No women should have to suffer or die because of an unwanted pregnancy and an unsafe abortion.”