Despite the claim that we live in an age of "personal choice", the right of women to choose an abortion is under attack. Sinead Kennedy gets to the heart of this apparent contradiction.
One of the important political achievements of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s was winning people to the idea of abortion as an essential choice for women. In the past four decades women’s lives have been transformed so dramatically through the legalisation of abortion that, as US author and activist Katha Pollitt notes, we are in danger of forgetting how things used to be:
“Legalising abortion didn’t just save women from death and injury and fear of arrest; it didn’t just make it possible for women to commit to education and work and free them from shotgun marriages and too many kids. It changed how women saw themselves, as mothers by choice not by fate.”
Yet today this fundamental right is under attack, often in countries where the political battle to secure abortion rights was assumed to have been won. In the United States between 2011 and 2014 over 30 states have enacted more than 200 abortion restrictions — more than the total number enacted in the entire previous decade. In Texas, for example, this has resulted in the closure of 28 of the state’s 36 abortion clinics. Last year in Spain the conservative People’s Party attempted to introduce legislation to make abortion illegal except in cases of rape or when there is a risk to the health of the pregnant woman. The move was only defeated following a huge wave of protests across the country. In Mexico, where abortion was only legalised in 2007, a series of laws have been introduced to criminalise access to abortion, resulting in women who suffered miscarriages being sentenced to more than 20 years in prison on the suspicion of having self-
induced an abortion.
Today approximately a quarter of the world’s population lives in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws, mostly in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Five countries in the world do not permit abortion under any circumstances — El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Chile and Malta. Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic previously allowed abortion when a woman’s life was at risk. Thirty three countries allow abortion only when a woman’s life is at risk.
Not only are women prevented from accessing abortion, but they are increasingly criminalised if they do so. In 2013 Ireland introduced new abortion legislation that included a 14-year jail sentence for any woman or doctor who procures an abortion. In the US 38 states have introduced foetal homicide laws. These laws were supposed to protect pregnant women from violent attacks — often by abusive male partners — but are increasingly being used by the state against women themselves. In South Carolina, for example, only one man was charged with assaulting a pregnant woman (and his conviction was later overturned), while up to 300 women have been arrested for their actions (drinking, drug-taking, driving without a seat-belt) during pregnancy.
However, making abortion illegal does not reduce the number of abortions; it simply reduces the safety of abortion. According to the World Health Organisation 20 million of the 42 million abortions performed every year are illegal and unsafe. In every country where abortion is illegal the result is the same: it is young, rural and working class women who bear the most suffering from illegal abortions. These women are often already mothers, struggling to support the children they already have. When women do not have safe access to abortion, they still seek abortion but they are forced to try to abort using sharp instruments or unsafe chemicals, or they seek help from people with no medical training. As a result, a woman dies of an unsafe abortion every ten minutes (about 47,000 women every year).
Most anthropologists agree that abortion can be described as a near-universal phenomenon that is found in virtually every society with evidence dating back 4,000 years. For as long as men and women have been having sex, women have become pregnant and have sought to end these pregnancies regardless of whether abortion was legal or illegal. While surgical abortions were rare until the end of the 19th century, evidence of pharmaceutically-induced abortions as commonplace can be found from ancient Egyptian and Babylonian societies to medieval Catholic Europe, from modern urban societies to remote rural communities untouched by modern ideas on women’s rights.
The earliest known medical textbook, Ebers Papyrus (ca 1550 BCE), an Egyptian medical text composed from records dating back to the third millennium BCE, contains detailed instructions on how to induce a miscarriage. Indeed until the early 19th century there were few legal prohibitions against abortion, and midwives in a variety of locations and cultures, including Europe and North America, provided abortions and trained other women in the practice.
Over the course of the 19th century abortion gradually became criminalised often ostensibly under the guise of “protecting” women. As many historians argue, far from protecting women, anti-abortion legislation was part of an anti-woman backlash to the growing movements for suffrage, voluntary motherhood, and other struggles for women’s rights that emerged over the course of the 19th century.
Controlling access to abortion made it easier to restrict women to their traditional child-bearing role.
Surprisingly, regardless of the safety or legality of abortion, the average annual rate at which women have abortions is similar around the world. The worldwide rate in 2003, the most recent year for which estimates are available, was 29 abortions for every 1,000 women aged 15 to 44; it was 29 per 1,000 in the Global South and 26 per 1,000 in the Global North. The fact that the abortion rate in the Global South, where the procedure is legally restricted in many countries, is quite similar to that in the West where abortion is largely permitted on broad grounds in almost all countries, confirms the lack of an inherent relationship between the prevalence of abortion and its legal status. In other words, restricting abortion does not guarantee a low abortion rate, nor does permitting it on broad grounds guarantee a high rate. What legal status does do is affect the safety of abortion.
The notion of choice was central to securing women’s reproductive rights during the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s with “A Woman’s Right to Choose” being one of the movement’s most effective slogans. The ability to control one’s fertility, to decide if and when to have a child, was understood to be fundamental to what it is to be an autonomous human being. More than that, the influence of the left on the broader women’s movement meant that the right to have an abortion was more than just an individual choice; it was part of a wider struggle for social transformation.
Women must have the right to choose an abortion but also the right to be able to choose motherhood as a viable option. To do this meant focusing on the social and economic conditions that constrained women, from poverty and housing to domestic violence and discrimination in the workplace.
During the 1980s and 1990s as the women’s movement moved away from social activism and focused instead on lobbying and seeking alliances with the state, abortion and motherhood became re-conceived as the private choice of each individual woman, not a public issue. Today women are encouraged to lay claim to their reproductive choices as consumers, not citizens. Under neoliberal capitalism “choice” is routinely presented as an ideal that is supposed to reveal the ways in which individual effort is essential to determining a person’s opportunities. Neoliberalism places great value on individualism, personal responsibility and economic productivity, and so in many ways women are the perfect neoliberal subjects; encouraged on an almost daily basis to be self-disciplining, self-regulating and self-improving.
Indeed writers such as Angela McRobbie and Nancy Fraser have argued that neoliberalism has enthusiastically incorporated a particular version of feminism into political and institutional life. As McRobbie writes in The Aftermath of Feminism (2010): “Drawing on a vocabulary that includes words like ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice’ these elements are then converted into a much more individualistic discourse and they are deployed in this new guise, particularly in media and popular culture, but also by agencies of the state.”
She goes on to argue that under neoliberalism a “new sexual contract” has emerged which promotes a degree of sexual freedom for young women so long as they fulfil the roles of economic citizenship by working and consuming. The question that is rarely asked is, what happens to those women (poor and working class women, migrant women) who are unable to exercise their choice as free market agents?
Young women are encouraged to delay motherhood until they have attained an education, career and some sexual experience. Teenage pregnancy is seen as a potential welfare burden with young sexually active women identified as being in danger of long-term economic disadvantage by choosing motherhood. They are constructed as irresponsible for choosing to have a child without, ideally a husband, or at the very least a partner who can support them economically. In the United States, for example, the attacks on abortion rights and the closure of abortion clinics in states such as Texas have disproportionately affected poor migrant and working class women who cannot afford an abortion or who cannot travel, sometimes thousands of miles across state borders, to access abortion.
Yet when these women seek assistance from the state they are demonised as welfare queens and food stamp fraudsters. Following Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms in the mid-1990s women are not entitled to any increase in benefits if they have a baby that was conceived when they were on welfare.
By this logic you could assume that a young woman who chooses an abortion would be rewarded. You would be wrong. When it comes to abortion women who act as the entrepreneurial subjects that neoliberalism demands and decide not to become mothers at this point in their lives are dismissed as either frivolous or selfish or both.
To understand this apparent contradiction we need to consider the centrality of women’s unpaid labour to capitalism. The United Nations estimates that women’s unpaid labour is worth more than $3 trillion annually to capitalism globally. Women’s unpaid labour is so essential that capitalism simply cannot function without it. All of the essential social functions of our society are privatised within the family, from the raising of children and care of the elderly to the basic day to day care that allows us to go to work. It doesn’t matter that fewer and fewer families conform to the traditional idea of the nuclear family; our society continues to be structured on that basis. Within our society the bulk of this unpaid care work is done by women who are understood to be “naturally” more maternal, self-sacrificing, selfless and dependent.
Allowing a woman to fully be her own self, to control her own body and her reproductive choices, is a deep challenge to these views about women — and abortion challenges the social meaning of womanhood and, indeed, motherhood. Therefore any movement for abortion rights needs to frame the question within the larger context of the fight for a better world. As well as the right to decide if and when to have a child we must ask, what do women need to be mothers? This forces us to look beyond just the question of abortion access. It requires us to address poverty and racism as well as the rights of migrants and prisoners. More fundamentally it forces us to ask what type of world we want to live in, to raise our children in, and crucially, how we can achieve this.
Sinead Kennedy is co-editor of a forthcoming book, The Abortion Papers. She is an abortion rights activist with Action For Choice (Ireland).