The struggle for reproductive rights is global

On the occasion of International Safe Abortion Day, women around the world reflect on the different obstacles to obtaining this fundamental right and autonomy over their bodies

September 28, 2021 by Women of the IPA*
Image: Midhun Puthupattu

Capitalism’s need for the reproduction and care of the labor force was institutionalized during the creation of the modern state, which legislated the biological determinism of women towards the home, motherhood and the private sphere of social reproduction. Since then, the women of the world have been organized, fighting for a concept of citizenship that does not exclude women, migrants, LGTBQ or racialized people. In this struggle, they have widened the path of democracy and brought forth revolutions, as well as broadening the theory and practice that transform the world.

This path has been one of twists and turns with blocks and resistance. In honor of September 28th, Global Day of Action for Free, Safe and Legal Abortion women from different regions of the world shared reflections on this crucial issue.

This international day of struggle, like many others, comes from the Global South. In 1990, the V Feminist Encounter of Latin America and the Caribbean was organized in Argentina and the invitation was extended to people across the world to work on a collective international agenda for the emancipation of women and gender diverse bodies, to fight against clandestine deaths, criminalization and poverty forcing many into unwillingly having children. Today, September 28th is a global day of action all around the world that puts in the center of the international debate the need for autonomy over ones’ bodies and access to the necessary care to act on one’s’ own choice.

Globally there is significant diversity with regards to access to sexual and reproductive rights. There are countries with legislation that permits abortion with a time limit law (up to 14, 22 weeks etc.), others with laws that permit the medical procedure in specific cases (the viability of the fetus, rape, or the risk to the life of the mother), other places where people who have or assist abortions are outright criminalized and can be imprisoned. One third of the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have a total ban on abortion. In El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, women face imprisonment even when abortions are spontaneous. The case of María Teresa Rivera, a Salvadoran women living in Sweden, the first known case of asylum linked to abortion rights, expresses an extreme situation of persecution and how women’s bodies are criminalized.

Despite all the differences, the reality behind it all is that abortion and reproductive justice are issues of class, that carry with them an enormous amount of social stigma, and remain at the center of the struggle against reactionary traditions, religious conservatism and the far right.

In many countries, the struggle for reproductive justice has been centered around the passing of a law which legalizes the medical procedure. However, activists across the world insist that the struggle is broader, “it is not only about an abortion law, there is a bigger picture: The impact of neoliberalism on women’s rights,” Nalu Farias from World Women’s March pointed out.

This struggle takes place at the same time that access to healthcare and public services is being eroded, programs for nurseries, employment and decent housing are attacked on a daily basis which directly affects the women that are tasked with ensuring the daily reproduction of family life. Barbara Tassoni of Potere al Pópolo, a left organization in Italy explained, “the law might grant public health care for all, yet the ongoing privatization of the health system makes the provision of basic care unaffordable. This situation conditions our realities as young women and keeps us from having a free and desired motherhood without precariousness.”

The struggle for autonomy

Every generation of women fights the state, lobbies for laws, struggles to introduce legislation ensuring women’s autonomy, aims to advance our rights. But throughout history, all these achievements are challenged in every capitalist crisis, like the one accelerated by the COVID pandemic, showing the fragility of our victories.

The internationally coordinated attack of the right wing, far-right, and religious groups which are expressly anti-choice have attacked and made vulnerable previously won rights. In many countries, they block the application of existing laws, cut or limit existing access to contraception and abortion, and impede sex education in schools. In many countries, right-wing discourse posits women as tools of demographic shifts, stoking fears of overpopulation of the unwanted minority This has influenced the agenda of the right wing, religious organizations and conservative parties in countries such as Poland. The separation between the state and religion is one of the key issues with which we can analyze women’s reproductive rights. In 1965, Tunisia became the first Muslim country to liberalize its abortion law.

Currently, Texas is on the epicenter of abortion politics with the SB8 law, that would ban all abortions after 6 weeks. In practice this means an almost complete ban on abortions as most people do not know they are pregnant until after the first six weeks. Layan Fuleihan of the People’s Forum of New York explained that “the legalization of abortion is based on the concept of privacy, dealing with women’s rights as an individual issue, so theoretically we have the private right to choose the outcome of our pregnancy.” In the US, the only legal basis that exists to substantiate access to abortion is the Roe v Wade sentence from 1973. “This is very problematic, because it allows an open interpretation by the different state governments, leading to widely varying access across the country depending on the ruling party,” Fuleihan outlined. For example, where the law is interpreted in a conservative manner and abortion is permitted only in very specific cases or not at all, organizations and clinics providing health services to marginalized communites and women are defunded or closed.

Even in places where laws exist to guarantee the right to choose, many seeking abortions are also confronted with gatekeepers such as local administrators or doctors. According to Ada Donno of the Women’s International Democratic Federation, in Italy “the possibility of refusing to practice an abortion is called ‘conscientious objection’ and in Italy it is used by 70% to 90% of gynecologists”. The situation is similar in the Spanish State where according to Nora García, “We don’t even have actual numbers of these doctors conscientious in the region of Madrid for example, which has been governed by the right wing for more than 25 years. What we do know is that out of 16,330 abortions that took place in 2019, zero were done in the public health system.” This shows that making effective our rights is a matter of political will, because supposedly Spain has one of the most advanced policies in Europe. In Germany, one’s decision to have an abortion must be authorized by a doctor after a mental examination.

Gatekeepers are not only religious gynecologists, regional governments, and psychologists, but can also be a King. In Morocco, King Mohamed VI himself is the arbiter of all rights or decisions regarding the women of the country. In many countries, “concerned citizens” and local “pro-life” associations, exert violence and pressure picketing in front of women’s health clinics against workers and patients with impunity, while at the same time receive public funding to act against the law.

When the term “teenage pregnancy” is applied to girls younger than 14 years old, then access to abortion is a struggle too late. The lack of sex-education, extreme power imbalance between genders (which makes the concept of consent moot), social stigma around women’s bodies in general and sexuality in particular; proves that the fight for our autonomy is the fight to make informed choices. This is very clear in the context in many countries across the African continent as Zikhona from Pan African Today explains “sex Education is very basic and fundamental knowledge needed by females of the working class. Also for all ages. We need to talk to teenagers about getting your period, to adult women about sexually transmitted diseases and also about menopause. Our body cannot be a mystery that we don’t talk about publicly. This should be a Government priority with concrete policies in all African countries.”

In Latin America, there was a clear right-wing and anti-rights response across the continent following the victories that consecrate safe abortions in Uruguay (2012), Chile (2017), Argentina (2020) and Mexico (2021). Laura Capote and Agostina Betes of ALBA Movements commented that “They are part of the strategies deployed in the territory to stop or uproot emancipatory proposals. In the Americas we experience on a daily basis situations such as that of the 10-year-old Brazilian girl, pregnant after being raped, whom the Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights of the Bolsonaro government tried to prevent in 2020 from accessing a legal abortion.”

This broad range of gatekeepers is just a symptom of the pervasive idea that women’s minds and bodies need to be controlled under a capital and neoliberal world order. That’s why women’s rights are so dangerous to the current global system.This is why many have joined together in this struggle, and every victory in every part of the World, like in Argentina last year, or Mexico this September, where the new abortion legislation includes that the “conscientious objection” cannot block our rights, or the 77% support on the abortion referendum in San Marino, Italy, has given more strength to this global struggle.

Beyond the clandestine system 

Not legislating abortion doesn’t prevent abortions to happen. For example, between 500 and 800 clandestine abortions are performed illegally every day in Morocco, with all the risks that this brings. The Argentinian slogan “Sex education to decide, Contraceptives not to abort and Legal abortion not to die” articulates three of the main claims of women around the world. However, a deeper analysis is needed to understand and therefore confront the roots of the attacks on the rights of women and gender diverse people. Femininst movements of the world must be part of the global alliance that fights to move the center of society away from the markets and towards reproduction of life from emancipation and freedom.

*This article was written jointly by women from all regions of the world who are part of the Women’s Group of the International Peoples’ Assembly (IPA).

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