This is Susan Pashkoff’s contribution to the meeting on behalf of the Left Unity women’s caucus
Back in January, it was the 41st anniversary of Roe vs Wade and Doe vs Bolton in the US. These flawed decisions attempted to “balance” a women’s right to choose with that of foetal viability. The Hyde Amendment (first passed in 1976) limited the use of federal funds for abortion provision; this primarily impacts upon poor women who are disproportionally women of colour. In the US, abortion is a negative right. It is legal, but, there are no guaranteed funds to access the right and free abortions are not generally provided except in states that provide Medicaid-funded abortions for women that can access them.
The fact that women are facing increasing attacks on their ability to access their reproductive rights is demonstrable proof that patriarchy is still extremely powerful and has no intention of giving up the fight to control women’s bodies.
In the US, women are fighting a defensive struggle against a patriarchal ideology of divide and rule which can bring religion, power, and money to maintain male hegemony in the societies in which we live. Men are not our enemies by any means; we have many male allies standing alongside us in this struggle. But we need to recognise that this ideological perspective still exists and is not going to go gently into that good night.
Abortion rights must be addressed in the context of the general struggle for women’s liberation containing both the oppression of race and gender and class exploitation. That is the struggle that affects the majority of women worldwide. This is not to say that everyone must address every issue in every struggle, but we must always keep the general picture in mind when we fight for specific issues.
Struggling for reproductive rights without recognising the general oppression of women means that that the issues that affect the majority of women remain unmentioned. Non-recognition of the different histories of women of colour due to colonialism and racism means again that the voices of all women will be ignored as the needs of wealthier white women do not necessarily coincide with the needs of women of colour and working class women.
Access to abortion remains a contentious issue and women all around the world are still struggling to get, or to maintain, this access. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega of the Sandinistas betrayed women by supporting an abortion ban in a deal to get the support of the Catholic Church for his election.
This week I got an email about 17 women in prison in El Salvador where abortion is illegal and criminalised. These women went to hospital after suffering either a spontaneous abortion or attempted induced abortion and the doctors (who are afraid of prison themselves) reported them to the police; some of them face jail terms of up to 40 years.
As is well-known, making abortion illegal does not stop women’s attempts to have one; it only leads to increased dangers for the women that are going to get one! The struggle for abortion rights is only part of a larger issue which relates to the ability of women to determine if, when, and how many children they want to have.
The issue is not only about abortion; rather it is about our reproductive rights in general and, essentially, our control over our bodies. This is an issue that remains a fundamental part of patriarchal control over women and relates to control over property and its inheritance and quite obviously to our roles in the societies in which we live.
Today’s event by the Left Unity women’s caucus and co-sponsored by “Abortion Rights” and “My Belly is Mine” is primarily addressing access to abortion. But, the issue should be correctly seen in the general context of women’s reproductive rights. Our bodies are required for gestation of the next generation; as such, control over our reproduction has been impacted by the perceived needs, ideologies, and prejudices of societies in which we live.
In most countries we are no longer property to be traded and sold, but, that does not mean that we have complete control over decisions that centrally affect us and our lives. Looking at the kidnapping of almost 300 girls in Nigeria a month ago has taught those that looked closely many things. The fact that the members of Boko Haram thought that this act was legitimate (and let me say that it is not consistent with Islam which does not justify the kidnapping and rape of women and girls) tells us how much we still have to fight in order to get women and girls recognised as equal members of the societies in which we live.
Access to education, health care, birth control (choices of various forms depending upon women’s perceived needs) and the means to determine whether when and how many children we want are fundamental issues for women around the world.
So reproductive rights not only relate to the decision when you do not want to have children; the flip-side of the coin is our ability to determine the number of children we do decide to have in the context of a society where your ability to have and raise children depends on your income, access to health care and/or access to a social welfare state that actually provides for childcare, education, housing and food.
These decisions are not determined by the individual, but rather by the society, the culture, and religious and political authorities. The fact that the slogan, “Not the Church, Not the State, women must decide their fate” is still all too relevant indicates that we still are not treated as equal subjects in the societies in which we live.
The realities of race and class have impacted upon access to reproductive rights substantially. For poor women and for women of colour, the issues are historically different. For example, in the US, the linkage between the birth control movement with the eugenics movement in the first wave of feminism led to forced sterilisation of women with disabilities (being “feeble” was one of the primary justifications for forced sterilisations), poor women and women of colour. On the other hand, wealthier white women were desperate to access voluntary sterilisation which required their husband’s approval to obtain. Sterilisation Abuse is a reality for women around the world even though it is of questionable legality in many places.
The issue of access to birth control is still contentious. Making birth control legal doesn’t ensure accessibility (money is needed for purchase, if not free) and the choice of what types of birth control are available is still problematic. This derives from the costs of the medications and birth control produced and provided under a system of profitability rather than need, your ability to see a doctor (some types require a doctor not only to prescribe but to place the contraceptive, e.g., IUDs, Norplant), the choice of short-term versus long-term acting birth controls and then, of course, social (e.g., men refusing to wear condoms) and religious (i.e., some religions allow only certain forms of birth control) constraints to choice.
Women need access to a wide range of birth controls appropriate to their needs and their individual access to health care. This depends on at what point they are in their lives (whether they are want to have children or not) and the ability to access information to understand differences between various methods. This will enable that their decision is a choice and not constrained by class and social or religious norms.
The issue of social reproduction (i.e., that women are still primary caretakers of children, the sick and infirm and the elderly in our societies) is an extremely relevant issue to any discussion of reproductive rights. Our choices whether we want children, how many and when we choose to have them are constrained by income, access to health care, education, and the power of the church and state over our lives and decisions.
Discussions of the role of women in our societies are not independent of race and class, they are not independent of our incomes and abilities to care for children, they are not independent of the perceived and real rights of women, and they are not independent of our reproductive choices.
Where are we?
I am not seeing the last gasp of patriarchy. I am seeing retrenchment. I feel like we are continually fighting the same battles repeatedly. Counter-demonstrations outside of a women’s health centre providing abortions in London while Catholics said “Hail Mary’s” and Evangelical Christians wave pictures of embryos pretending they are foetuses brings back bad memories. The fact that these people are getting assistance from American anti-abortion forces is seriously concerning. The wide-ranging legal restrictions to access our reproductive rights are at the root of my despair. It feels to me like we are fighting a rear-guard action against reactionaries far more powerful and wealthier than us.
In the past few years, we have seen blatant attempts to redefine rape in during a general election in the US and wide-spread attacks on our reproductive rights in so many countries. Not only happening in the US, it is happening here in Europe where we thought that at least this battle was won.
In the Spanish State, a bill has been introduced that will undermine an already weak guarantee of “free abortion” up to 14 weeks without justification and up to 22 weeks in the case of foetal malformation. The new bill reduces access to abortion to the cases of rape (requiring the rape is reported to the police and only in the first 12 weeks) and the life of the mother (up to 22 weeks).
We are here today in solidarity; but there are reasons to worry about more attacks on our reproductive rights.
In the British government there are anti-choice politicians (e.g., Jeremy Hunt) in positions of power and the prayers in front of abortion providers has started …
One of the most important things in guaranteeing access to birth control, health care and reproductive rights lies in the public nature of a health care system which everyone can access. That works very well if there is no, or limited, political interference in the health care system itself and decisions left up to a women and her doctor. However, political interference will leave us vulnerable as well; so it is a double-edged sword. The health care system cannot provide what the political system prohibits.
We need a women’s movement not under the control of the great and good, but one that hears and listens to the voices of all women, that struggles for all women, to eliminate whatever we can of patriarchy that exists in the context of capitalism. We can make reforms in capitalism. If we do not fight now for reforms, if we do not educate people now, the future promises of women’s liberation under socialism will be hollow. We are members of our societies with all its prejudices, all its ideologies; we must be working now to fight against these things or they will simply be reproduced in any future system we build.