Feminism(s) and the Politics of Reproduction, 2022/2009

Natalia Gerodetti and Véronique Mottier

This post is a re-introduction to the 2009 Feminist Theory special issue on Feminism(s) and the Politics of Reproduction

The much anticipated news of the US Supreme Court’s decision in late June 2022 to repudiate the constitutional protection of abortion rights could not have been worse for women’s reproductive rights in the US. In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court has not only created uncertainty, distress and cost to the one in four women who make the decision to end a pregnancy in the US; it has also taken away a personal liberty which had been a constitutional right since the Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973.

The ruling is unleashing legal efforts by an estimated half of US states to ban abortion in the near future, although they will do so against intense campaigning, not just in the US but across the Global North where crowds of people have taken to the streets to protest against the ruling and to call for the protection of women’s reproductive rights in solidarity with American women.

After the celebrations of 2019, when Ireland removed its strict abortion laws, the move in the US is worrying, not just for the potential distress and hardship this will inevitably create for women (and men) there, but also for the message of pushback it conveys to other governments inclined to consider the reversal of their citizens’ rights. Let’s be clear: the US Supreme Court is far from alone in its views on abortion, but the US have the capacity to attract more attention than other nations in the global media landscape.

Simplistic divisions of the world into developed or developing, authoritarian or democratic nations do not tell us much about reproductive rights. How many people know that Malta and Andorra, both European Union member states, also implement the strictest abortion laws which do not permit abortion under any circumstances, even when the woman’s life or health is at risk? Joined by the US, 25 countries now make up the list of the most restrictive places for women’s abortion rights. 42 other countries only allow abortion when the woman’s life is at risk, while a further 51 countries specify that abortion can be granted to preserve a woman’s health. Considering such generic legal specifications, it is important to be aware that “the preservation of a woman’s life” is vulnerable to varying interpretations, as even in those countries someone other than the woman herself is given the power to make a judgment about the risk to her physical or mental health; where abortion is permitted in cases of rape and incest, women and girls still have to deal with family and community reactions and potential social stigma.

Only 13 countries have laws that are generally interpreted liberally to permit abortion under a broad range of circumstances. These countries often take into account a woman’s actual or reasonably foreseeable environment and her social or economic circumstances in considering the potential impact of pregnancy and childbearing. Finally, 73 countries have laws which allow abortion upon request, albeit with varying gestational limits, ranging from up until 8 weeks of pregnancy (a timepoint when many women have not yet realised their pregnancy) to week 24. https://reproductiverights.org/maps/worlds-abortion-laws/

History and present practices show that childbirth, childcare and mothering are far from merely individual choices and practices; instead, they are deeply enmeshed in the interests of families, communities, and nation states. The rights of individual women are often weighed against the biopolitical interests of the state, while abortion has also been practiced against women’s will or with conditions attached for future (temporary or permanent) contraception, as case histories of eugenics or more recent coercive practices targeting minority groups show. While abortion struggles have been, for some, about the right to terminate pregnancies, others have fought against coercive reproductive interventions. 

Our special issue on ‘feminism(s) and the politics of reproduction’ published in 2009 includes articles concerning a series of topics and countries centrally related to these contentious debates over reproductive rights (although we regrettably ended up with an unintentionally narrow focus on the Global North at the time). Its contributors discussed debates over foetal personhood and the medicalisation of women’s reproductive bodies, the role played by ultrasound images in the anti-abortion rights campaigns, and the ways in which reproductive decision making came to be portrayed in popular culture as a form of cultural politics. They analysed the legal politics of abortion in a catholic European country and considered the legacy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, years before that book came to be rediscovered and reached a global audience through new global media channels. We had rather hoped that by 2022, our 2009 special issue of Feminist Theory would have been obsolete. It is somewhat depressing to note that the battles over reproductive rights within popular culture, legal culture and the socio-political spheres continue to require our analytical and political attention today.

This post is a re-introduction to the 2009 Feminist Theory special issue on Feminism(s) and the Politics of Reproduction

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