The best law about abortion is no law. There should be no law regulating what women do or don’t do with their bodies when pregnant. A woman’s body should be hers alone to govern.
Yet, throughout history, the state, the church, the monarchy, medical science, you name it, have relentlessly controlled the female reproductive system with their patriarchal laws.
Abortion has been especially instrumentalised to this measure. The recent overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court has once again sparked heated debates about what should not be the state’s business – whether, why and how women can have an abortion.
Although these debates have a contemporary edge to them, the contentions surrounding abortion date at least as far back as to 200AD when the Romans first forbade abortion in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Until then, abortion had been accepted, and Aristotle even encouraged abortion “when couples have children in excess” as he wrote in Politics. But the Romans argued instead that a foetus was an individual from conception, rather than part of a woman’s body as it was rightly believed until then. These are the same arguments that still underpin pro-life advocacy, even though gestation is not something that merely happens within the female body as though it were an oven. Women’s bodies don’t simply “carry” babies as though in a vacuum, they create babies in a symbiotic process that makes the baby a part of its mother’s body rather than an addition to it.
At the root of the problem lies the question of what it means to be a human in the first place. While much has improved, women are yet to be granted full human status. Institutions which shape and define the human experience—be they religious, political, cultural, or scientific,–continue to limit women from the autonomy and self-governance granted the male sex. Nobody talks about being pro-life when men are constricted to fight wars, for example.
But everybody has something to say about women’s autonomy over their reproductive choices because the female body is ultimately viewed as tied to nature while the male body is connected to culture, and thus to things like civilisation and technology. It follows that people believe that to terminate a pregnancy, is to disrupt nature. As theorist Raewyn Connell writes, “gender is the structure of social relations that centres on the reproductive arena”.
When I was eighteen I got pregnant. I was able to have an abortion as I didn’t want to keep the child. Too many women around the world don’t have the option that I did, to easily and safely abstain from motherhood when for whatever reason they can’t pursue it.
America can now be added to the long list of countries with restrictive abortion laws. This is going to have wide-ranging impacts in Africa too, where abortion is already riskier than in any other part of the world with an estimate of 6.2 million unsafe abortions per year.
It can be especially difficult to discuss abortion in an African context because universal notions such as autonomy, freedom, and choice are wrongly seen as westernised imports. But the only way around this disconcerting problem is to continue to challenge and defy social norms (laws, cultures, attitudes etc) in a feminist spirit. It is a long road ahead. Those of us who live in parts of the world where women enjoy more privileges, must among other things continue to share information for example about self-managed abortion.
Abortion with pills is similar to a spontaneous miscarriage, and they are safe for women to use privately but it can be daunting and frightening without the right information. The website www.HowToUseAbortionPill.org has produced an easily accessible course in collaboration with Médecins Sans Frontières that is designed for anyone looking to learn more about self-managed abortion or having an abortion at home. I like that the video series is available in 27 languages including, French, English, Swahili, Hausa, Arabic, Luganda, Portuguese etc. The course starts with the basics as you can see below in part 1 of the course. Ultimately, providing women with the option of terminating a pregnancy without consulting a doctor is key to maintaining a sense of autonomy and freedom.
Image is Les Fleurs, Louise Bourgeouise