The topic of abortions is a focal point in feminist theories. Misconceptions, misunderstandings, and misinformation surround abortions, leading to stigma, shame, and even fear. Myths are formed by historical and social factors and are deeply interwoven with issues of intersectional women’s rights.
We believe that an understanding of where these abortion myths come from, and why they circulated, will help dispel them and lead to greater confidence for those seeking healthcare.
Abortions are a fundamentally feminist topic, as they touch on bodily autonomy, sex and sexuality, private versus public sphere, and more, but it is important that we use an intersectional feminist lens when exploring these ideas. Race, ability, sexuality, and income all affect the experiences of those seeking out abortions, as do specific historical and social factors. In this blog, we will discuss some of this history, explore some of the social pressures that affect people with uteruses, and talk about what we can do to create a more open and accepting dialogue about abortions.
A Short History About Abortion
Abortions are not a miracle of modern medicine, they have been around for thousands of years. One of the oldest records of abortions is from an Egyptian papyrus in 1550BC, and various methods for abortions have been found in ancient texts worldwide. Abortions were also common during Greco-Roman times; it wasn’t until Christianity was popularised that abortions started to be viewed as the ‘taking’ of life. Up until the 19th century in Western countries, abortions before ‘quickening’, when the pregnant person feels the fetus first move, were generally accepted.
During the 19th century, advancements in medicine and sanitation led to Western healthcare professionals desiring a ‘standardization’ of the field of medicine. While this was beneficial, as it allowed focused research and higher general standards, it also delegitimized and excluded many female doctors, especially those midwives who were performing abortions, the majority of which were indigenous or black women. When elitist male doctors in America created gynecology, they had a vested interest in excluding black and indigenous midwives, who they branded as ‘savage’, ‘unhygienic’, and ‘unknowledgeable’. In the 19th and 20th centuries, black women were tortured, and their bodies were used in non-consensual surgeries in order to develop the same tools that these white male doctors used to put midwives out of business.
There is an intrinsic link between the spread of white supremacy and the criminalization of abortions. As white male elites tried to force women, especially black women, out of the healthcare profession, they pulled women’s bodies from the private sphere into the public sphere, creating a monopoly of power over women’s bodies for men. This not only helped to establish women’s bodies, including any fetus’s within them, as the property of men, but it is also created a large divide in sexual health between white and black people with wombs, as alternative contraceptives were provided to upper-class white families, and inaccessible to lower-class and black families.
The history of abortions makes it clear that the laws in place today are not based on the preservation of life or the well-being of people with uteruses. The legacy of Western views has spread across the globe due to colonialism, and the over-representation of men in decision-making processes. These legislative practices, established on the desire of men to have a monopoly on a woman’s body, decrease the quality of life of those with uteruses, and entrench patriarchal and racist power structures.
You might be interested in information about abortion laws worldwide
Feminism and abortions.
Feminism is a large school of thought that touches on every aspect of life. It seeks not only to explain the patriarchal reasons behind the continued criminalization of abortions, but also the unfair societal expectations of people with uteruses, and how we can move towards a more equal, rights-based society.
90 million women (the data does not mention non-women with uteruses) live in countries that still ban abortions for all reasons. 360 million live in countries that only allow abortions when the woman’s life is at risk, and 240 million can only have abortions to preserve health. The laws preventing abortions may have once saved women’s lives, preventing unsafe abortion practices, but these same laws are now leading to increased deaths, as people with uteruses are unable to access the safe healthcare they need. The lack of people with uteruses in the decision-making processes means that legislation about abortions is being largely made by those who will never experience pregnancy. Even in countries where abortions are legal, abortion providers are unprotected, and many receive threats from anti-abortion campaigners.
The recent laws in Texas, America, which make no exception for people who have been raped or the targets of incest show that abortions are a battle-ground for women’s rights, and a priority of feminists worldwide. The Geneva Consensus Declaration, anti-abortion legislation established by the Trump Administration, was signed by countries worldwide including Brazil, Egypt, Uganda, Belarus, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, and Libya. There is global precedence of male-led governments controlling women’s movements and rights to their own bodies, and only when the political realm closes its gender gap will we see real development in reproductive rights.
However, the change over the past 25 years has been monumental. A large number of countries have made legal changes, even incremental ones, which have improved the situation of those seeking abortions. The WHO also recognizes access to abortions as a Human Right, and many NGOs are offering counseling and help to people seeking abortions. The law is slowly changing as more evidence-based research surfaces about the safety and benefits of abortions.
Motherhood is at the core of feminist theories, both as something to be celebrated, and something to be freed from. What the majority of feminists do agree on is that motherhood should be a choice and not an expectation. Western idealizations of house-wife and mothers have spread around the world, and women find it hard to escape these dominant cultural narratives. People with uteruses are also expected to have some maternal instinct that installs them with a desire for parenting, which is simply not true. These expectations are connected to abortions in multiple ways.
Not only are people with uteruses expected to want to have a child, and therefore terminating a pregnancy would go against their very nature, but there is also a culture of guilt for those who can get pregnant, but do not want to. The idea that denying motherhood that must be intrinsic to those with uteruses is a selfish act, and that abortions are thoughtless to others, perpetuates the expectations that women are supposed to serve and think of others, and not themselves. From a young age, girls are taught to be community-focused whereas boys are taught to focus on their own futures. Therefore, when people with uteruses fight against these norms and choose not to have children, it is a rebellion against the fundamentals of patriarchy.
Finally, contraception has been at the center of feminist thought for at least as long as suffrage. Whilst abortions are included in contraception, contraception also includes methods that prevent pregnancy. In a continuation of the ‘monopoly over women’s bodies’ mentioned earlier, contraception is made almost entirely to prevent a body with a uterus from getting pregnant, as opposed to a body with sperm from creating a pregnancy. Contraception is not easily accessible across the globe, and even where contraception is available, it is not always pleasant. The idea that contraception should be used so that abortions can be prevented is important, but in some cases it is mute. Contraceptives such as ‘the pill’, ‘the coil’, and so on create huge side effects for users and can be costly in countries without free access to healthcare. Abortions may be the only option for some.
In conclusion, feminists argue that a woman’s body is not her own. A history of expectations and entrenched patriarchal and racist systems have stigmatized and criminalized abortions in an attempt to control the bodies of those with uteruses, and promote misogynistic ideals. Although within our lifetimes we have seen a huge improvement in the legalization of abortions, and the spread of evidence-based information, we still have a long way to go. It is imperative that we keep spreading information, dispelling myths, and fighting legal actions to create a society where everyone feels safe and educated about their options.
1. Blumenthal, D., & Zephyrin, L. (2021). Texas’s New Abortion Law Will Harm People of Color, Further Entrench Racist Policies. Commonwealthfund.org. Retrieved 7 April 2022, from https://www.commonwealthfund.org/blog/2021/texass-new-abortion-law-will-harm-people-color-further-entrench-racist-policies.
2. Center for reproductive rights. (2022). The World’s Abortion Laws – Center for Reproductive Rights. Center for Reproductive Rights. Retrieved 7 April 2022, from https://reproductiverights.org/maps/worlds-abortion-laws/.
3. Guttmacher Institute. (2022). Unintended Pregnancy and Abortion Worldwide. Guttmacher.org. Retrieved 7 April 2022, from https://www.guttmacher.org/sites/default/files/factsheet/fb_iaw.pdf.
4. Potts, M., & Campbell, M. (2002). History of Contraception. Web.archive.org. Retrieved 7 April 2022, from https://web.archive.org/web/20030701162741/http://big.berkeley.edu/ifplp.history.pdf.
5. safe2choose, & Ipas. (2020). INTERNATIONAL SURVEY OF ABORTION PROVIDERS AND COMPANIONS. Safe2choose.org. Retrieved 7 April 2022, from https://safe2choose.org/abortion-information/resources/international-survey-of-abortion-providers-and-companions.pdf.
6. World Health Organisation. (2021). Abortion. Who. int. Retrieved 7 April 2022, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/abortion.