The fight for reproductive rights is global

Capitalism’s need for the reproduction and care of the workforce was institutionalized during the creation of the modern state, which legislated women’s biological determinism for the home, motherhood and private sphere of social reproduction. Since then, they have organized and fought for a concept of citizenship that does not exclude women, migrants, LGBTQIA+ and racialized people. In this struggle, they have been widening the path to democracy and causing revolutions, as well as expanding 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 28, Global Day of Action for Free, Safe and Legal Abortion, women from different regions of the world share reflections on this crucial issue.

This international day of struggle, like so many others, originated in the Global South. In 1990, the V Feminist Meeting of Latin America and the Caribbean was organized in Argentina and its invitation was extended to people around the planet to work for an international collective agenda for the emancipation of women and bodies of different genders, to fight against clandestine deaths, criminalization and poverty that forces many to have unwanted children. Today, September 28, is a global day of action that places at the center of the international debate the need for autonomy over their own bodies and access to basic care so that they can act according to their choices.

Worldwide, there is significant diversity regarding access to reproductive and sexual rights. There are countries with laws that allow abortions within a time limit (up to 14 weeks of gestation, 22 weeks, etc.); others have laws that allow the procedure in specific cases (depending on the viability of the fetus, in case of rape or risk to the mother’s life). There are also places where people who perform or help someone to have an abortion are totally criminalized and can be arrested. A third of Latin American and Caribbean countries completely ban 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 residing in Switzerland, is the first known case of asylum related to abortion rights, expressing the extreme situation of persecution and criminalization in which the bodies of women find themselves.

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

In many countries, the fight for reproductive justice has centered around passing a law that would legalize this medical procedure. However, activists around the world insist the fight goes further. “It’s not just about the legalization of abortion, there is something even bigger: the impact of neoliberalism on women’s rights”, points out Nalu Farias, of the World March of Women.

This battle takes place at the same time that access to medical care and public services is being undermined. Programs to create day care centers, jobs and decent housing are being attacked on a daily basis, which directly affects the women responsible for ensuring the daily reproduction of family life.

Barbara Tassoni, from Power to the People (Potere al Pópole, in Italian), a left-wing organization in Italy, explains that “the law must grant public health care to everyone, but the ongoing privatization of the health system makes the provision of basic care inaccessible. This situation conditions our reality as young women and prevents us from having a free and desired motherhood, without precariousness”.

fight for autonomy

Every generation of women fights against the State and lobbying in defense of laws, in addition to fighting to pass legislation that guarantees women’s autonomy, with a view to promoting our rights. But throughout history, all these achievements are challenged with each capitalist crisis, like the one accelerated by the covid-19 pandemic, showing the fragility of our victories.

The internationally coordinated attack by the right, far right and religious groups who are expressly anti-choice have attacked and made previously won rights vulnerable. In many countries, the right is preventing sex education in schools and enforcing existing laws, cutting or limiting legal access to contraceptives and abortion. In many countries, right-wing discourse posits women as tools for demographic change, fueling fears of overpopulation of “unwanted minorities”. This has influenced the agenda of the right, religious organizations and conservative parties in countries like Poland. The separation of 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-majority country to pass a law allowing abortion.

Currently, the state of Texas, USA, is at the epicenter of abortion policies due to the SB8 law, which would ban the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy. 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 New York People’s Forum explains that “the legalization of abortion is based on the concept of privacy, dealing with women’s rights as an individual issue. Therefore, theoretically, we have the personal right to choose whether or not to be pregnant.” In the United States, the only legal basis that exists to substantiate access to abortion is the ruling in Roe v. Wade, 1973. “This is very problematic, as it allows each state government an open interpretation, resulting in profoundly different approaches. [ao aborto] in the country [dependendo do partido eleito]”, Fuleihan highlights. For example, where laws are interpreted conservatively and abortion is only allowed in specific cases or is prohibited at all, organizations and clinics that provide this health service to marginalized women and communities either lose funding or are closed.

Even in locations where existing laws guarantee the right to choose, many people who have sought the procedure are faced with “guardians” such as local administrators and doctors. According to Ada Donno, from the International Democratic Federation of Women in Italy, “the possibility of refusing to undergo the procedure is called ‘conscience objection’ and is used in the country by 70% to 90% of gynecologists.” The situation is similar in Spain where, according to Nora García, “we don’t even have real numbers of these ‘conscientious doctors’ in the Madrid region, which has been ruled by the right for over 25 years. What we do know is that of the 16,330 abortions that took place in 2019, none were done by the public health system.” This shows that enforcing our rights is a matter of political intent, because Spain supposedly has one of the policies [para aborto] most advanced in Europe. In Germany, the decision of someone to have an abortion must be authorized by a doctor after psychological assessment of the patient.

The “guardians” are not only religious gynecologists, regional governments and psychologists, but they can also be the king. In Morocco, King Mohamed VI is the arbiter of women’s rights and decisions. In many countries, “concerned citizens” and local “pro-life” associations carry out violence with impunity, setting up pickets in front of women’s health posts against workers and patients, while receiving public funding to act against the law.

When the term “teenage pregnancy” is applied to girls under the age of 14, access to abortion is too late. The lack of sex education, the extreme imbalance of power between genders (making the concept of consensus debatable), the social stigma on female bodies in general and on sexuality in particular prove that the struggle for autonomy is the struggle to make based choices in information. This is very clear in the context of numerous countries on the African continent, as explained by Zikhona, member of Pan-Africa Today. “Sex education is a very basic fundamental knowledge needed by working class women. Required for all ages, actually. We need to talk to teenage girls about menstruation, we need to talk to adult women about sexually transmitted diseases and menopause. Our bodies cannot be a mystery that is not publicly talked about. This should be a government priority through concrete public policies in all African countries.

In Latin America, there is a clear response from the right and far right after the victories that allowed safe abortion in Uruguay (2012), Chile (2017), Argentina (2020) and Mexico (2021). Laura Capote and Agostina Betes, from the ALBA Movement, comment that “They [as reações de setores conservadores] they are part of a strategy employed in the territory to curb or extirpate emancipatory proposals. On the American continent, we experience daily situations such as that of a 10-year-old Brazilian girl who became pregnant after a rape and whom the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights of the Bolsonaro government tried to prevent from having access to legal abortion”.

This wide range of guardians is just a symptom of the widespread idea that women’s minds and bodies need to be controlled under a capitalist and neoliberal world order. This is why women’s rights are so dangerous for today’s global system. It is for this reason that many have joined this global struggle. And every victory around the world gives strength to this battle, as in Argentina last year or Mexico in September, countries where new abortion legislation ensures that “conscientious objection” cannot invalidate our rights; or even in San Marino, Italy, where 77% support was reached for the referendum on abortion.

In addition to the underground system

The lack of legislation allowing abortion does not prevent it from happening. An example is that between 500 and 800 illegal abortions are carried out illegally every day in Morocco, and that under all the risks that such an operation presents. The Argentine slogan “Sex education to decide, contraceptives not to abort and legal abortion not to die” articulates three of the main demands of women around the world. However, further analysis is needed to understand – and therefore confront – the roots of attacks on the rights of women and people of different genders. Feminist movements across the planet must be part of the global alliance that struggles to move the center of society away from markets and towards the reproduction of life through emancipation and freedom.

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

Edition: Thales Schmidt

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