It is highly likely that you’ve heard the terms ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ used when talking about the abortion debate. Those who are ‘pro-choice’ believe in the destigmatisation and legalisation of abortion, arguing that a person should have the right to choose what to do with their own body. Those who are ‘pro-life’ argue for the criminalisation, or at least harsh regulation, of abortion, arguing that the rights of the unborn child must be protected. However, although debates around abortion and its legal status have been happening since the 13th century, the terms ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ have only been around since 1973 and 1969 respectively.
Historically, the regulation of abortion has been more about limiting women’s freedoms than it has been about protecting life. Worldwide, abortions used to be carried out by midwives and homoeopaths with communal and ancestral knowledge of herbs and medicine. However, when white, male physicians in England wanted to standardise the field of medicine and exclude their competitors, these doctors claimed that they had greater knowledge of the body and the foetus, and therefore women should not be allowed to perform their own abortions.
In truth, these physicians had no greater empirical knowledge than the female healers, but the mystery around the human body and the foetus gained them public support. From that moment on, a woman’s anatomy was separated from their voice, as the body itself, translated by the doctor, showed the truth about the condition of the foetus, and the words spoken by the woman on this topic were ignored. These ideals were exported worldwide through colonialism, and still have an effect on post-colonial countries.
‘Pro-life’ and religion
Nowhere are abortion rights discussed so loudly as in the USA where the term ‘pro-life’ was first used. The recent leaked opinion from the Supreme Court discussing the overturn of the Roe vs Wade decision was met with uproar the world over. The effects of a large cultural superpower such as the USA redacting the rights of people with uteruses could be astronomical, not just for Americans, but also for those fighting for their rights in other countries. However, it is no longer patriarchal physicians who carry the ‘pro-life’ torch, it is evangelical Christians.
The popularisation of the birth control pill in the 1960s allowed women to have sex for fun and stopped women from having to choose between raising a family and having a career, something that was later entrenched by legalised abortion. Women’s new decision as to whether to start a family, and whether or not to get married at all, opposed the rightwing Christian ideals of a nuclear family with a male figurehead.
This can be seen through the anti-abortion rhetoric used at the time which talked about abortion ‘undermining the family’ or argued that women ‘must seek the confirmation of the father’ before termination. These arguments became less and less popular with increasing gender equality, and the resurgence of modern feminism, and so to soften the misogyny, evangelicals changed tactics to talk about ‘life’. It was a clever move: technically arguing for the rights of a foetus has nothing to do with the rights of the carrier.
Anti-abortion and misogyny
A recent survey by Supermajority and PerryUndem in the USA found a disturbing but not surprising link between anti-abortion and misogyny. Of anti-abortion respondents, more than 75% said that women are “too easily offended”, more than 70% said that women misinterpret innocent remarks as sexist, and only 34% agreed that the country would be better off with more women in political offices.
Similarly, less than 30% of those who wanted abortion to be illegal in all cases did not think that “access to birth control affects women’s equality” or that “lack of women in political office affects women’s equality”. The same people who advocate for illegalising abortion also vote for those who want to cut aid for children, pregnant persons, and poor parents.
Similarly, ‘pro-life’ campaigners often oppose sex education and contraception, the two most effective measures for reducing abortion rates. During Donald Trump’s presidency, his ‘pro-life’ supporters were also supporting the separation of immigrant children from their parents, and the housing of these children in cages. This is not a coincidence, this is patriarchy.
Abortion has become a method for controlling people with uteruses, stopping them from making their own choices, and stripping them of their rights to their own reproductive decisions. Being forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy leads to increased levels of poverty, increased likelihood for women to stay in abusive relationships, and increased death rates both for the parent and the child.
The ‘pro-life’ movement has influenced anti-abortion campaigners worldwide, and their tactics have had a huge effect on public opinion. Abortions themselves are not a Western import, but this idea that those who want to have abortions are promiscuous, selfish, and uneducated, has added to global stigma.
Also, through their use of imagery, anti-abortion campaigners have made a link between foetuses and babies in the public conscious. Abortions have also been branded as ‘irreligious’, creating a culture of shame, guilt, and fear of divine consequences. Similarly, there has been a mass misinformation campaign which has spread to all corners, even into education systems, with unfounded claims such as abortions will reduce a person’s fertility or stop them from getting pregnant again. These fears have been used to control people with uteruses, encourage abstinence, and shame women for their sexual activity.
Anti-abortion and technology
The internet is a great tool for spreading safe and accurate information about abortions across the globe. Those in countries where they are unable to ask for help locally can turn to the online world for advice and education. However, ‘pro-life’ campaigners have lobbied against the inclusion of abortion-related material online, especially via social media websites such as YouTube and TikTok. On TikTok, automatic detectors search for content relating to sex and ban whole accounts for inappropriate content.
This means that pro-abortion accounts and other sex education accounts often have to fight for their right to be on the platform. YouTube has also shut down many pro-abortion channels including safe2choose and others including Women on Waves and Women on Web. By removing this material, social media sites are taking away one of the only ways people with uteruses have to access important, life-saving information.
Restrictive Abortion Laws don’t prevent Abortions
It is also well known that restrictive abortion laws are not effective at stopping those with uteruses from getting abortions. Statistically, the numbers are the same in regions with high restrictions, and where abortion is completely legal. Research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute in Sub-Saharan Africa shows that the best way to reduce the abortion rate is through effective family planning and access to effective contraception. They argue that this access would reduce the number of unsafe abortions from 5.2 million to 1.2 million and that those needing care for complications would fall from 2.2 million to 500,000. This is mirrored worldwide. The evidence is so clear that it is undeniable: if the anti-abortion movement was about stopping abortion, there would be greater access to contraceptives. If the ‘pro-life’ movement was about life, abortions would be freely available.
Anti-abortion violence is rife in ‘pro-life’ communities. There have been murders, assaults, kidnappings, and death threats across the world, especially in the USA where there have been more than 7,200 reported attacks on abortion providers, including 42 bombings, 185 arson attacks, and countless death threats and assaults. There have also been more than 234,000 acts of disruption including bomb threats, hate mails, and harassing phone calls. These attacks have steadily increased as technology has allowed for greater surveillance, image doctoring, and online violence. In other countries such as Cambodia and Northern Ireland, those with uteruses face not only anti-abortion violence but also legal violence, as they risk being fined or even imprisoned for seeking an abortion.
The evidence is clear: the ‘pro-life’ campaign is much more about control than it is about life. Fighting for the rights of a foetus is easy as you don’t know what kind of human they’ll be. They’re societally neutral. But, these foetuses are not neutral when it comes to the health of the parent; they could be the difference between life and death. It is vital that we keep fighting against misogyny and advocating for abortion rights worldwide, as all people should be allowed to choose what happens to their own bodies.
Guttmacher Institute. (2020). From Unsafe to Safe Abortion in Sub-Saharan Africa: Slow but Steady Progress. https://www.guttmacher.org/report/from-unsafe-to-safe-abortion-in-subsaharan-africa. Retrieved 30 May 2022, from.
Holland, J. (2016). Abolishing Abortion: The History of the Pro-Life Movement in America | The American Historian. Oah.org. Retrieved 30 May 2022, from https://www.oah.org/tah/issues/2016/november/abolishing-abortion-the-history-of-the-pro-life-movement-in-america/.
Naral. (2022). Anti-Abortion Violence. NARAL Pro-Choice America. Retrieved 30 May 2022, from https://www.prochoiceamerica.org/issue/anti-abortion-violence/.
Naral. (2022). The Hypocrisy of the “Pro-Life” Movement – NARAL Pro-Choice America. NARAL Pro-Choice America. Retrieved 30 May 2022, from https://www.prochoiceamerica.org/campaign/the-hypocrisy-of-the-pro-life-movement/.
Supermajority, & PerryUndem. (2019). Gender Equality, the Status of Women and the 2020 Elections.. Int.nyt.com. Retrieved 30 May 2022, from https://int.nyt.com/data/documenthelper/1647-supermajority-survey-on-women/429aa78e37ebdf2fe686/optimized/full.pdf#page=1.