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F.5.a. Women's Rights over their Bodies: Contraception, Abortion, Sterilization

Volume Two -> F. Feminist Movements and Protests -> F.5. New Global Feminist Wave, 2017 onwards -> F.5.a. Women's Rights over their Bodies: Contraception, Abortion, Sterilization

When women have access to education and a wide range of paid work, they tend to have far fewer babies and choose when to have children. This tendency for women to take control of their lives and their bodies has been thwarted both by entrenched male prejudice and also by the political influence of some powerful religious organizations, notably the Catholic Church and right wing Evangelical Churches (which also oppose contraception).  Religious pressure has in the past been complemented by far right political ideology contemptuous of women's rights: Chile enacted a total ban on abortion regardless of the circumstances under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The current wave of right wing populism is also producing governments keen to control women's bodies. One of President Bolsanaro's first acts after his election in Brazil in 2019 was to replace the department for human rights with a department for 'family values' headed by a rightwing evangelist. The governments in both Hungary and Poland are using financial incentives to keep women at home having babies, to boost the national population and reduce the need for foreign immigrants (As noted earlier, Polish women successfully demonstrated and went on strike in 2016 against the threat of stricter abortion laws). Women demonstrated again in 2018 against the government’s renewed attempt to tighten the already restrictive abortion law. After a Constitutional Court in 2020 ruling that prohibited abortion even when there are foetal abnormalities, tens of thousands of angry women blocked roads and demonstrated militantly in October and November, causing the government to delay immediate implementation of the ruling. The new ruling meant that abortion would only be legal in the case of rape or incest or if the mother’s life
was in danger. Trump's presidential victory in 2016 raised fears about the future funding of family planning and (as a result of right wing judicial appointments) a return to restrictive abortion laws.   

Feminists in Catholic countries have campaigned against pressure to reintroduce a ban on abortion (as in Spain - see under F.4.) and against the continuance of abortion laws sometimes (as in Ireland and some countries in Latin America) so restrictive that even raped women and girls cannot be aborted, or the lives of pregnant women who are seriously ill cannot be saved). Chile passed a law on 26 July 2017 to legalise abortion following rape or when a woman's life is in danger. In Ireland , moreover, as the culmination of a 35 year campaign, an historic referendum on 25 May 2018 voted by  64%  to repeal the VIII Amendment of the Constitution, which included a clause that protected the rights of the unborn. In El Salvador, which also has a very restrictive abortion law that could lead to women being jailed for a miscarriage, there was a demonstration for abortion law reform in October 2018.  Subsequently Imelda Cortez, who gave birth to a baby by her stepfather, who had consistently raped her since she was 12, was accused of planning to murder the child because she had not sought medical care; and she faced a 20 year prison sentence.  She was set free by the court in January 2019, which was seen as a signal of hope for a more enlightened policy. Young women in Argentina campaigned in 2018 for a more liberal abortion law - tens of thousands marched on International Women's Day wearing green scarves and carrying the slogan 'Get your rosaries off our ovaries'. A Bill to allow elective abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy passed the lower house in Argentina, but was defeated in the Senate in August 2018.

Official interpretations of religious beliefs are also very important in defining women’s reproductive rights in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In Islam there are different readings of the Koran and variations due to history and culture.  But Islamic countries tend to allow use of contraception in a family context to aid family planning. Some Islamic thinkers do allow for abortion in certain circumstances, particularly in the early stages of pregnancy before the ‘ensoulment’ of the foetus. Possible reasons are threats to the mother’s health or life, and (in some interpretations) serious threats to the health and future of the foetus.  Government laws and policies vary, but even when abortion is allowed in certain cases, local cultural attitudes and lack of adequate health care may make it difficult or dangerous in practice. Buddhism and Hinduism, which stress the sanctity of life and also believe in reincarnation of the soul, tend not to sanction abortion, but believers may accept it when a mother’s life is at risk. Feminists in Muslim countries (or countries where Buddhist or Hindu beliefs are influential), have not so far tended to focus on the contentious issue of abortion; they generally have many other urgent problems to tackle.

At an international level, governments of countries where religious doctrines limit or prevent abortion rights may cooperate to influence global policies.  Right wing US Evangelical groups lobby at the UN, and gained support from the Trump Administration. The US State Department briefed diplomats at an international women’s conference in 2019 to keep ‘sexual and reproductive health’ rights off the agenda. The Trump Administration also cut off funds to clinics around the world unless they agreed to a ban on even discussing abortion, and also undermined the role of international bodies such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation in providing advice and help with contraception.

A policy of enforced sterilization of women from certain social groups is rarer, but has sometimes been the outcome of deep seated prejudice. A number of countries practised sterilization in the 20th century influenced by racial and eugenicist beliefs: for example Japan under its Eugenics Protection Law which applied from 1948 to 1996. (The Japanese government passed a law in 2019 to compensate women who had been sterilized.) Government programmes in both the USA and Canada targeted Indigenous women, and US sterilization policies extended in some states to people of colour, immigrants, unmarried mothers, and the mentally or physically disabled.  Sterilization is rarer today, but it is part of the widely condemned Chinese Communist Party campaign against Uighur culture and identity (see Vol.1. C.II.1.e.) Sterlization policies have prompted some recent protests by women who have suffered under them. In Peru Qwuipu women demonstrated in 2017 against the enforced sterilization of over 300,000 women between 1995 and 2000. Women from the Roma community in the Czech Republic are campaigning for official recognition that the Communist regime forcibly sterilized both Roma and disabled women from the 1970s-1990s and that (although this policy was then disavowed) in practice women were still being sterilized without their full consent up to 2007. This issue was taken up by the Czech Ombudswoman in 2014, but the government rejected her proposals.  It is now before the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

Enforced sterilization is both a denial of women's rights and a policy reflecting unjust and often brutal discrimination against particular social groups. The moral issues surrounding policies on abortion are more complex, even though draconian laws and cases of extreme individual injustice (as in the examples cited from Latin America earlier) have often been linked to far right ideology and illiberal alliances between religious institutions and the state. But any political policy on abortion has to weigh the rights of women against the rights of unborn children, and legislation has to resolve both scientific and moral issues about when a foetus becomes a person. The major world religions differ in their interpretation of when 'ensoulment' occurs, and how far, if at all, abortion may be justified; there are also wide variations within each faith depending on specific religious affiliations and local cultural attitudes. Religious views also differ on specific issues, such as abortion to preserve the life or health of the mother, or to take account of the future health and life prospects for the baby. 

Abortion rights became a major and polarizing issue in the second feminist wave of the late 1960s and 1970s, and is a key demand in many national movements still today.  Feminists stress women's fundamental right to have control over their own lives and bodies and to resist patriarchal political and religious pressure. But where secular and liberal political policies result in legislation for abortion, medical staff in many countries have claimed and been granted a right to 'conscientious objection' on religious or moral grounds to refuse to carry out abortions. In principle this claim is hard to dispute; but in practice widespread conscientious refusal may undercut the actual availability of safe medical abortion for women, especially for poor or rural women. These issues are discussed in some of the references below.     

Against Her Will. Forced and Coerced Sterilization of Women Worldwide, Open Society Foundations, 2011

This Open Society Foundations fact sheet provides information on instances of forced sterilization of racial and ethnic minorities, poor women, women living with HIV, and women with disabilities in Chile, Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Hungary, India, Mexico, Namibia, Kenya, Peru, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, the United States and Uzbekistan. It also provides recommendations for governments, medical professionals, UN agencies, and donors on how to end the practice of forced and coerced sterilization.

Bloomer, Fiona ; Pierson, Claire ; Estrada, Sylvia, Reimagining Global Abortion Politics: A Social Justice Perspective, Bristol and Chicago, Policy Press, 2020, pp. 176

This book uses case studies from a range of countries to provide a transnational and interdisciplinary analysis of trends in abortion politics, and considers how religion, nationalism, and culture impact on abortion law and access. It also explores the impact of international human rights norms and the role of activists on law reform and access to abortion. Finally the authors examine the future of abortion politics through the more holistic lens of ‘reproductive justice’. The countries included are: Argentina, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, South Africa, Uruguay and the US.

Chesney-Lind, Meda ; Hadi, Syeda Tonima, Patriarchy, Abortion, and the Criminal System: Policing Female Bodies, Women & Criminal Justice, Vol. 27, issue 1, 2017, pp. 73-88

This paper argues for a conceptualisng denial of abortion as the patriarchal policing of women’s bodies and their sexuality. The authors briefly review international trends regarding abortion politics, including many thousands of abortion related deaths, injuries and loss of fertility, and then analyze women’s access to abortion in two countries, the United States and Bangladesh, which represent two very different contexts: the developed and developing world. They argue that abortion services are being constrained by misogynistic politics that deny women control over their bodies. Finally, the paper reviews recent international efforts to establish abortion rights in the context of human rights. In particular, a recent United Nation’s report describes moves to recriminalise both contraception and abortion in the U.S. and Europe as the deliberate denial of medically available and necessary services and hence a form of “torture.”

Jin, Zhixin, How Do Anti-abortion and Abortion Rights Groups Deploy Ideas About Islam in Their Activism Regarding Abortion, Journal of Politics and Law, Vol. 12, issue 1, 2018, pp. 38-47

Abortion is a hotly debated topic among Muslim communities. In this paper, the author examines how both anti-abortion and abortion rights groups deploy ideas about Islam. She analised the language used by these groups when describing Muslim communities and Muslim views and found that a majority of them did not include arguments from both sides. Almost all the Anti-Abortion Websites included generalizations about the Muslim community, and also used the conservative elements in Islamic Religion to persuade more Muslims to join their stance on abortion.

Killeen, Charlotte, How Polish women are resisting the latest attempt to ban abortion, Green World, 05/11/2020,

European Studies graduate Charlotte Killeen outlines the national and Europe-wide reactions to Poland’s near-total ban on abortion, ’after a 2020 Constitutional Court ruling that excluded foetal abnormalities (previously recognized as a ground for abortion) from exemption to the general ban.

Lies, Elaine, Japanese to compensate victims of forced sterilization, Reuters, 24/04/2019,

Report on Japanese law that compensates thousands of people who were sterilized, often without their consent, under a government program to prevent the birth of “inferior descendants” that remained in effect under “Eugenics Protection Law”, from 1948 to 1996.

See also: Kyodo, ‘Woman sues Japan over forced sterilization under eugenics law’, Japan Times, 3 July 2020.

Muszel, Magdalena ; Piotrowski, Grzegorz, They’re uncompromising”: How the young transformed Poland’s abortion protests, Open Democracy, 11/11/2020,

The authors discuss the new cross-generational alliance behind the militant October/November 2020 mass protests against government implementation of the Constitutional Court ruling excluding foeatal abnormalities as a reason to have an abortion.

See also Torrisi, Claudia, ‘Abortion Without Borders: a bold, feminist reply to Poland’s draconian laws’, OpenDemocracy, 28 September 2020.

Highlights initiatives to help women exercise their limited abortion rights in Poland. These include Abortion Without Borders (which offers advice and funds to women seeking abortion abroad), Abortion Dream Team and Kobiety w Sieci (Poland’s first online forums for unbiased abortion information).

Oberman, Michelle, Her Body, Our Laws: On the Front Lines of the Abortion War, from El Salvador to Oklahoma, Boston, Massachusetts, Beacon Press, 2018, pp. 192

Drawing on her years of research in El Salvador, legal scholar Michelle Oberman explores the consequences of criminalizing abortion. She then turns her attention to the United States, where the battle over abortion takes place, in her opinion, almost exclusively in legislatures and courtrooms. Focusing on Oklahoma, she interviews current and former legislators and activists, and shows how Americans voice their moral opposition to abortion by supporting laws that would restrict it. She challenges this approach to the law by highlighting the real life impact of laws and policies on motherhood and abortion on women.

Penovic, Tania ; Sifris, Ronli, Expanding the feminisation dimension of international law: targeted anti-abortion protest as violence against women, Cambridge International Law Journal, Vol. 7, issue 2, 2018, pp. 241-267

International law has expanded significantly to encompass abuse of women’s rights, as a result of pressure from international civil society. There is now strong support for recognising violence against women as a human right issue. But attempts by women’s groups to promote consensus on reproductive rights, especially the right to safe access to abortion, have met with strong opposition or conservative religious bodies at both an international and local level.  This article includes a case study of local direct action in Australia against access to abortion, and also a wider evaluation of the impact of anti-abortion protest groups on women’s rights. It also examines how far legislation to limit anti-abortion activism in designated areas is effective, and how far such legislation is consistent with international norms and feminised international laws.

Phillips, Tom ; Booth, Amy ; Goni, Uki, "We Did It!” A Milestone for Women as Abortion is Legalised, Guardian Weekly, 08/01/2021, pp. 15-16

Reports the jubilation of pro-choice demonstrators in Buenos Aires after the Senate (which had voted down legalization of abortion in 2018) passed a law allowing termination in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy for any reason.  Argentina became then third South American country (after Uruguay and Guyana) to decriminalize abortion, and there are likely to b repercussions across the region. The authors summarize the five years of mass campaigning by the women’s movement in Argentina that led to this result.

See also: ‘Green Wave, Blue Water: Abortion in Latin America’, Economist, 9 Jan. 2021, pp.41-2.

This article discusses the significance of and probable repercussions of the legalization of abortion in Argentina, in the context of the generally very restrictive position in many other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.  The article notes the possible positive repercussions in Peru and Mexico and that legalizing abortion may be raised in proposed constitutional change in Chile.  But the article also warns that the Argentinian law will mobilize forces strongly opposed to abortion.

Ross, Loretta, Reproductive Justice as Intersectional Feminist Activism, Souls, Vol. 19, issue 3, 2017, pp. 286-599

Reproductive justice activists have used the concept of ‘intersectionality’ to promote one of the most important shifts in reproductive politics. The Combahee River Collective, twelve Black women working within and outside the pro-choice movement in 1994 coined the term “reproductive justice” to “recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from the sharing and growing consciousness, to a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression.” This paper argues that this concept has linked activists and academics stimulating numerous scholarly articles, new forms of organising by women of colour, and the reorganization of philanthropic foundations. It examines how reproductive justice+e is used as an organising and theoretical framework, and discusses Black patriarchal and feminist theoretical discourses through a reproductive justice lens.

Ross, Loretta ; Roberts, Lynn ; Derkas, Erika ; Peoples, Whitney ; Bridgewater, Pamela, Radical Reproductive Justice, New York , Feminist Press, 2017, pp. 500

This anthology assembles two decades of work initiated by SisterSong Women of Color Health Collective, creators of the human rights-based 'reproductive justice' framework designed to move beyond polarised pro-choice/pro-life debates. Rooted in Black feminism and built on intersecting identities, this framework asserts a woman's right to have children or not, and that of parents to provide for the children they do have.

Sethna, Christabelle ; Davis, Gayle, Abortion Across Borders: Transnational Travel and Access to Abortion Services, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019, pp. 360

The authors examine how restrictive policies force women to travel both within and across national borders in order to reach abortion providers, often at great expense, over long distances and with significant safety risks. Contributors, who adopt both historical and contemporary perspectives, examine the situation culturally and politically diverse in regions that include Australia, Canada, Eastern Europe, Ireland, New Zealand, Poland, Prince Edward Island, Spain, Sweden, Texas, and post-Brexit referendum UK.

Stettner, Shannon ; Acherman, Katrina ; Burnett, Kristin ; Hay, Travis, Transcending Borders. Abortion in the Past and Present, Cham, Switzerland, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. 360

This volume investigates different abortion and reproductive practices across time, space, geography, national boundaries, and cultures. The authors specialise in the reproductive politics of Australia, Bolivia, Cameroon, France, ‘German East Africa,’ Ireland, Japan, Sweden, South Africa, the United States and Zanzibar, and cover the pre-modern era and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as the present day. Contributors draw on different theoretical frameworks, including ‘intersectionality’ and ‘reproductive justice’ to explore the very varied conditions in which women have been forced to make these life-altering decisions.  

Stevenson, Robin, My Body, My Choice. The Fight For Abortion Rights, Victoria, Canada, OrCA book Publishing, 2019, pp. 176

The book notes the long history of pro-choice activism, and explores new limits on abortion in the United States under the Trump/Pence Administration, as well as the global impact of US policy. The author then charts the pro-choice movements led by women in Canada, Ireland, and Poland; the interconnection between diversity and abortion; and the fight against abortion stigma. It also includes testimonies of women who have had abortions.

Thomson, Jennifer ; Pierson, Claire, Can abortion rights be integrated into the Women, Peace and Security agenda?, International Feminist Journal of Politics, Vol. 20, issue 3, 2018, pp. 350-365

Reproductive rights are an under-theorised aspect of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda as UN Security Council resolutions (e.g. UNSC resolution 1325) demonstrate. Yet reproductive rights are central to women’s security, health and human rights. Although they feature in the 2015 Global Study on UNSC resolution 1325, there is less reference to reproductive rights, and to abortion specifically, neither in the text of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions themselves, nor in the National Action Plans (NAPs, policy documents created by individual countries to outline their implementation plans for 1325). Through content analysis of all resolutions and NAPs produced to date, this article asks where abortion is in the WPS agenda. It argues that the growing centrality of the WPS agenda to women’s rights in transitioning societies means that a lack of focus on abortion will marginalize the topic and stifle the development of liberal legalization.

Walsh, Janet, South Korea’s abortion reform. A model for others, Human Rights Watch, 2019

A ruling by South Korea’s Constitutional Court in April 2019, that the country’s abortion laws were unconstitutional, effectively decriminalised abortion. The court required the National Assembly to reform the law by December 2020.

See also; and