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.