ABORTION - The centuries-long war against women's bodies
What is Abortion?
Technically, abortion can be defined as the act of terminating a pregnancy before its completion, by removal or expulsion of an embryo or fetus. These simple words, however, do not capture the full complexity of the act - from its social implications, the stigmas, the reasons behind an abortion and how much it is a sensitive topic in the fight for female autonomy all over the world.
In this article, we will be discussing abortion in depth - from its history to how different countries deal with it today - and we will dive into a difficult but extremely necessary discussion on the importance of abortion being treated as health care.
Some of the themes analyzed might be triggering for some - for this reason, reader discretion is advised. It’s also important to make clear we will be discussing abortion - meaning the intentional termination of pregnancy that can happen for various reasons. We will not be touching upon the topic of miscarriage - which is when a pregnancy is involuntarily terminated due to natural causes.
How does one have an Abortion? Methods and types
Although the scary discourse around abortion creates the image of a painful and traumatic surgery, a lot of abortions nowadays are actually non-surgical. This means a pill is used to induce the termination of pregnancy.
In early stages of pregnancy there is also the option of doing a surgical abortion through suction in some countries. In later stages, it’s usually advised to use a method called Dilatation and Evacuation. Whether or not you’re allowed access to these methods, or which one is going to be used for every specific case varies a lot - especially as different countries have different legislation when it comes to abortion.
Reasons for Abortion
There can be many reasons for someone to decide to terminate a pregnancy. They vary from case to case and are often combined. However, we can cite a few of the most common ones:
Whether because the contraception failed (which is far more common than people think), or no contraception was used, having a child is an important decision that often comes with a lot of planning. For some, it’s not a matter of not wanting a child ever, just not wanting a child right now. For others, motherhood is not an option, and that should be respected too.
One of the main concerns around parenthood is literally being able to afford not only taking care of a child for at least 18 years, but also carrying out a safe pregnancy. For those in financial hardship, pregnancy and parenthood simply do not fit the budget.
For some, an unplanned pregnancy happens at a very young age, and individuals feel they do not have the level of maturity and/or stability in their lives to carry it out.
A lot of expectant mothers face serious health issues which can endanger them and the child if the pregnancy is not terminated.
Abuse / Rape
In many cases, the pregnancy is the result of assault and/or abuse. Being able to terminate it is a way to safeguard the victim’s mental and physical health.
How many people have Abortions in the world every year?
Abortion and feminist activists usually say someone you love probably had an abortion, and that is factually extremely likely. WHO estimates over 70 million abortions happen every year around the world - and it’s important to notice this number is probably sub-notified, as a lot of abortions tend to happen in clandestine conditions, especially in countries where it is forbidden or criminalized.
So, as much as many people would like to sweep this prickly subject under the rug, abortion is a reality for millions, and it’s time we have a serious and frank conversation about it.
History of Abortion - A tale as old as time
There is a saying that goes “abortion is as old as pregnancy”. That is because there are accounts of abortion happening over 4.000 years ago. It’s been present through history in many different societies and it’s also been largely used as a form of birth control - especially in times when giving birth was extremely dangerous.
Abortion is even present in the bible, as a recommended test for wife fidelity. The text instructs pregnant women to drink an abortive concoction which was meant to stop pregnancies resulting from unfaithfulness. In times of uncertainty, when hunger and plague were a threat, abortion was also used a form of population control.
Even through medieval times, when religion’s interference on state had a tight grip over women’s bodies, abortion was not always a political issue. Rather, it was handled amongst women, and midwives passed down the knowledge of herbs and techniques to induce abortion.
So, basically, abortion is a staple in human civilization - and only recently it has become a conservative talk point. Abortion being a crime is recent fact. So, what happened and most importantly - why?
Abortion: Taboo and Criminalization
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, attitudes, and perceptions towards the voluntary termination of pregnancies started to change. In 1588, the Catholic Church declared for the first time that abortion was a sin punishable with excommunication. From then on, gradually it became more of a political problem, with different states passing legislation on the matter.
And the history of abortion becoming a problem has a lot to do with the history of the professionalization of medicine. Before the 1800s, health practitioners were not a unified front - instead different kinds of professionals dealt with different parts of the body. Abortions - or other problems related with female bodies and fertility were treated by female professionals - midwives or healers.
Of course, this was not good for business as doctors became to see themselves as service providers. By criminalizing abortion, they were directly attacking midwifery as a profession, and becoming the sole providers of health care. It also helped to set up a smear campaign to deem the centuries-old work of midwives satanic, linking it to witchcraft.
Abortion: Current status around the world
Throughout the 20th century, abortion has slowly been becoming legal again in various countries around the world. Attitudes around it have also been changing - especially in the last few years when feminist activists have been creating political pressure to make abortion more accessible.
At the end of the day, your access to abortion today is deeply connected to where you live in the world. In most European countries it’s possible to interrupt pregnancy - with the specificities of it varying across borders. On the Global South, the landscape is very different; in most cases abortion is only permitted to either preserve the mother’s health or life. And in countries like Egypt, Madagascar, and Suriname it’s prohibited altogether.
Historically deeply influenced by the Catholic Church, Latin America has seen a massive recent change in laws after decades of radical opposition to abortion legalization. Argentina and Colombia have celebrated the legalization of abortion after years of strenuous fights from feminist groups.
However, as it is with any progressive change, there has also been massive backlash. Abortion has become a sort of conservative staple talking point, with many prominent politicians and public personalities linking the banishing of abortion to a return of Christian and family values.
The greatest example of this tension is perhaps the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the USA. There, abortion has been made legal since the 1970s due to a judiciary precedent. Meaning that the decision to legalize abortion was founded on the court system, not in law - which made it more vulnerable. Religious and conservative groups have made a symbol of their agenda to banish abortion and after decades of pressuring and lobbying, the power to legalize abortion has been returned to the state level, and because of this, people have stopped to have access to legal abortion in various states.
At this point, we would like to dive into some of the main arguments those advocating against abortion rights bring to the table, and why many people believe backing abortion is a mistake.
The case against Abortion: Main arguments
There are many points raised while defending the criminalization or prohibition of abortion. These points vary in nature; they can be political, religious, social, or a mix of all of those. They also vary from country to country. But here are some of the main arguments used by those against abortion - and the counterarguments adressing each one.
The idea that “life begins at conception” One of the most known arguments against abortion is the idea that a fetus should be treated as a human, and protected in the same way a child would by the law. From a philosophical standpoint, this is a matter of personal opinion. However, thinking about it from a scientific perspective, it’s imperative to realize fetuses are only able to feel pain once the nervous system and the brain has developed - something that happens well after the threshold of 12 weeks a lot of countries have for legal abortion. Late pregnancy abortion is not something common neither it is a desire for most pro-choice groups. Most legislation only allows it in very specific cases, when the mother is at risk or there is a fatal fetal condition involved (such as anencephalic fetuses - those developing without a brain). So, while it is a legitimate concern to prevent cruelty to fully-formed babies, this is not something the pro-abortion movement advocates for. Rather, most abortions occur when the fetus is far from developing any nervous system at all.
Religious freedom Some religions firmly preach against abortion and religious freedom is a crucial element to any democratic discussion. But the pro-abortion movement advocates for the freedom of choice - anyone who desires to not have an abortion due their beliefs should be able to do so, while at the same time understanding religious beliefs should not interfere with public policy.
Unwanted children can be adopted For some, the case against abortion is about the fact thatthe those who happen to have an unwanted pregnancy can give their children up for adoption after birth - and since there are many people looking to adopt, these children who have the right to exist. However, this argument does not account for the fact that pregnancy itself can be traumatic - and sometimes even infeasible for some. Think of those who get pregnant as a consequence of rape; for many, carriying out the gestation for nine months is to relive the abuse over and over again. For women struggling with addiction and those battling life-threatening health conditions, carrying out a pregnancy can also be a serious risk.
Abortion harms women Another important argument is the one that abortion is traumatic for women - it causes depression, trauma, and many experience a deep feeling of regret after getting an abortion. Now, the statistics show this does not happen to the majority of those who get an abortion. But it does happen for some. And the solution to this problem is that abortion should be offered as a healthcare option alongside other initiatives that support those who desire to carry the pregnancy to the end, but feel they can’t do it due to lack of financial stability or the means to experience motherhood. This is something we will dive into more detail further ahead. While the discussion around abortion is important, and it’s healthy to listen to both sides, there’s a general climate of moral panic created by many anti-abortion activists. Those fighting for reproductive rights are not looking to implement abortion as a must - instead, they are looking to give women a choice that might save their lives. It’s also important to realize the devastating consequences these pushbacks have on the lives of real people dealing with unwanted pregnancies, as well as to understand the reasons behind the immense taboo around reproductive rights - something we will dive into in the next section.
The importance of Abortion
Abortion is health care
It’s fundamental to understand that abortion has always been a health care service. After all, it is a life-saving service for many people in high-risk pregnancies, as well as victims of sexual abuse.
Furthermore, it’s crucial to realize that we cannot ban abortion altogether - only legal abortion. What this means is that even in places where abortion is completely forbidden, the practice is widely spread.
Don’t believe us?
In Brazil, where abortion can only be allowed to save the mother’s life, there were around 535 people being checked in hospitals - a day - because of abortions being performed illegally in 2019. WHO estimates that nearly half of the registered procedures worldwide are clandestine.
This means abortions are still happening - however they present more risks for those doing it. The appraise is that 68.000 expectant mothers die every year as a consequence of ill-performed clandestine abortions - and these are just the official numbers. The reality is, by banishing abortion we are only putting women at risk. Especially the ones who are already living in poverty.
Abortion, Sexual Empowerment and Freedom
Reproductive and sexual rights are one of the pivotal points of female empowerment. We cannot build a truly sex-positive society if we believe unwanted pregnancies are “deserved punishment” for women who are sexually active. The main issue at play is that the right to abortion is the right to bodily autonomy.
Especially as we factor in that most of the politicians in charge of making the decision regarding reproductive rights are men - who are never going to experience the reality of pregnancy and motherhood.
Motherhood and Financial Independence
Notably because abortion for men is legal and widespread: In the US alone, more than 24 million children are currently raised without their father. Parenthood is a responsibility we place on the mother. For men, it’s commonplace to leave behind unwanted children. And we are not even counting those who are involved in raising their children but do the bare minimum when it comes to sharing responsibilities.
If on one hand forbidding abortion forces women to become mothers even if they are not ready for it, on the other hand there’s still a lack of resources for when the children are born. As stated before, financial insecurity is one of the main reasons for pregnant people wanting to have an abortion. If someone lives in an area where there is no maternity leave, affordable day-care, access to health and education, that’s inevitably going to drive up the need for legal and safe abortions.
Seeing Abortion for what it is
In all seriousness, most of the discourse around abortion being something inherently bad or dangerous is rooted in religious paranoia and moral panic. What is really at stake is not abortion itself - but the need to control women’s bodies and the irrational fear of female sexual freedom. Abortion has been around since sex - and society has never collapsed because of it. Also, it’s been proven that forbidding it is never going to make it go away.
For many feminist activists, abortion should be treated as a last resort. But to truly reduce the number of abortions, what we need is comprehensive sex education, access to contraception, and a support system in place for mothers and their young children.
However, this is something we realize is not going to come easy. Abortion rights should be protected where they exist and fought for hard where they do not. Ultimately, the discussion around abortion is to make policymakers accept the fact that women’s bodies really do belong to them.