Let Women Control their Uteruses – Equality Will Follow

By Liesbet Debecker
These days, society seems to be shifting towards the right. In different Western countries, right-wing parties are gaining popularity, and extreme right-wing movements are on the rise. Thoughts and opinions of the general population are also becoming moving towards the right. This is not without consequence for women’s rights. In conservative and right-wing circles, politicians are not too keen on protecting women’s rights, let alone granting them more. This has damning consequences for women’s ability to decide on the course of their own lives, particularly with relation to reproductive rights.

Recent examples of limitations on women’s right to abortion or even birth control are numerous. In 2016, Poland’s conservative government wanted to ban all abortions, but after the proposal sparked mass protests, the plan was temporarily halted. I say temporarily, because this year, the plan remerged in a slightly altered way.[1] In Croatia, the Constitutional Court ordered the legislative authorities to rewrite the 1978 Yugoslav law concerning the allowance of abortion. Given their conservative government and the pressure coming from the Catholic Church and anti-abortion movements, things aren’t looking good for women’s right to decide. Already doctors are allowed to refuse to perform an abortion when they have a moral objection to it.[2] Some private clinics even pretend to provide abortions, but are in reality they are anti-abortion groups trying to make women change their mind.[3] In the United States, the legality of abortion is on the line since the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, thereby increasing the judicial majority against abortion. On top of that, the current US government has made several attempts to disrupt the functioning of Planned Parenthood, an organisation that provides reproductive health care, including abortions and contraception.[4] In a more recent proposal, the Trump administration plans on allowing exemptions for contraception from health care benefits provided by employers, based on the employer’s ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’.[5] These examples come just from the past few years.

Why does this matter? Restricting abortion and limiting access to contraception severely limits women’s autonomy and self-determination, on a variety of levels. It is based on a view of what a woman should be and that view does not include her being a person able to decide what is best for herself. Denying women access to birth control denies them the possibility to explore their sexuality without the risk of potentially life-lasting consequences. It is telling of the double standard that exists in society (and especially in conservative morals). Women are supposed to look good, be pretty and sexy, but not allow themselves to become sexual beings within themselves. They must still behave well. Sexuality is not a thing of women, it is a thing of men. In this world view, men are allowed to sleep around and explore their sexuality fully. It applies different standards for men and for women and does not treat them as equals. This world view gives men all the freedom and none to women. Men, in this view, are not the ones responsible for an unwanted pregnancy. Since women should not sleep around in the first place, they are responsible for the consequences. This ignores the fact that it takes two to procreate. This view confines women to one role:  being a mother. It is something that has been identified by Clare McGlynn as ‘the dominant ideology of motherhood’.[6] Women are supposed to be mothers and mothers only. It deprives women of the autonomy they need to lead their lives in the way they want. It is a form of control.

All of this is based on the false assumption that women will stop having abortions simply because you ban and criminalise them. This is wrong. Women will turn to illegal abortions, for example by using abortion drugs, a method that is widely popular in Latin-America.[7] Illegal abortions provide women with no protection whatsoever. Things can easily go wrong and, whenever they go to the hospital, they face the possibility of criminal investigation. This of course differs from one country to another or even from one prosecutor to another, but it makes it so that women are completely subjected to the whims of others. It also puts morality before the health and safety of women. Restricting access to abortion also has consequences in cases such as where the woman has been impregnated due to rape or where there are medical difficulties. Even if these scenarios aren’t directly included within a ban, it can make them more difficult to carry out, again disproportionately burdening women.

If women, because of an abortion ban, decide to keep the child or are unable to terminate the pregnancy, this severely affects their lives. Having a child requires a lot of resources. It is not only a huge financial burden – and therefore strongly limits a woman’s financial abilities – it also requires a lot of time and effort, time and effort that cannot be put  into having a career. Denying abortion can therefore exacerbate poverty. Wealthy women will have the means to have an abortion in a country where it is allowed, and if they don’t will have more money to pay for childcare. Poor women will not have that same option and they will suffer more financially because of the extra mouths to feed and less time they can spend working.

As much as conservatives make it seem like they care about the lives of the unborn, one cannot help but wonder if they are aware of the disproportionate consequences for women’s lives. If conservatives really care about women, they should stop treating women as what they want them to be and, instead, just let them be.

Liesbet did a bilingual bachelor in law at the Brussels campus of the Catholic University of Leuven. After that, she obtained her masters in law at the Catholic University of Leuven, spending one year of her master’s on exchange at the University of Vienna. Her specialisations were criminal law, international and European law, but she wrote her thesis in human rights law. Her main interest is gender issues in law.

[1] ‘Mass protests in in Poland against tightening of abortion law’ The Guardian (London, 23 March 2018 <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/23/abortion-poland-mass-protests-against-tightening-of-law> accessed 20 November 2018.

[2] Ségolène Allemandou ‘Croatia. Talked Out of Having an Abortion’ (FRANCE 24) <https://webdoc.france24.com/abortion-women-croatia-malta-germany/croatia-talked-out-of-having-an-abortion/index.html> accessed 20 November 2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Julie Rovner ‘Trump Proposes Cutting Planned Parenthood Funds. What does that mean?’ The Washington Post (Washington, 22 May 2018) <https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/trump-proposes-cutting-planned-parenthood-funds-what-does-that-mean/2018/05/22/76a3a568-5ade-11e8-9889-07bcc1327f4b_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.5c1e21378e4d> accessed 20 November 2018.

[5] Robert Pear ‘Trump Proposes a New Way Around Birth Control Mandate: Religious Exemptions and Title X,’ The New York Times, (New York, 17 November 2018) <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/17/us/politics/trump-birth-control.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&fbclid=IwAR2hKr-FdSn5F-kVeGRbcS3EIwiZNcLZE_EEP4KMBsl-zyoQO2PUmEHbRyY> accessed 20 November 2018

[6] Clare McGlynn, ‘Ideologies of Motherhood in European Community Sex Equality Law’ (2000) 1 European Law Journal 29, 31.

[7] Michelle Oberman ‘What Happens When Abortion Is Banned?’ The New York Times (New York, 31 May 2018) <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/31/opinion/sunday/abortion-banned-latin-america.html> accessed 20 November 2018.