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  • Changeofkeyreading - Saxton (2006)readingreplacedwith a shorterexcerptofit, availableat:

  • As part of the strike actions for fair pay in higher education, there will be a strike tomorrow, from 2.00 to 4.00. This means that Caroline’s seminar at 2.00 is cancelled. The 1.00 seminar will be running as normal, so students from the cancelled seminar group can go to that seminar.

Transformations gender reproduction and contemporary society

Transformations: Gender, Reproduction, and Contemporary Society

Week 13: Whose Body Is It Anyway? The Politics of Abortion

Dr. Maria do Mar Pereira

[email protected]

Outline Society

  • Facts and figures

  • History

  • Abortion law in the UK (and beyond)

  • Discourses on Abortion: “the right to choose” and “the right to life”

  • Foetal Images

  • Abortion, Population control and Eugenics

  • Abortion and Disability

Facts and figures
Facts and SocietyFigures

  • 90% of all abortions in the UK take place in the first 12 weeks.

  • Less than 1% of abortions in the UK are after 22 weeks.

  • 10% of UK GPs refuse to grant women access to abortion.

  • 76% of the UK population are pro-choice.

  • 33,3% of UK women will have an abortion in their lifetime.

  • 1.25 billion women globally have either no access to legal abortion, or only to save the woman’s life.

  • Approximately 80,000 women die globally every year from unsafe abortions.

History of abortion in the uk
History of SocietyAbortion in the UK

  • Norms about abortion have changed significantly over time:

    • from 13thcentury: abortion was acceptable until quickening

    • 19thand early 20thcentury: introduction of several laws limiting access to legal abortion.During this period, there was significant loss of life due to unsafe abortion – around 15% of all maternal deaths in 1920s and 1930s

  • 1936: the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) was established

  • 1938: Dr Alex Bourne acquitted of performing illegal abortion

  • 1967: The Abortion Act

  • 1975: National Abortion Campaign (NAC) formed

  • 1990: Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill

  • 2003: ALRA and NAC merged to form Abortion Rights

Film directed by Mike Leigh (2004) and starring SocietyImelda Staunton as 1950s Vera Drake, devoted wife and mother who helps working class women facing unwanted pregnancies by inducing miscarriages. She sees her activities as help to these women; the law and those around her see them as murder. When a woman dies in her care, Vera Drake is sentenced to 2½ years imprisonment.

Current uk a bortion l aw abortion act 1967 england scotland and wales
Current UK SocietyAbortion Law (Abortion Act 1967: England, Scotland and Wales)

  • Abortion allowed up to 24 weeks, as long as:

    • it is carried out in a hospital or a specialist licensed clinic

    • two doctors (one in an emergency) agree that an abortion would cause less damage to a woman's physical or mental health than continuing with the pregnancy

  • Abortion may be carried out after 24 weeks:

    • if it is necessary to save the woman's life

    • to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman

    • if there is substantial risk that if the child were born, s/he would have physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped

Abortion law in the us
Abortion Law in the US Society

  • 1973: Roe vs. Wade decision by US Supreme Court recognised woman’s ‘right to privacy’

    • The court attempted to balance the rights of women and state protection of the foetus

  • Women in the US have absolute right to abortion up to 12 weeks; however, there are barriers to access

  • After 12 weeks, abortion is subject to regulation (which varies from state to state)

  • Abortion in the 3rdtrimester can be restricted by states unless a woman’s health or life is medically certified to beat risk

  • Highly contested and still ongoing issue in the US – e.g. Sen. Davis filibuster (2013):

Abortion law worldwide
Abortion SocietyLawWorldwide

Safe abortion methods
Safe Methods

  • Medical abortion (drugs)

  • Surgical procedures

  • Induced labour

Abortion rates in england and wales 2010
Abortion Rates in England and Wales (2010)

Discourses on abortion the right to choose
Discourses on Abortion:“the right to choose”

  • Rallying cry for feminists and pro-choice activists

  • Discourse of rights

  • Privacy (Roe vs. Wade in US)

  • The problem of “choice”

Discourses on abor tion the right to life
Discourses on “the right to life”

  • Foetal rights vs. women’s rights

  • Foetal life as “innocent” and therefore as having greater rights than the woman

  • Contradiction: foetus constructed as autonomous and independent AND vulnerable and dependent

  • Rose and Hatfield (2007) – contingent citizenship

  • “This [abortion] is abuse of pre-born American children. This is violence against pre-born American babies. This is the torture and murder of future American patriots who deserve this Nation” (Rose and Hatfield, 2007, p. 15)

The politics of representation of the embryo foetus
The Politics of Representation of the Embryo/Foetus





Foetal images
Foetal Images

  • Ultrasound scans and IVF have contributed to a reconceptuali-sationof the status of the foetus: it becomes represented and seen as autonomous (Draper, 2002; Petchesky, 1987)

  • These images have regularly been used in pro-life campaigning

    • e.g. 3D images of smiling babies as evidence of “humanness”

  • A question of scale

12 weeks

Thinking about abortion globally
Thinking about Abortion Globally

  • Population control

  • Sex selection

  • Eugenics

    BUT abortion is not just an ‘internal’, national issue – it is imbricated in broader relations of influence between countries.

Abortion and disability
Abortion and Disability

  • Seeing disability as grounds for abortion is relatively common and uncontroversial – but is it entirely unproblematic?

    • complex issue that relates to our notions of what constitutes ‘alife worth living’

    • disability activists have urged feminists to stop ‘exploiting’ disability in pro-choice campaigns, because this compounds anti-disability sentiment and excluded disabled feminists (Kallianes and Rubenfield, 1997)

    • disability activists have argued that such abortions are a form of eugenics

Abortion and disability1
Abortion and Disability

  • Section 1(1)d of the UK's 1967 Abortion Act allowed termination of a pregnancy at any time if there was a significant risk of the baby being born seriously disabled.

  • The Disability Rights Commission criticised this section in the following words:

    The Section is offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability and there is substantial support for the view that to permit terminations at any point during a pregnancy on the ground of risk of disability, while time limits apply to other grounds set out in the Abortion Act, is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally.

  • The DRC believes the context in which parents choose whether to have a child should be one in which disability and non-disability are valued equally. (

Abortion and disability dilemmas
Abortion and Disability: Dilemmas

  • Tom Shakespeare (in Sharpe and Earle 2002) argues that the decision to abort because of impairment is not always freely made (e.g. socio-economic factors; anti-disability culture) and is therefore problematic.

  • But if a key pro-choice principle is that women do not need a socially justifiable reason to request an abortion, then this is in tension with Shakespeare’s position.

Abortion and disability2
Abortion and Disability

“The message at the heart of widespread selective abortion on the basis of prenatal diagnosis is the greatest insult: some of us are "too flawed" at our very DNA core to exist, unworthy of being born. This message is painful to confront. It seems tempting to take on easier battles or even just to give in. But fighting for this issue, our right and worthiness to be born, is the fundamental challenge to disability oppression; it underpins our most basic claim to justice and equality: We are indeed worthy of being born, we are worth the help and expense, and we know it! The great opportunity with this issue is to think and act and take leadership in the place where feminism, disability rights and human liberation meet.”

(Saxton, 1998)

Some conclusions
Some Conclusions

  • Abortion is one of the most contested issues in reproduction.

  • The debate is frequently articulated in terms of an adversarial relationship of competing rights (particularly, woman/ foetus)

  • Abortion policy and practice sheds light on a society’s normative ideas of what constitutes a “life worth living”, a “good mother” and the “right” kind of reproduction.

  • The right not to have to choose abortion is as significant as the right to choose.

  • There is tension between feminists and disability activists over abortion.