There are a seemingly endless variety of laws, restrictions, customs and traditions that affect the practice of abortion around the world. Globally, abortion is probably the single most controversial issue in the whole area of women’s rights and family matters. It is an issue that inflames women’s right groups, religious institutions, and the self-proclaimed “guardians” of public morality. The growing worldwide belief is that the right to control one’s fertility is a basic human right. This has resulted in a worldwide trend towards liberalization of abortion laws. Forty per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where induced abortion is permitted on request. An additional 25 per cent live in countries where it is allowed if the women’s life would be endangered if she went to full term with her pregnancy. The estimate is that between 26 and 31 million legal abortions were performed in 1987. However, there were also between 10 and 22 million illegal abortions performed in that year.
Feminists have viewed the patriarchal control of women’s bodies as one of the prime issues facing the contemporary women’s movement. They observe that the definition and control of women’s reproductive freedom has always been the province of men. Patriarchal religion, as manifest in Islamic fundamentalism “traditionalist Hindu practice, orthodox Judaism, and Roman Catholicism, has been an important historical contributory factor for this and continues to be an important presence in contemporary societies. In recent times, governments, usually controlled by men, have “given” women the right to contraceptive use and abortion access when their countries were perceived to have an overpopulation problem. When these countries are perceived to be under populated, that right has been absent. Until the nineteenth century, a woman’s rights to an abortion followed English common law; it could only be legally challenged if there was a “quickening”, when the first movements of the foetus could be felt. In 1800, drugs to induce abortions were widely advertised in local newspapers. By 1900, abortion was banned in every state except to save the life of the mother. The change was strongly influenced by the medical profession, which focused its campaign ostensibly on health and safety issues for pregnant women and the sanctity of life. Its position was also a means of control of non-licensed medical practitioners such as midwives and women healers who practiced abortion.
The anti-abortion campaign was also influenced by political considerations. The large influx of eastern and southern European immigrants with their large families was seen as a threat to the population balance of the future United States. Middle and Upper class Protestants were advocates of abortion as a form of birth control. By supporting abortion prohibitions the hope was that these Americans would have more children and thus prevent the tide of immigrant babies from overwhelming the demographic characteristics of Protestant America.
The anti-abortion legislative position remained in effect in the United States through the first sixty-five years of the twentieth century. In the early 1960s, even when it was widely known that the drug thalidomide taken during pregnancy to alleviate anxiety was shown to contribute to the formation of deformed “flipper-like” hands or legs of children, abortion was illegal in the United States. A second health tragedy was the severe outbreak of rubella during the same time period, which also resulted in major birth defects. These tragedies combined with a change of attitude towards a woman’s right to privacy lead a number of states to pass abortion-permitting legislation.
On one side of the controversy are those who call themselves “pro-life”. They view the foetus as a human life rather than as an unformed complex of cells; therefore, they hold to the belief that abortion is essentially murder of an unborn child. These groups cite both legal and religious reasons for their opposition to abortion. Pro-lifers point to the rise in legalized abortion figures and see this as morally intolerable. On the other side of the issue are those who call themselves “pro-choice”. They believe that women, not legislators or judges, should have the right to decide whether and under what circumstances they will bear children. Pro-choicers are of the opinion that laws will not prevent women from having abortions and cite the horror stories of the past when many women died at the hands of “back-room” abortionists and in desperate attempts to self-abort. They also observe that legalized abortion is especially important for rape victims and incest victims who became pregnant. They stress physical and mental health reasons why women should not have unwanted children.
To get a better understanding of the current abortion controversy, let us examine a very important work by Kristin Luker titled Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. Luker argues that female pro-choice and pro-life activists hold different world views regarding gender, sex, and the meaning of parenthood. Moral positions on abortions are seen to be tied intimately to views on sexual behavior, the care of children, family life, technology, and the importance of the individual. Luker identifies “pro-choice” women as educated, affluent, and liberal. Their contrasting counterparts, “pro-life” women, support traditional concepts of women as wives and mothers. It would be instructive to sketch out the differences in the world views of these two sets of women. Luker examines California, with its liberalized abortion law, as a case history. Public documents and newspaper accounts over a twenty-year period were analyzed and over 200 interviews were held with both pro-life and pro-choice activists.
Luker found that pro-life and pro-choice activists have intrinsically different views with respect to gender. Prolife women have a notion of public and private life. The proper place for men is in the public sphere of work; for women, it is the private sphere of the home. Men benefit through the nurturance of women; women benefit through the protection of men. Children are seen to be the ultimate beneficiaries of this arrangement by having the mother as a full-time loving parent and by having clear role models. Pro-choice advocates reject the view of separate spheres. They object to the notion of the home being the “women’s sphere”. Women’s reproductive and family roles are seen as potential barriers to full equality. Motherhood is seen as a voluntary, not a mandatory or “natural” role.
In summarizing her findings, Luker believes that women become activists in either of the two movements as the end result of lives that center around different conceptualizations of motherhood. Their beliefs and values are rooted to the concrete circumstances of their lives, their educations, incomes, occupations, and the different marital and family choices that they have made. They represent two different world views of women’s roles in contemporary society and as such the abortion issues represent the battleground for the justification of their respective views.
Pro-choice women object to the notion of the home being the “women’s sphere” because they believe: