By Rosie Cuppaidge
Although it is self-evident that abortion is a feminist issue, in light of recent world events about abortion (the death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland after being refused a medically necessary abortion and the views of basically every Republican in this year’s US election), I wanted to lay out some clear reasons for why free access to abortion is so essential for women.
What is a feminist issue?
A feminist issue is anything that disproportionately impacts on women. It is an area where targeted action is needed to address inequality between the sexes. So, abortion is a feminist issue in that it disproportionately impacts on women. When abortion is not widely available, it is women’s lives that are at risk: from being refused a medically necessary procedure to sustain the mother’s life (think: Savita Halappanavar), to unregulated, black market abortion procedures carried out resulting in alarmingly high rates of maternal mortality.
This is, however, not the whole story. Safe access to abortion is about more than medically necessary abortions. It is useful to refer to the European Court of Human Rights decision in A, B and C v Ireland. Here, the Court drew a distinction between medically necessary abortions and abortions on personal health and wellbeing grounds. The distinction is demonstrated by the Court’s decisions with respect to each applicant. Applicant C, who was successful, required an abortion because being pregnant might worsen the cancer that she was in remission from. This fell under the medically necessary category. Applicants A and B, however, fell under the personal health ground and were denied relief. I would like to explore this ground in more detail because it is this category which, I believe, underscores why abortion is a feminist issue.
Abortion on Personal Health and Wellbeing Grounds
Widely-available abortion is essential so that women can determine what to do with their own bodies, and therefore their lives. There are many specific reasons why a person may want to have an abortion. It may really not be the right time in that woman’s life to have a child, it may exacerbate existing mental health or even legal issues. The possibilities are endless, and their content is not important. What the current discourse with respect to abortion indicates, however, is that these reasons are not good enough. I think that this demonstrates that people do not trust women to make these choices themselves. For example, there is the argument that if abortion were widely available, it would be like a substitute for contraception. (Honestly, though, I would put this argument on about the same level-of-convincing-ness as ‘marriage equality encourages pedophilia’)
It is this ‘ground’ for abortion that is an especially feminist issue. This is because it demonstrates the problem that underscores the entire debate about abortion: that others (in positions of power – i.e. white male law makers) think they that make better choices about women’s bodies than women themselves can make. That others think they know better than a woman in all circumstances, irrespective of that woman’s own right to determine the direction of her own life. We are not talking here about some dangerous, new procedure. We’re talking about a medical procedure that is so established that there is an abortion pill available. A procedure which can be carried out without the aid of medical professionals.
First, exceptions to general prohibitions on abortion are bullshit. I shouldn’t have to demonstrate mental health problems to be allowed access to a basic procedure which would facilitate my ability to control the direction of my life. Abortion needs to be across the board legal. This leads me to my second point. The “right to life” is thrown around way too often as a reason to deprive women of their capacity to self-determine. This has to stop. Abortion is not a “special case”. Preventing access to abortion is another way to put limits on women’s lives, to stop them from having the full suite of choices and being able to live full lives.
When abortion is not available, it centres a woman’s life on her reproductive system. Her reproductive system then becomes the determinant of her life. Since feminism is about, among other things, giving women the right to determine the direction of their own lives, abortion is a feminist issue because it is the basic way that women can do just that.