Sociology of Abortion Politics

Women protesting, with a sign that reads "My body. My choice."

This week, on 11 May 2017, a bill two-years-in-the-making to decriminalise abortion in the state of New South Wales, Australia, was defeated 14 to 25, meaning abortion remains a crime under the Criminal Act. Greens MP and Spokesperson for the Status of Women, Dr Mehreen Faruqi MLC, who led the campaign to decriminalise said: “This bill was not about promoting or not promoting abortion. It was about choice.”

Another separate bill to establish 150 metre safe zones to protect abortion clinics has been introduced by Labor MP Penny Sharpe. This bill works to eliminate harassment and intimidation by anti-choice lobbyists who film and degrade women who walk into clinics.

In NSW, women can access abortions only with their doctor’s consent that there are “reasonable grounds” for the abortion, linked to physical and mental danger. Otherwise abortion is punishable by five years in jail.

This law has been in place since the 1970s, but stems back to 1900. Counter to national myths of our egalitarianism, abortion laws unearth how gender inequality is maintained by White, conservative Christian patriarchal ideology that seeks to control women’s autonomy. Sociological studies show how medical professionals have long been at the vanguard of change, by shifting understandings of abortion from moral arguments, to a medical choice.

Christian lobby groups, who hold strong political power, push back against medical and community views, using emotional imagery to influence abortion laws. This has proven effective over time, and continues to hold back progress in New South Wales (and Queensland, another conservative stronghold). Despite this recent set-back, momentum towards progressive change continues. A better sociological understanding of religiously conservative ideology and tactics may hold the key towards the next legal breakthrough.


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“While early organizing saw abortion as one of many facets of women’s liberation and reproductive autonomy, in the decades following Roe, this more expansive view has somewhat narrowed. More recently, mainstream feminist organizing around choice has focused predominately on contraceptive services and abortion. In many respects this shift has marginalized the panoply of ways in which reproductive choice and autonomy is constrained in the lives of women of color in a number of discursive spaces and institutional settings. Indeed, feminists of color have long resisted this narrow definition of reproductive choice and autonomy. While emphasizing the central importance of access to contraception and abortion services, women of color activists have also highlighted the ways in which the denial of reproductive capacity and the denigration of their identities as mothers has been central to their subordination in the context of slavery, colonialism and Jim Crow. Women of color also contested the idea that they were unable or incapable of controlling their reproductive destinies. In so doing they mobilized to fight sterilization and other practices that burdened the choice to bear children. Yet for many poor women of color, full reproductive choice and autonomy has remained elusive. Indeed, the reproductive capacities of women of color are often targeted for suppression or derision within contemporary political discourses and official policymaking within a number of institutional settings including the criminal justice and welfare systems. The injuries suffered by women of color in this context, however, are seldom articulated as part of the broader attacks on reproductive rights of women. This targeting of women of color and their families, and the silences that often accompany this targeting, combine to form what I am calling “reproductive profiling.” I use the term “reproductive profiling” to draw upon the ways in which people of color are profiled in the policing or law enforcement context. Similar to the failure of the Fourth Amendment’s privacy rationale to fully extend to victims of racial profiling, individuals subject to reproductive profiling are denied the autonomy and privacy interests guaranteed by the Constitution. As Dorothy Roberts and others have noted, the lives of poor women of color are often public due to frequent interactions with government agencies. Consequently, those who choose to become parents do not benefit from the privacy or dignity rationales represented by Roe and its progeny. In various institutional contexts, such as immigration, prisons and social welfare, poor women of color are subjected to behavior policing policies that limit reproductive autonomy or punish the choice to become a parent. As Michele Goodwin has noted, this “brings private, intimate spaces into the public theatre, creating spectacles of poor, pregnant women and their children; and this public humiliation functions to visually inscribe these women’s place in the social hierarchy.” Moreover, like victims of racial profiling in the policing context, women of color are singled out for suspicion because they are deemed to be in places that they do not belong. Indeed, poor women of color have historically been denied identities as mothers, which are informed by the normative values of the white middle-class. In this way, constraints on their choices to become parents are a reflection of social views that women of color who seek to parent are attempting to access a space that is inappropriate or one that they are not equipped to navigate. The race, gender and class identities of women of color, when attached to their choice to become parents, often raises a suspicion of wrongdoing. Consequently, they confront significant regulation of those choices and are subject to pervasive surveillance.”

Priscilla A. Ocen, “Roe and the ‘Reproductive Profiling’ of Women of Color,” Balkinization 1/13/13