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.

 

Continue reading Sociology of Abortion Politics

Sociology of Race and Reproductive Health

Barron Lerner reports how, over time, scientists have protested the fact that three statues were built to commemorate gynecologist Marion Sims (in South Carolina, Alabama and New York City), but none have been built to acknowledge the sacrifice of his three main “test subjects” Lucy, Anarcha and Betsy.

“The story of J. Marion Sims is a reminder of how history gets rewritten over time. The hope, of course, is that each new account gets closer to the truth”.

Similarly, the history of the clinical trials for the oral contraceptive pill were tested on poor women in a small town in Puerto Rico in the 1950s. The women were deceived about their participation in the trial. They not told about the possible side effects of the untested drug. They did not give their informed consent. Many women died and had ongoing health complications as a result of the trials.

Today, many women in advanced nations benefit from the experiments conducted on poor, enslaved and disempowered Black and Brown women, but few people know about the women whose health was compromised as a result. Additionally, for all the past sacrifices, poor women are less likely to benefit from scientific trials. While Sims’ experiments have been attributed to the eradication of vesicovaginal fistulas in advanced countries, this is still a major problem for 3.5 million women in developing nations, particularly in countries around Africa. The argument that unethical practices of the past might be excused for their present-day benefits is wilfully ignorant of the reality of who didn’t benefit back then and who hasn’t benefited today: enslaved and other poor Black women, and other impoverished women of colour.