Reproductive Rights In Affluent Nations Research Paper

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Reproductive rights can be defined as the freedoms and opportunities that allow individuals to choose if, when, and how to have children. Advocates of reproductive rights have argued that this choice involves access to contraceptives, abortion, and reproductive technologies; freedom from forced sterilization; and access to health care that allows women and their partners to participate in decisions regarding prenatal care and childbirth. Many feminists argue that genuine reproductive choice requires a broad set of changes, including gender equality, employment opportunities, and available high-quality daycare.

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1. Historical And Intellectual Context

The notion of reproductive rights is very much a product of ninteenth and twentieth century women’s movements. Feminist perspectives on reproductive rights include both individual and social components (Petchesky 1984). The individual element, rooted in liberal thought, is the idea that women must control their bodies to be independent persons. Liberal discourse has been critical to both reproductive rights advocates, who discuss reproductive rights as essential to women’s equality, and their opponents, who make claims about the competing rights of fetuses, male partners, and parents of minors (O’Connor et al. 1999, pp. 158–9). The social component, which draws on Marxist thought, is the recognition that material conditions and social relations constrain reproductive choices. As Rosalind Petchesky (1984) argues, reproductive freedom is necessarily individual, involving women’s bodies, but at the same time social, involving social arrangements and class and racial divisions that affect reproduction.

In the nineteenth century, birth control movements emerged in many affluent nations. In her history of birth control in America, Linda Gordon (1976) argues that feminist efforts to gain political power through suffrage, and power within the family through birth control, were a response to rapid industrialization; by gaining power and control, women might bolster the family and help to solve social problems. Although nineteenth century advocates of ‘voluntary motherhood’ disapproved of contraceptives as ‘unnatural,’ they advocated women’s right to refuse sex with their husbands. This demand for the right to refusal was part of the fight against unequal marriage laws, including legalized rape, and was considered a condition of women’s independence. In the words of one voluntary motherhood activist, it was ‘Woman’s Natural Right to ownership and control over her own body-self—a right inseparable from Women’s intelligent existence …’ (Gordon 1976, pp. 103–4), a sentiment that would be echoed by twentieth-century feminists in their continuing battles for reproductive rights.

Although nineteenth-century American feminists firmly asserted women’s right to control their bodies, they never endorsed contraceptives and never rejected motherhood. Gordon explains their continued disapproval of contraception as a result of their fear that contraceptive use would lead to extramarital sex, and that this would lead to greater freedom for men, but not for women. Similarly in England, nineteenth century feminists failed to support birth control, fearing that women would be victimized by men’s sexual desires (Banks and Banks 1964). Lacking economic independence, women needed men’s commitment to their wives and children in marriage. The voluntary motherhood movement was an attempt to restrict sexual morality, rather than create sexual freedom, which at that time was not seen as beneficial to women. Women’s movements in other Western countries were animated by similar ideologies. It was not until additional social changes made it possible for women to broaden their worlds that women’s movements broadened their conceptions of reproductive rights.

By the early twentieth century, women were entering the labor force in greater numbers and sexual activity outside of marriage was on the rise. ‘Birth control,’ a term coined by US activist Margaret Sanger in 1915, was advocated for both economic and sexual reasons. Socialists in Europe and North America pushed for access to birth control to improve the lives of the working class. Neo-Malthusians, who were concerned about population growth, advocated contraception and were generally supportive of sexual equality (Francome 1984). Advocates of sexual liberation, influenced by European sex theorists such as Havelock Ellis, saw birth control as freeing women of their dependence on men. Early twentieth-century feminists, however, were not in complete agreement about the benefits of birth control for women. Some feared sexual promiscuity and the degradation of motherhood as a source of status for women, and some had race and class biases that influenced their views on birth control. Nevertheless, birth control movements in affluent nations expanded greatly and were linked to women’s sexual freedom. When women’s movements in various countries were ‘reborn’ in the 1960s, access to birth control was an important demand.

Movements to legalize abortion also emerged in many countries in the twentieth century. Attitudes toward sexual behavior were becoming more liberal, and various women’s groups advocated liberalization of abortion laws. By the 1930s, a number of European countries passed laws that provided for some limited access to abortion. The contemporary wave of abortion reform laws in affluent countries began with the passage of the British Abortion Act in 1967, which was pushed by the Abortion Law Reform Association, an organization founded in 1936. Although the British law gave medical practitioners rather than women control over the abortion decision, it was a significant advance in women’s access to abortion (Francome 1984).

Abortion rights activism increased in the 1960s as women’s movements flourished in many Western countries. Feminists demanded legal abortion as part of women’s right to control their bodies and developed extended analyses of reproductive rights. In North America, collectives like the Montreal Health Press and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective distributed works such as The Birth Control Handbook and Our Bodies, Ourselves, which were early sources of information to women about contraception, abortion, childbirth, and other women’s health issues. Women’s health activists criticized male gynecologists, obstetricians, and other practitioners for demeaning women and failing to include them in decisions about their own bodies. They questioned the safety of some contraceptives and drugs and the necessity of some surgical procedures. They criticized high-technology childbirth practices that took control over childbirth away from women. As more black women and other ethnic minorities were drawn into the women’s health movement, they raised the issue of forced sterilization of poor and nonwhite women. As alternatives to established medical control over women’s health care, feminists developed ‘self-help gynecology’ and opened feminist health clinics (Ruzek 1978).

In countries where the women’s movement was strong, feminists influenced abortion reform movements to advocate abortion as a women’s rights issue. In the United States, the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 on the basis of a ‘right to privacy,’ recognizing the rights of both women and doctors to make decisions about abortion. Other Western countries also legalized abortion in the 1970s, with varying degrees of input from feminists. In Canada, for example, feminists framed abortion as a reproductive right, but the discourse of medicalization was stronger than that of feminism, and the 1969 abortion reform law focused on the concerns of doctors rather than women (Brodie et al. 1992).

Although feminists continued to be concerned with a broad range of reproductive rights, abortion became a major preoccupation after legalization of abortion provoked strong antiabortion countermovements in many countries. In the USA, the single-issue anti-abortion movement expanded the conflict to new battlefields such as electoral politics, and the abortion rights movement was forced to engage in single-issue political tactics of its own. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, some feminist reproductive rights activists tried to influence single-issue abortion rights groups to broaden their approach, but they had little success at a time when the very legality of abortion was threatened (Staggenborg 1991). Nevertheless, abortion rights groups helped to maintain the larger women’s movement in the 1980s and 1990s, attracting many young women concerned about losing abortion rights. During periods when the antiabortion movement ebbs, reproductive rights groups have more freedom to pursue a broader range of concerns beyond abortion rights.

In sum, notions of reproductive rights have shifted with the larger socioeconomic and political environment. Nineteenth century voluntary motherhood activists, who lacked economic independence, demanded rights that would strengthen women’s positions in families. As women gained more economic freedom with expanding industrialization, movement activists advocated birth control and later abortion rights. The rebirth of feminism in the 1960s inspired an elaborated notion of reproductive rights, which questioned existing medical authority. As black and other nonwhite feminists added their voices to the movement, consciousness of race and class issues, such as sterilization abuse, expanded. Countermovement threats to abortion rights since the 1970s limited the concerns of some movement organizations, but also helped to bring new activists into the reproductive rights movement.

2. Research On Reproductive Rights

Social scientific research on reproductive rights has examined reproductive rights movements and countermovements, changes in the medical profession, variations in public policies on abortion, court rulings on abortion, voting patterns of elected representatives, public opinion, demographic profiles of contraceptive and abortion users, public discourse and media coverage of reproductive rights campaigns, and a variety of other issues. Three major categories of research are described here.

2.1 Social Movement Research

Analyses of reproductive rights movements have focused on the conditions giving rise to such movements, their evolving organizational structures, strategies and tactics, conflicts with opponents, and outcomes. With regard to the origins of reproductive rights movements, research points to the importance of the political environment as well as available organizational bases and resources. The US abortion rights movement, for example, arose in the context of the protest cycle of the 1960s, in which the successes of the civil rights movement influenced the growth of other movements. Civil rights victories in the courts were certainly one impetus for abortion rights litigation. Other social movements, including both the population movement and the women’s movement, provided organizational bases for the abortion rights movement (see Staggenborg 1991).

Beyond explaining the emergence of reproductive rights movements, analysts have examined their on-going activities and outcomes. Studies of the women’s health movement have examined the difficulties involved in establishing and maintaining feminist health clinics, changes in the movement over time, and the extent to which women’s health concerns have become institutionalized in current medical practice. In the case of the abortion conflict, analysts have examined interactions between the abortion rights movement and the antiabortion countermovement. Organizational analyses of movement changes over time show that abortion rights movements in various countries have generally grown in strength in response to antiabortion threats.

To explain the intensity of the abortion conflict, many analysts have sought to connect the conflict to twentieth century shifts in values and lifestyles. For those opposed to these changes, abortion symbolizes a whole cluster of threatened values. In Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, Luker (1984) argues that the abortion battle is a clash between two groups of women. Among activists in California, she found that advocates of abortion tended to be educated, careeroriented women who saw motherhood as only one part of their lives, whereas opponents had committed themselves to the traditional female role of wife and mother and felt threatened by its declining status.

Such case studies have been important in revealing the symbolic meanings of abortion for activists and in showing how the conflict has intensified over time. In Toronto, Cuneo (1989) found that the composition of the antiabortion movement changed over time. Early opponents of abortion were liberal Catholics who defended the civil liberties of the fetus and did not oppose changes in gender roles, but they were gradually pushed out of the movement by defenders of traditional family and religious values who regarded abortion as both a symbol and a cause of declining values. In Fargo, North Dakota, Ginsburg (1989) found that early activists on both sides of the abortion conflict actually shared some common ground, including a concern with community and collective responsibility. However, the conflict became more polarized over time, particularly as media coverage encouraged extremism in the antiabortion movement.

2.2 Analyses Of Public Discourse On Reproductive Rights

Related to research on social movements are analyses of public discourse on reproductive rights, particularly abortion. Condit (1990) examines shifts in public discourse on abortion in the USA from 1960 to 1985, using sources such as newspapers and television shows. She demonstrates the persuasive force of different types of discourse, including value-laden phrases such as the ‘right to choice,’ narratives about women’s experiences with abortion, and characterizations such as the ‘back alley’ of illegal abortion. Condit describes how early 1960s narratives about women’s experiences with illegal abortion, which portrayed ordinary women needing abortions, aroused public sympathy and made abortion a public concern. These narratives were limiting in that they focused on the needs of ‘good’ women with ‘good’ excuses for abortion rather than on the reproductive rights of all women. Nevertheless, they helped to change the public view of abortion as ‘wrong’—and in doing so provoked ‘prolife heritage tales,’ which countered that abortion is always wrong. Later in the 1960s and in the 1970s, the argument broadened as abortion rights activists demanded equality for women and the ‘right to choice’ while antiabortionists argued for the ‘right to life’ of the fetus. Condit analyses in detail the social force of the different images and rhetoric used by each side and the social compromises that have been negotiated in different arenas in response to the debate.

Comparative research on abortion politics is needed to show how discursive processes vary with different political cultures and institutional structures. Myra Marx Ferree, William Gamson, Jurgen Gerhards and Dieter Rucht have been comparing the changing influences on abortion discourse in Germany and the USA. Ferree and Gamson (1999) analyse the impact of the organization and discourse of the supranational women’s movement, the national women’s movements in each country, and the political context of abortion policy in each country. The International Reproductive Rights Research Action Group has found both an international diffusion of feminist discourse on reproductive rights and remaining silences on the subject of female sexuality (Petchesky 1997).

2.3 Research On Public Opinion

An extensive body of literature examines public attitudes toward abortion. Analyses of public opinion surveys in the USA show that approval of abortion increased sharply between 1965 and 1973, when the US Supreme Court legalized abortion, and has remained relatively stable since then. Opposition to abortion is correlated with religiosity and other conservative positions on issues of personal morality, and is also linked, more weakly, to opposition to women’s rights (see Cook et al. 1992). European data on trends in values suggests a long-term process of secularization and acceptance of individual discretion in terms of personal morality in Western industrialized countries, which may also explain trends in US attitudes on abortion (Rossi and Sitaraman 1988).

Comparative analyses of abortion attitudes in the USA and Canada reveal strikingly similar patterns in the two countries (see Jelen and Chandler 1994). In both countries, abortion attitudes are remarkably stable, with majorities of the public falling into the middle ground of continued support for abortion under certain circumstances. Nevitte and his colleagues find that support for legal abortion is predicted by similar variables in both countries, including religiosity, ‘postmaterialist’ values, feminism, and education. Such analyses are important in predicting the future of the abortion conflict. With economic prosperity, increases in postmaterialism and the salience of feminist issues are likely to increase support for reproductive rights, although waning materialist concerns may also increase concerns about abortion among religious fundamentalists who oppose abortion (Nevitte et al. 1993, p. 28).

Other affluent countries exhibit similar patterns. Gallup polls taken in 1981–4 and again in 1990–4 in a number of different countries show that majorities of respondents approve of legal abortion for certain reasons such as threat to the mother’s health, and that these attitudes are stable over time (Simon 1998). Although opposition to feminist positions on reproductive rights remains, public opinion in affluent countries is generally supportive of women’s access to abortion.


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