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The issue of women’s reproductive rights came to the fore in the twentieth century. Early feminists demanded access to gynecological and contraceptive information; the movement later sought to give women the ability to control their own bodies and make decisions about contraceptives and pregnancy. Feminists and activists argue such rights will give women full participation, power, and status in society.
In 1968 the United Nations International Human Rights Conference overwhelmingly declared that reproductive rights should be acknowledged as basic human rights. This conclusion was based on the rationale that a woman’s right to control her own body is an expression of free will. The reality is that for women in many countries, reproductive choice is in the hands of husbands or governments. What should be a woman’s most private experience is in fact controlled and shaped by economic, political, and social institutions. Therefore, feminists around the world, irrespective of their ideological and political differences, are united in their desire to see women granted reproductive rights. It is an essential precondition for women’s full participation in society.
What Are Reproductive Rights?
Reproductive rights comprise the right to decide timing and spacing of children, the right to access to gynecological and contraceptive information, the freedom to choose from different birth control methods, and the right to terminate a pregnancy if desired. It is an important feminist agenda because these rights are irrevocably entwined with women’s political, economic, and social status in society. In the United States and Western Europe, where women are able to control their own fertility, they enjoy, relatively speaking, a higher status in society, whereas in some countries in the developing world, such as Bangladesh, Nepal, or the Central African Republic, where women are denied access to basic information, they are in a disadvantageous state economically, socially, and politically. Lack of information results in uninformed wives and mothers, increased instances of reproductive illnesses, and high maternal and infant mortality rates. Therefore, feminists are united in the view that women around the world should be able to control their own bodies and be granted the right to choose contraceptives and make informed choices about terminating a pregnancy.
Choice before the Twentieth Century
For centuries women across the globe have used vaginal pessaries, herbal douches, the rhythm method, extended breast-feeding, and herbal concoctions to control their fertility and limit births. In strictly patriarchal countries, where boys were preferred to girls, female infanticide was practiced to limit the female population or maintain a desired sex ratio. Trying to restrict fertility is not new; what is new is the concerted effort by feminists to grant women the right to control the decision of whether or not to have children as well as the frequency and number of children, as this has a great impact on their bodies and lives. Reproductive choice, feminists argue, should be in the hands of women and not husbands or governments.
It was in the midst of the momentous changes fostered by the Industrial Revolution of 1760s that the idea of granting women reproductive rights first surfaced. As increased numbers of women were employed in factories, where pregnancy and childbirth would have an adverse effect on their employability, they turned to unreliable birth control and unsafe abortion methods in an effort to control their fertility. In the United States and Great Britain, the common perception was that abortion was not a crime until “quickening” (when the fetus begins moving). The Catholic Church at this time did not have a strong stand on the question of abortion.
In the 1870s, however, as the use of birth control and abortions grew, three groups—male medical practitioners, industrialists, and eugenicists—coalesced and called for outlawing abortion and establishing considerable male control over women’s fertility. Male physicians wanted to monopolize women’s health by encouraging the rapid medicalization of childbirth. This resulted in marginalizing female midwives. Industrialists wanted to increase their productivity and profits by employing more women and children. Eugenicists argued for the rapid demographic growth of peoples of European descent at the expense of “others.” The United States government responded with the Comstock Act of 1873, which restricted distribution of any material considered obscene; information on abortion and birth control came under the purview of this restrictive law. As a consequence, women were denied gynecological and contraceptive information.
From 1900 to the 1950s
The beginnings of the twentieth century coincided with the first battle for reproductive rights in the form of demands for access to gynecological and contraceptive information. U.S. activists such as Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) and the socialist Emma Goldman (1869–1940) and British activists such as Marie Stopes (1880–1938) held public forums to advocate that reproductive rights were crucial to improving women’s status in society. They argued that working-class and poor women be allowed access to information. Despite being publicly ridiculed, harassed, and arrested under the Comstock Act, Sanger and Goldman successfully overturned it. Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, the forerunner of today’s Planned Parenthood. In Great Britain, Marie Stopes continued to campaign for more government funding to open clinics that would provide women with information that would help them to make informed choices.
But efforts to open birth control clinics both in the United States and Europe met with considerable resistance from the government as well as the church, especially during the post–World War I years. A drastic decline in birth rates prompted the United States and most European governments to attempt to control women’s fertility by encouraging births. Women were rewarded for producing many children, and indeed, during the decades following World War I, women’s fertility was linked to national vitality and prestige. Most European governments introduced comprehensive welfare programs to aid and encourage parenthood. At the same time, eugenicists lobbied hard to influence Western governments to control fertility by restricting the birthrate among groups deemed “socially inappropriate.” Abortions and involuntary sterilizations were performed clandestinely, often in unsanitary conditions, on women belonging to these groups.
The 1960s were a major watershed in the reproductive rights movement. Women on both sides of the Atlantic discovered feminist theories linking reproductive and sexual freedom to improving the quality of their lives. They began to question their traditional roles as wives and mothers and articulated their need to control their own bodies in order to be liberated. The invention of the birth control pill (approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1960) was a major step in that direction, as it allowed women the freedom to be sexually active without the fear of becoming pregnant, if they so chose.
In the United States, the women’s movement of the 1960s linked reproductive rights to political, social, and economic power for women in society. Feminists demanded easy access to contraceptive and gynecological information. They also exposed the hazardous conditions under which illegal abortions were performed, primarily on the poor and women of color. They stated that abortions were conducted without anesthesia and frequently in unsanitary conditions that seriously jeopardized the health of the mother.
Therefore, by 1970, the abortion issue emerged as a central issue in the women’s reproductive rights movement in the United States. While moderate and liberal feminists argued for reforms in outdated abortion laws, the radicals wanted nothing less than repeal of all abortion laws and the lifting of the government’s and the medical establishment’s control over abortion. Their slogan was “the personal is political,” and they vehemently argued that all women, irrespective of race, ethnicity, and class, should have the right to control their bodies and to choose to have an abortion.
The increased politicization of the abortion issue affected public opinion. By 1970 more and more Americans believed that abortion was a private matter and that a woman should have the right to decide what was best for her. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade legislation granted a woman and her doctor the right to choose an abortion within the first three months of pregnancy. This was an important step toward legalizing abortion, although the right to abortion continues to be contested in the United States to this day.
Following the example of the United States, women activists across the globe are lobbying to legalize abortion. According to the United Nations, around 46 percent of women live in countries such as Germany, India, Argentina, and Saudi Arabia, where abortion is available only under certain circumstances, such as when the pregnancy was caused by incest or rape or when either the mother’s health or fetal health is impaired. Around 38 percent of women live in countries such as South Africa, Norway, Holland or the former Eastern European countries, where abortion is available upon request. In other countries, such as Chile, Malta, and Andorra, abortion is strictly forbidden.
Common Birth Control Methods
Making informed choices about birth control is another crucial focus of the reproductive rights movement. Activists for women’s reproductive rights argue that as it is the woman whose health is affected by pregnancy, a woman should be the one to make the decision regarding which birth control method to adopt. In many countries women’s birth control options are not only limited, but governments, pharmaceutical companies, and husbands often impose their views. Generally speaking, there are four birth control methods: barrier methods, hormonal methods, mechanical methods, and sterilization. The first method comprises diaphragms, condoms, and the cervical cap. These contraceptives provide effective means of preventing pregnancy, and the condom has the added benefit of protecting against sexually transmitted diseases. Hormonal methods consist of birth control pills, Norplant, and Depo-Provera. The interuterine device (IUD) is a mechanical method of birth control that is believed to work by preventing an egg from implanting in the uterine wall. There are also interuterine systems, which are essentially IUDs that dispense the hormones that prevent pregnancy. Sterilization involves a procedure called tubal ligation, in which the fallopian tubes are tied, thereby preventing eggs and sperm from meeting, and, consequently, pregnancy. Many governments use tubal ligations to forcibly restrict population growth among certain groups.
Population Control Programs
Since the mid-1990s, the reproductive rights movement has focused on population control programs. Despite the existence of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forums of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which admonishes governments against implementing aggressive population control programs to promote national interests, most countries in the developing world have such programs, often at the expense of women’s health. Governments may be either pro-natalist or anti-natalist. Feminists are critical of both groups, as both restrict women’s choices, though with opposite goals.
Pro-natalist governments want to increase their nations population; they typically outlaw abortion and contraception and seek to gain complete control over women’s fertility. Prolonged warfare, loss in productivity, or even, in some instances, increasing numbers of people of racial, ethnic, or religious groups that the government considers undesirable have all been known to provoke a pro-natalist reaction. For example, in 1966 the former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausecu banned abortion and encouraged women to produce as many children as possible because he wanted to increase the national productivity.
Women activists also criticize anti-natalist governments that implement coercive and selective policies. Communist China’s one-child policy to restrict population growth is an example of coercive anti-natalism. In such cases the government’s desire to control population growth often comes at the expense of women’s health. The United States was guilty of antinatalism in the early 1950s and 1960s, when federal funds were used to perform forced sterilization on Chicano, black, Native American, and Puerto Rican women.
It is paradoxical that while women are responsible for producing the future generations, their right to control their own bodies is limited by public and private forces. Reproductive rights, with all their ramifications, are a reflection and determinant of women’s equality in society.
- Dixon-Mueller, R. (1993). Population policy and women’s rights: Transforming reproductive choice. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Hartmann, B. (1987). Reproductive rights and reproductive wrongs. New York: Harper & Row.
- Hartmann, B. (1995). Reproductive rights and wrongs: The global politics of population control. Boston: South End Press.
- Jacobson, J. L. (1992). Women’s reproductive health: The silent emergency. New Frontiers in Education, 22, 1–54.
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