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A collective responsibility: reproductive rights in crisis across Europe

Rachael Ferguson and Gwyneth Lonergan argue that Europe’s austerity drive is deepening gender inequality and sparking a new wave of attacks on women’s reproductive rights

April 6, 2014
8 min read

Women’s reproductive rights are currently in crisis across Europe. In recent months, the Spanish government has introduced highly-publicised legislation that will make abortion illegal in all circumstances, except where the pregnancy is a result of rape, or the life or health of the pregnant woman is at risk. Feminists and their allies have mobilised resistance to this plan, with protests across Spain, as well as solidarity protests in France, Belgium and Ireland. Popular opinion in Spain generally supports the feminist position, with polls suggesting that 70-80 per cent of Spanish people oppose the new legislation.

While the Spanish law has gained worldwide attention, it is part of a worrying, under-reported trend across the EU seriously threatening women’s reproductive rights.

Since 2011, the Hungarian constitution has asserted that life begins at conception. Medical abortions are illegal in Hungary, and to obtain a surgical abortion, a woman must show that her life is endangered by the pregnancy, there are severe fetal abnormalities, the pregnancy was the result of a crime, or she is in a ‘state of crisis’. Even then, she must undergo mandatory counseling and a three-day ‘cooling off’ period. At the same time, according to a recent UN report, the Hungarian government has funded an anti-abortion poster campaign, and doctors and nurses are increasingly refusing to perform abortions.

Abortion access in Poland has been significantly restricted since 1993, with legal access under conditions similar to Hungary. Doctors and pharmacists in Poland can refuse to provide women with contraception, and the Catholic Church in the country has recently declared war on ‘gender ideology’, which in this case means attempts teach basic sexual education in schools.

In a recent referendum in Switzerland, a proposal that would force women to pay privately for abortion was rejected by 70 per cent of voters; nonetheless, Swiss feminists are concerned that the vote even occurred, and in light of the legislation in Spain, determined not to rest on their laurels. Similarly, in France, a law that came into effect on 1 April 2013 made abortion completely government-subsidised. However, recent months have seen the emergence of a strong far-right movement that has included attacks on ‘gender ideology’ as a key part of its repertoire. The icing on this horrible cake is the EU Parliament’s rejection of a resolution based on the Estrela Report, which called for the sexual and reproductive health of women to be respected throughout the EU and for women to have access to the healthcare required for this, including safe and legal abortion.

Putting the attacks in context

The rising threat to women’s reproductive health can only be fully understood within the wider political and economic context. The economic crisis in Europe and the austerity measures adopted by national governments in response have significantly deepened gender inequalities.

Women have been disproportionately affected by cuts to the welfare state, for several reasons. They are more likely to be employed in sectors that depend upon government funding. Also, women are more likely to be poor enough to qualify for some kind of state assistance, making them particularly vulnerable to cuts. The traditional gendered division of labour means that women are often expected to take over the caring duties no longer being provided by the state. The conservative parties that came to power championing austerity are often also advocates of ‘traditional family values’. The ruling People’s Party of Spain, for example, has historical ties to the Catholic Church, which, unsurprisingly, has strongly supported the restricting of abortion.

Of course, there is a long history of conservative religious forces opposing women’s right to access abortion; indeed, one of the most prominent opponents of reproductive rights currently in the UK is the Catholic group 40 Days For Life, which pickets sexual health clinics. Given the links between conservative religious groups and conservative political parties, it is easy to attribute the rising threat to reproductive rights to an unhappy coincidence. However, this interpretation ignores the ways in which sexism is necessary for the implementation of austerity measures, and the way in which women’s labour, and even bodies, can be subject to market forces.

As the government cuts back on providing care for those in need, particularly children, the sick, disabled people and elderly people, the right-wing family morality attached to conservative economics conveniently conceptualises this work as ‘natural’ to women. Women are therefore expected to provide unpaid labour to facilitate austerity measures, because this work is part of their ‘natural’ role. From there, it’s not far to start regulating women’s other ‘natural’ role – that of motherhood – in order to benefit the economy.

Thus, Spain’s justice ministry reportedly used the country’s falling birth rate, and its economic cost, to justify the proposed legislation restricting access to abortion, claiming it would have a ‘positive net impact’ on the Spanish economy. In other situations, legislation and media campaigns may discourage women, particularly low-income women, from having children, because these children are seen as an economic drain on society. The recent benefits restructuring in the UK, for example, has severely limited the resources available to low-income parents raising children, while the right-wing press pillories ‘scrounging’ families with ‘too many’ children.

Nationalism and reproductive rights

Creeping nationalism across Europe also threatens women’s reproductive rights. The rise of the far-right in Hungary, including within the ruling Fidesz party, has been well-documented in the UK press. The far-right Jobbik party currently holds the third most seats in the national legislature. Recent years have also seen the growth of the far-right in France, alongside the willingness of conservative groups to ally themselves with extremists in the pursuit of common goals. ‘Pro-family’ street protests ostensibly organised in opposition to same-sex marriage have been rife with antisemitism and xenophobia.

The various far-right groups across Europe have been some of the most vociferous opponents of women’s reproductive rights; indeed, as is happening in France, this may provide common ground with less extremist cultural conservatives, leading to temporary alliances. For nationalists, women’s primary role is to reproduce the nation – whether biologically, by having lots of children; or socially, by passing down the ‘correct values’ to their children. At the same time, as part of the pre-occupation with reproducing the nation, nationalists are also very concerned that the ‘right’ people are having children.

While right-wing and far-right parties across Europe take steps to restrict women’s access to abortion and contraception, there is a panic being whipped up around migrant and/or Muslim birth rates in the mainstream media. For example, the BBC ran a story portraying migrant women as primarily responsible for increasing birth rates in the UK and placing too much strain on NHS maternity wards. As a consequence, even while access to abortion and contraception is being restricted, legislation may also be passed that serves to discourage migrant women from having children. In the UK, certain categories of migrant women are expected to pay for maternity care on the NHS, causing many of them to go without this care, seriously endangering their lives and that of their babies.

Placing the attack on reproductive rights in this wider context forces us to question the value of defending abortion on the grounds that women should have the right to ‘choose’. After all, how useful is this notion of individual choice when the world in which we make these choices does not value reproductive labour? In which the ‘right’ kind of reproduction is defined by citizenship and class? The idea of ‘Reproductive Justice’, as pioneered by US radical women of colour like Loretta Ross, holds more meaning. For the collective SisterSong, reproductive justice ‘represents a shift for women advocating for control of their bodies, from a narrower focus on legal access and individual choice (the focus of mainstream organisations) to a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on our power.’ Using the Reproductive Justice framework, it is possible to understand the way in which these new threats to reproductive rights in Europe are bound up with the austerity measures sweeping the continent, as well as with the disturbing rise of far-right nationalism in several EU countries.

The success of the anti-abortion movement in Spain demonstrates the fragility of the hard won gains of women’s rights campaigners. Our right to choose can be taken from us as quickly as it’s granted – but so long as reproductive labour is seen as an individual choice and not a collective responsibility, we will not achieve reproductive justice.