Abortion and sexuality, under attack

Anti-choice campaigners are trying to turn back the clock on abortion - and attitudes to women's sexual identity, argues Adriana Pérez

Adriana Pérez, 27 October 2011

For better or worse, women's lives have historically been forced to centre on our reproductive sexuality. Yet, at least here in the UK, our legal system has advanced, hasn't it? We women are so liberated in comparison to our sisters in other cultures of the world. We can wear anything we fancy, we can choose to be housewives or career-minded and we can talk about sex. Yes sex! That word which is taboo in other societies, especially when mentioned by a woman. Well, if you said "yes" to any of the above I can say that you're slightly misguided.

Queer Feminist Pro Choice.jpgEarlier this year, Nadine Dorries tried to push an amendment on abortion rights and "independent counselling" which would strip abortion agencies, such as BPAS and Marie Stopes, of their counselling and guidance roles, while appointing "independent agencies". Luckily the amendment was defeated in Parliament. But the move raised fears that anti-abortion groups are stepping up efforts to delay abortion procedures and mislead women about terminations.

Anti-choice organisations are again trying to stir the pot on women's sexuality and their sexual identity. They intend to bring back the moral standards on female sexuality and identity which ruled women's lives on the UK of 1966, the year before abortion was legalised: the sanctity of chastity, motherhood and life and the universal presumption of 'foetal rights' over women's autonomy over their own bodies.

That's why the '60s feminist used the defence slogan "hands off my body!"

Now, don't get me wrong, the UK has greatly advanced with regards to gender and politics in comparison to other countries, for instance my own. My home country is still struggling to come into terms with changing conceptions of women's roles and sexuality. On the other hand, we are playing a more active and public role in society. As a result, the country is slowly but steadily filling with better educated and more socially and politically active women and men. Still, that's sadly a small minority compared to the total female population and that is why gender politics are rather shy and patriarchal structures strong.

We shouldn't really say "hands off our bodies", as feminists did in the 1960s, but hands off our identities!

One example is that we, women, still don't hold the right to terminate our pregnancy when we believe it is appropriate, but only under the three traditional clauses: in cases of rape, the malformation of the foetus or if the mother's life is at stake.

This background, I believe, together with my three years of experience living in the UK, have shaped and made me the feminist I am today. It has also made me more aware than many in our culture of the attacks, coming not only from Westminster but from the wider society, on our identity, sexuality and dignity. Women's sexuality is still widely defined by terms such as "mothers", "girls" or "sluts", labels created by a patriarchal culture to try and have power and influence over our sexual identity and behaviour here in the UK and back in my home country.

To have a steady start, however, we need to try and address the term "sexuality". Sexuality has always been a concept which brings confrontation and it encompasses everything: from our reproductive behaviour to our sex lives, to the way we dress and the way we perceive our social position.

It helps define our identity, behaviour and role as women within a wider society. It can also be heavily influenced by other factors, such as cultural backgrounds.

For a long time and still in many different societies, female sexuality has been defined from a purely hetrocentric and male point of view because of her reproductive advantage over men: the uncertainty of fatherhood (which, of course, a long time ago that would have been considered a threat since marriage institutions and procreation were only tools to ensure that property rights flowed under a secured family lineage). Hence, patriarchal structures felt the urge (and still do) to rule female sexuality and encompass it within certain parameters.

Our sexuality is, therefore, intrinsically connected with the construction of our identity and for that reason everything that alters it or threatens it must be taken into serious consideration

Nowadays, feminism has helped vindicate women's sexuality by arguing that it should be defined by our own inclinations and each of our preferences should be respected by the government and wider society. Our reproductive choices, therefore, find themselves at the centre of the storm because it will be women and only women who make the decision. It'll be only us who decide whether we are fit to be mothers. Or whether we have got different priorities or just don't want to have babies.

This new view on female sexuality is core to our identity because it helps define how we see ourselves as individuals, how we rank morals and principles, preferences, roles and priorities. Equally important is the fact that it also helps define how we see ourselves as community players.

Our sexuality is, therefore, intrinsically connected with the construction of our identity and for that reason everything that alters it or threatens it must be taken into serious consideration.

Bethany's picture - resized.jpgThe final decision on how we live our sexuality is of great importance. For instance I decided to give up my job to be a housewife and take care of my children and family. However, it is also very significant how we come to make our decisions. If I, therefore, decided to become a full-time housewife it should be because I personally find that more fulfilling than going to the office every morning. We are claiming back authority not only over our bodies, as feminists in the 1960s and '70s used to say, but over our identity as a whole.

If I see myself as a career-minded woman, who dislikes the idea of settling down to make a family and who doesn't see rearing babies as a priority, then people who might not agree with me should still let me follow the course of life I have chosen. Also, the government should enforce measures that assure I can achieve my goals in an equal society.

Here is where the importance of legislation which provides abortion rights comes into play.

Before 1967, the UK was a society where only one type of sexuality was defended, while women who didn't consider rearing babies a priority but who unintentionally fell pregnant had to either adapt or have a clandestine and, very likely, dangerous abortion.

Now, the current government is unlikely to ban abortion again but, by inviting anti-abortion and pro-abstinence groups such as LIFE to replace BPAS as one of their advisors on sexual health, the coalition government is taking a significant step back to such Victorian values that many women in this country have fought against.

It is telling us that patriarchal notions such as "should have kept your legs closed" and "your fault, your problem, put up with it" still run deep in society. Just a look at LIFE's website, where it cites "hope" as one of its values, proceeding to give a definition that aims to make women feel guilty for decisions taken with regards to termination: "There are people alive today who would not be here if it were not for the work of LIFE. Change is happening, lives are being transformed."

Who said the Victorian times were over? This is patriarchy, reloaded, at its purest form

Such wording can put in doubt and regress women's self-esteem and character by trying to make them feel remorse and guilt at their own choices. In particular, women who are not entirely confident about their sexuality will be an easy bait for them to make them feel mistaken about her sexual choices and principles.

In the end, if we are going to take our sexual identity seriously, abortion should be seen in terms of autonomy not only to do with our bodies what we see fit, but also to be free to live up to our identity and sexuality.

Many generations of women here might not notice it; in the end being born with such rights can lead you to take them for granted, but it is more than possible to say that any alterations (even the subtlest ones) against our abortion rights, such as the inclusion of LIFE at the expenses of the BPAS, give a clear picture of patriarchy running strong in the veins of our society.

In my country, such control over our sexuality is very tight, from penalising abortion to openly talk about women's predetermined roles. Being a woman there is not easy and that is what has made me so wary about even the smallest devices societies can use in order to be try and grab control of our sexual identity. It feels if we don't have the right to our sexuality and seeing such changes here makes me think that our right to our own sexual identity is threatened again; we again are the source of shame and should be protected against ourselves for the sake of unborn generations and the sanity of society.

Anti-choice activists are trying to use women's best tool of empowerment: education, against her. Now, instead of giving us a straight answer and just forcing us by law to go ahead with our pregnancy, they will try and impose counselling sessions, books and movies to psychologically manipulate our sexual identity and makes us give up to their principles. The result? Well, you guessed right, a bunch of women feeling ashamed of themselves, of their sexuality and of their rights, dignity and peace of mind won over decades of relentless fights; a bunch of women being brainwashed to believe that they are potential murderers. It doesn't matter to these campaigners how traumatising it can be to go through an unwanted pregnancy and then raise the baby. Nor does it matter how traumatising is to feel that you don't have a say over your sexuality and to feel that your identity and body belong to somebody else.

As I am writing this, federal courts in the US have (thankfully) rejected a plan by Texas governor Rick Perry to force women who decide to have a termination to see a sonogram and listen to the foetus' heartbeat before going ahead with their abortion.

The free construction of our sexuality must be an unquestionable right

It is not hard to imagine how women would feel after such procedures and the potential effect on their self-esteem. That, however, is exactly what they want to get: they want to make them feel ashamed and guilty of their principles, preferences and options in an attempt to have power over their sexuality and mould it in a way which benefits them. It's not just ruling their wombs and reproductive organs; it's going all the way down to every corner of their sexual identity to control their thoughts, decisions and behaviour. Who said the Victorian times were over? This is patriarchy, reloaded, at its purest form.

It is because of this that I am a strong believer in pro-choice politics. Having an abortion is not an easy decision regardless of what you think and we don't go out shouting at every pregnant woman to have an abortion. We understand everyone is different but we still want to feel like playing in a levelled field.

Pro choice protest.jpgWe also understand the complex process of identity and sexuality formation which is the source of our differences and particularities and we understand how dehumanising it must be for women to feel they don't rule themselves. This is why protecting our abortion rights is crucial. We live in a society characterised by differences; my next door neighbour might not even consider abortion as a solution because it goes against her principles and as long as she chose that herself, it is fully respectable. But because we are all so very different she must also understand that other women don't see it that way and they must have the solid right to make their own decisions.

We, women, throughout human history have been pronounced guilty of the original sin, derided as witches, whores and everything that can lead society stray. Our sexuality and identity has always been defined by the male gaze and it became dangerous for them when women realised that it should and must be defined only and uniquely by herself and not anyone else. This is because although sexuality varies greatly from woman to woman (a reason why feminist thought is already very diverse), the core of it is universal: it was defined by us and not by patriarchal institutions. It is because of this characteristic of being so intrinsic to the core of human beings and our self-esteem that the free construction of our sexuality must be an unquestionable right. That is why the pro-choice fight is not only a battle for those who support abortion. But more deeply, it is a fight for every single one of us in society because if my next door neighbour discovered she was pregnant and yet she wants to carry on with it, she should because she had a talk with herself and decided that termination is not an option, not because she just doesn't have a choice on it.

Joan Didion, the US journalist, described character as one of the main sources of self-esteem. Character to say: "This is me. I am like this and I am actually very happy." Character to say :"Don't baffle me, this is what I want," and character to admit one's mistakes and be responsible for one's actions.

This is the time now to show everyone in society that we have got the character to choose for ourselves and to demand the rights to a free construction of our sexuality. It's time to oppose the destructive values of organisations such as LIFE, and their attempts to manipulate our sexual identities. It's not only a real violation of our autonomy, it's insulting! It's telling women they are not clever enough to choose for themselves. We don't need such biased advice from people that are full of prejudice and bigotry.

What women need is to be listened to and feel empowered. When they leave the doctor's surgery they need to feel they made the right decision and it was them who chose it, instead of coming out with their chests full of shame and it is our duty to ensure this. It's time to claim authority back over ourselves, that is why we shouldn't really say "hands off our bodies", as in the 1960s, but hands off our identities!

Image from a recent pro-choice protest in London uploaded by Flickr user jessmccabe. Illustration of paper dolls by Bethany Lamont (reads: DRESS UP DOLLY: FUN FOR BOYS + GIRLS!). Image from pro-choice protest in Argentina uploaded by Flickr user Gabby DC. Sign reads "Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito" ("Legal, safe, and free abortion").

Comments From You

Clodia // Posted 27 October 2011 at 20:05

Absolutely! My baby was high risk of Downs and I had to decide before screening whether or not to agree to an abortion, because a man said so! Actually she was fine and the decision never had to be made, but it took me years to get over the fact that men were trying to override my identity and make decisions for me. Why could I not be screened and know in advance if I was going to have a Downs baby, and then make my mind up about whether or not to go ahead?
She's 16 now and it still hurts occasionally.

KaraC // Posted 24 November 2011 at 07:49

The anti-choice movement in the UK seems to be modeling itself on the one in the US. They begin by trying to undermine organizations which provide support, particularly to lower income families. Then they try to paint women who get pregnant, unintentionally, as lacking morals, they then attempt to portray those women who do choose an abortion as if they took the decision uninformed and in a casual way, "using it as a form of birth control". This is combined with other assaults on women's intellect and ability to form their own valid moral judgment.
I doubt that anyone would describe themselves as "pro-abortion" but to be pro-choice is to recognize that women are adults capable of making informed decisions and choices based on ethical principles and their own unique circumstances. Anything less infantilizes women and places control of the uterus with a generally patriarchal, and in many cases religiously-based power structure. We need to ensure that the choice and responsibility stay where it should - with the woman who would be giving birth.

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About the author

Adriana Pérez

Adriana Pérez is an international student at the University of Reading doing a BA in politics and international relations. She was born in a Latin American country but has lived in the UK for three years and that has enormously contributed to every aspect of her life. She has always been deeply involved in the feminist cause; she has seen how patriarchy was deeply rooted in her family and how feminism sparked from the hands of her mother (although she might not even acknowledge it!) For that reason she wants to dedicate her life to gender studies

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