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Notes On Body and Sexuality From The Abortion Discourse

Against an orange background, the bold text reads: "Abortion Rights, Social Justice, Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom"

Rebecca Traister, in her recent article for the New Republic, titled Let’s Just Say It: Women Matter More Than Fetuses Do, puts it bluntly: abortions are about women, not foetuses. We’ll go one step further, be more explicit and posit that abortions are about women being able to assert control over their body and sexuality. And that is a good thing! However, this is precisely also the reason why the general discourse on abortion is so very controversial, and the discourse against abortion especially so vitriolic.

Globally, the discourse against abortion has always been preoccupied with managing women’s bodies, and thus also intimately connected with maintaining the patriarchal status quo and views on female sexuality. Abortion is not talked about openly because people don’t want to contemplate the idea that women have sex for pleasure, or might refuse to accept pregnancy as a ‘punishment’ for flouting the patriarchal system that has decided women’s sexual experiences should be limited to a reproductive nation-building exercise that happens within the family unit into which the woman marries.

This is true even within the Indian context. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act or the MTP Act of 1971, grants that abortion is legal up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, however, only under a certain range of conditions. Moreover, deciding whether to grant an abortion is the discretion of the medical practitioner, and given the degree to which female sexuality is controlled and stigmatized, it’s often women who bear the burden of explaining how carrying the pregnancy to term might be detrimental to their physical and mental health. Neha Dixit, in her investigative reporting on stigma around abortion and poor access to legal abortion in India, called Shamed and Scarred: Stories of ‘Legal’ Abortions in India, has summarized the dilemma women face aptly: “It is almost implied that married women must state contraceptive failure and single women must state coercion or rape as a reason for pregnancy. Merely stating that it is an unwanted pregnancy is not enough.” The MTP Act, as Dr. Manisha Gupte, a well-known abortion rights advocate puts it, is not rights affirming. The law wasn’t articulated and interpreted with the intent to empower women to gain control over their bodies, sexuality, fertility and reproduction. It is well known that it was instead introduced out of concerns for the growing population and for the burden of unsafe abortion on high numbers of maternal deaths in the 1960s. As a result, even though the law has been on the books now for over 40 years, stigma and shame around abortion continue to persist both among communities and health service providers, access to safe and legal abortion in India continues to be fraught with many difficulties, and mortality and morbidity due to unsafe abortion are still shockingly high.

To undo the stigma around abortion, it is thus essential that we undo the stigma around female sexuality. Women’s bodies and sexuality have always been a subject of public debate, but we ought to change the current discourse. And that change won’t come about by refusing to talk about abortion and female sexuality in a nuanced way. The first step, therefore, is to create safe spaces and opportunities for women to be able to share their personal narratives of abortion. It is important to keep in mind, however, that sharing personal narratives of abortion is not a political strategy: it is first and foremost about respecting the storyteller and creating an intimate space for an alternative discourse. This alternative discourse,. Yet this alternative discourse can also lead to significant political effects.

If we start to talk openly about the diversity of abortion views and experiences, we also create opportunity for discussing a diversity of female sexualities and their various expressions, along with contemplating an array of possible definitions and manifestations of “family” outside of the established norm. Speaking out about abortion also helps us in confronting the systemic inequalities and regulations that erect barriers not just in women’s lives but also in the lives of all those constrained by patriarchy. Part of this re-imagining of family means acknowledging that motherhood is not for everyone, and should not be mandated in any case.

In order to enable this sharing of personal experiences and stories of abortion, we as feminists also ought to ensure that abortion is not the sole focus, and instead, our advocacy must be intersectional and inclusive. For too long, “pro-choice” has appeared synonymous with the idea that abortion on demand is the end-game, when in fact we need to talk about abortion in a way that demonstrates the degree to which access to stigma-free, safe abortion matters to broader reproductive justice and social justice goals – including caring for children by deciding if or when it’s best to bring them into the world, and having access to resources to support the children one already has. In fact, adhering to popular arguments that abortion is a matter of “privacy” and “choice” can contribute further to silencing and stigma because conventional definitions of these concepts assume multiple layers of privilege. And as Rosalind Petchesky, the founder of The International Reproductive Rights Research Action Group (IRRAG) puts it, the idea that a woman actually owns her body, “stands not as a description of reality but as a rhetorical achievement” at best.[1]

It is of urgent need, therefore, to locate and talk about abortion within the broader framework of sexuality and rights. It ought to be addressed with all its complexity and nuances within the paradigm of comprehensive sexuality education, and not merely confined to the legal and public health dimensions. Katha Pollitt, feminist and author of the recent ground-breaking book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, puts it beautifully, when she says:

“We need to talk about abortion it its full human setting: sex and sexuality, love, violence, privilege, class, race, school and work, men, the scarcity of excellent, respectful reproductive health care, and of realistic, accurate information about sex and reproduction. We need to talk about why there are so many unplanned and unwanted pregnancies – which means we need to talk about birth control, but also about so much more than that: about poverty and violence and family troubles, about sexual shyness and shame and ignorance and the lack of power so many women experience in bed and in their relationships with men…”[2]

And so, to revolutionize the way we think and talk about abortion, it’s time to stop hiding behind the rhetoric of development and health, and instead address the elephant in the room –female sexuality. And the time to do that is now.


[1] Petchesky, Rosalind Pollack. “The Body as Property: A Feminist Re-Vision.” In Conceiving The New World

[2] Pollitt, Katha. Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. New York: Picador, October 2014. Page No. 17

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