This essay, on the gender, politics and abortion rights, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the world’s most expensive drug.) It was published on 26 May 2019, under the headline ‘Men don’t have abortions. That’s no reason not to fight for women’s rights’.
The decision by the state of Alabama effectively to ban abortion has refocused attention in America on the issue of reproductive rights. The Alabama law is the most dramatic move in a long-running campaign by Republican states to curtail abortion rights and perhaps even overthrow Roe v Wade, the 1973 supreme court decision that legalised abortion in the US.
Inevitably, the abortion debate has come to be seen through the lens of the gender divide. It’s women who get pregnant, women who need abortions, and women who suffer when abortion rights are restricted.
Most of those who legislate against abortion are men. In Alabama it was 25 men who voted for the bill in the Senate. Missouri and Georgia also recently passed restrictive laws on abortion. In Missouri, 21 out of 24 senators who voted for the law were men; in Georgia, it was 33 out of 34 senators.
The gender divide on abortion is not, however, as first it may appear. It’s mainly men who legislate against abortion because men are disproportionately represented in legislatures, especially in conservative states. Just four out of 35 senators in Alabama are women; of all members of the state legislature, more than 84% are men.
Would it have made a difference had there been equal numbers of men and women in the legislatures, or even if all had been women? Unlikely. Polls have consistently shown that there is almost no gender gap in attitudes towards abortion. Men and women are equally in favour.
It’s politics, not gender, that creates the abortion divide. According to the Pew Research Center, almost six in 10 Republicans believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases while three-quarters of Democrats think it should be legal. In legislatures, too, political affiliation, not gender, is key. In Alabama, every Republican, man and woman, supported the abortion ban. No Democrat, of either gender, did.
The partisan divide over abortion reflects, in part, the contemporary polarisation of US politics, visible in a host of issues from immigration policy to climate change. There is also, however, a deeper sense in which the abortion issue is politicised. The debate is, at its heart, inextricably linked to social equality.
The language of abortion today is primarily that of choice, of the right of a woman to assert control over her body and make her own reproductive choices, independently of doctors or the state.
Choices, though, have to be made within particular social contexts. A legal right to abortion becomes eroded if women cannot access abortion facilities. In recent years, US conservatives have sought not just to deny the right to abortion but also to make it harder to access, by creating legal obstacles or by forcing clinics to close down. Those who most suffer from such lack of access are working-class women without the resources to get round the obstacles.
Historically, campaigns for abortion rights recognised the links to wider demands for social changes necessary for equality. In August 1970, when abortion was still illegal in the US, Betty Friedan and the National Organization of Women (NOW) organised a Women’s Strike for Equality on the 50th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The demands of the strike were for equal opportunity in the workforce, free childcare, free abortion on demand and the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would have ensured that ‘equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged… on account of sex‘.
For feminists, abortion was important not simply as a matter of personal choice but also as a necessity, to allow women to enter the public sphere on their own terms. Hence the link between abortion, childcare, equal opportunities and equal rights.
That same year, Britain’s first Women’s Liberation Movement conference was held in Oxford. Its four demands were similar to those in America: equal pay, equal educational and job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand, and free 24-hour nurseries.
At a time when decent, affordable nursery facilities are barely available and abortion rights are being rolled back, these demands might seem utopian. They are, however, important in reminding us that abortion rights, childcare facilities and equal opportunities are all essential elements of the broad structural changes necessary for social equality.
Abortion is a women’s issue. Men don’t have abortions. But it’s not simply an issue for women. It’s an issue for all of us, men and women, who value women’s rights and a more equal society.
The image is of a poster for the Women’s Strike for Equality, 1970.