The repeal of Roe vs Wade: an urgent call to return to the fundamentals of women's right
For most of the last 2 years I’ve been thinking about, reading about, and interrogating the concepts of choice and control in relation to women’s positive experiences of childbirth. I have argued – persuasively – that choice and control, despite having been the basis of maternity care strategy in the UK since Changing Childbirth in 1983, are not consistently appropriate paradigms in practice, and have the potential to be as harmful to some mothers as they are empowering to others. Interviews with mothers and midwives, and my experience in the birth room tells me that intrapartum decision-making is complex, nuanced and situational. While informed consent is critical, and there remain situations here in the UK where this is significantly compromised, the dynamics in the birth room more commonly reflect the ‘ambiguous reliance’ described by Agneta Westergren than the trenchant inflexibility often characterised by both ‘sides’ in the Birth Wars.
This critique of choice and control is not pompous. I don’t suggest that it is ‘wrong’, rather that it was, like all decisions, mediated by a cultural and political context. Second wave feminism ignited scholarly interest in the ‘feminism of the body’. In the UK activism pressing for women’s rights in birth themselves bore new life with the establishment of the NCT in 1956 and AIMS in 1960. In the US, the women’s health movement was a liberatory drive to regain lost knowledge of and active engagement in the rites of women’s reproductive bodies. My thesis has been that choice and control are patriarchal mechanisms, the first steps women needed to take to assert their right to a positive experience of birth and motherhood, and that now the right to consent or decline, to retain bodily autonomy, is enshrined in law, we can refine our demands and call for a maternity strategy that foregrounds physiologically appropriate care.
However, in light of the events of last week in the US, I have to ask myself whether I have been complacent. I am reminded that the rights of female-bodied people are neither secure nor stable nor universal. Demanding our right to choose and control what happens to our bodies is as vital now as it ever was.
It is both relevant and important to note here that it is female bodied people – or, women, for want of a better word – that are the subject of this. It is a timely reminder that it is our reproductive potential and capacity which marks us apart from, and subservient to, the male standard. It is on the basis of our material corporeality that we are at risk, and to which we must be alert (and I pre-empt concerns here about the variety of womanhood, and call out the urge to set hard boundaries as a patriachal attitude to the world).
Sexed-difference matters and it is neither biological essentialism nor bigotry to recognise that. Female reproductive bodies offer men the potential to assert a legacy. They present a reality of dependence and matriarchy which incites a particularly male existential anxiety. Female bodies are therefore imbued with shame, taboo and the imperative for control.
The removal of access to safe abortion is not about the rights of the unborn child, or the rights of women to remain child-free (although these are important and complex issues we really ought to consider). The issue of access to safe abortion is about the control of female bodies by male bodies. It’s about the reality that it is male bodies which take primacy in Western culture, and which have set the rules and standards so ingrained in our interpretation of the world that we can barely see them. It is women, by nature of the reproductive potential represented by their bodies, who are at risk.
This feels apocalyptic. I have spent this weekend feeling bleak, and desperate for the future of my daughter, sharing this feeling of bleakness with other women, and hearing their sadness and stories. This news has caused us to reflect on our relationships with our bodies and with motherhood, because motherhood is intense, relentless, thankless, challenging, raw work that we do for the good and future of society and for which we receive little support or recognition. The empathy is powerful and painful.
So where from here? History is not a straight line, moving inexorably from one singularity to another. History is complicated and messy, and so it is now. For while tens and millions of American women have just been betrayed by a handful of patriarchal Justices, overall, the international trend is towards liberalisation of abortion and recognition that women’s health and education has positive effects on the economy and the environment (King and Hill in 1995, and UN Women in 2022). These are times of political and cultural extremes, and the fronts we understood to be delineators between allies and foes are shifting and re-forming. What remains consistent is not only the positioning of women as less than fully human & independent beings but the perpetual refusal to accept or acknowledge the female experience as different but equal. It is not possible to withdraw a woman’s legal right to abortion unless you consider her experience of her life to be less important than a foetus, unless you assess all women as being less capable of ethical and informed decisions than men, and unless you are unable or unwilling to empathise with the practical realities of the lives of women and mothers. Last week’s significant events in the US reiterate the need to reiterate and pull together on the fundamentals of women’s rights.