One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back: Women Tango with Reproductive Rights

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 10, No. 9, September 2022

RiseUp4AbortionRights protest in Lafayette Square, September 2022. Source: Victoria Pickering via Flickr.

Stephanie Wild
University of Cape Town

It is often assumed that progress is linear. This assumption is seen when looking at human rights. The usual formula begins with an activist group. Members of civil society take action to change injustices that they see within society. At the point where civil disobedience and protest becomes unmanageable, government officials are pressured into making legislative changes. From there, a societal mind-shift occurs. At this stage, disenfranchisement becomes frowned upon. This is the formula to progress. However, the reality is not so straight-forward. Rather, progress ebbs and flows. It is in flux. 

This is keenly seen when looking at the world’s attitude towards women’s rights and bodily autonomy. For one, the US is now reversing the steps forward taken by feminist activists in the 1970s. More specifically, in 1973 the US Supreme Court ruled that the Texas ban on abortion was unconstitutional. This case, known as Roe v. Wade, paved the way forward. The ruling did not only apply to Texas. Rather, any undue state restriction on abortion became unconstitutional. On June 24th, 2022 this all changed. The US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which removed 50 years of legal protection for women seeking safe abortions. Due to legislation in place prior to the 1973 ruling, abortion was automatically outlawed in many states as a result of the overturning. Other states took action to implement bans. As a result, abortion is now banned across a number of US states, namely Idaho, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Louisiana, South Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The consequence is that women today find themselves fighting the same battle fought by the activists of the early 1970s. 

This is not an isolated phenomenon. Abortion has been legal in Switzerland since 2002. The popular vote showed 72% of Swiss citizens in favour of decriminalising abortion in the first trimester. While religious groups, as well as the conservative right-wing Swiss People’s Party, have lobbied against abortion, they have been rather unsuccessful. For instance, in 2014, the right-wing party initiated a referendum to remove abortion from basic insurance coverage. A total of 73% of voters rejected the initiative. The party has since proposed another two initiatives, the outcomes of which are still pending. However, it is not only political actors that have power over women’s bodily autonomy and access to reproductive health. The country’s largest health insurer, Helsana AG, was revealed to be providing discounts of 10% to members of the organisation known as Swiss Pro Life. While legislation continues to protect Swiss women, discrimination continues. It is clear from each referendum that the majority of the Swiss are against abortion bans. However, a minority with power and influence are able to continue the legacy of discrimination. The movement for reproductive health continues. 

Japan too presents a case study for a convoluted path to progress. While medical abortions– using pills to terminate pregnancies- have been legal and approved for decades in Europe and the US, Japan only announced approval of the Linepharma International abortion pill in May 2022. On the face of it, this appears to be a hard-won battle with regards to women’s reproductive rights. However, it is not that simple. Women will be required to gain written consent from their husbands or boyfriends to purchase such a pill. And so, men will have the final say over a woman’s decision to undergo a medical abortion. This step forwards is therefore clouded by the outsourcing of women’s reproductive rights to the men in these women’s lives.

It is therefore clear that the path to progress is not smooth-sailing. There are many obstacles. Some may only emerge decades later. Civil society cannot, as a result, become complacent. Social justice issues must remain at the forefront of society’s mind.

Stephanie Wild has a B.A in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, accompanied by a B.A Honours in Justice and Transformation, from the University of Cape Town, where she is currently pursuing her MPhil in Public Law. Her research focuses on transitional justice and gender.