Self-determination and bodily autonomy for women

Published on 24/11/2023

In the 1970s, women's main demand was their reproductive freedom, which refers to their bodily autonomy and their right to decide on their sexuality and procreation.

These feminist ideas emerged in those years with the "Women's Liberation Movement" in France and Belgium and the "Women's Liberation Movement" in the United Kingdom and the United States. Feminists fought for freedom of choice in matters of reproduction, courageously challenging all the constraints imposed by third parties: society, the family, the state and religion.

They defended the right to privacy and personal decision, as expressed in the slogans of the time: "A child when I want, if I want" or "Master of my body".

Today, in 2023, European and international pro-choice feminist associations are using the language of human rights and the political bases of the UN and Europe to obtain recognition of sexual and reproductive rights as human rights.

The international conferences organised by the UN in Vienna (1993), Cairo (1994) and Beijing (1995) sought to recognise the dissociation between sexuality and procreation. They gave legitimacy to these demands and contributed to their institutionalisation by the WHO and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, as did the resolutions of the European Parliament and the Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Women have also fought to individualise themselves by freeing themselves from traditional roles, gaining access to education, economic autonomy and political participation. These struggles are based on their collective emancipation from marital, paternal and male guardianship, enabling them to influence the balance of power in the public arena.

The rise of anti-choice movements

Anti-choice movements, which have been on the increase since the 1990s, are often conservative or even reactionary, and are mainly driven by religious fundamentalism.

Two main phobias characterise these movements: that of equality between women and men, and that of women's freedom and autonomy.

One of the ways in which these movements are manifesting themselves is through measures aimed at restricting or even eliminating access to safe and legal abortion. Opponents of the right to abortion continue to defend the State's monopoly of decision-making over reproductive bodies, based on arguments relating to the right to life, human dignity and freedom of conscience and religion. The Holy See is in alliance with the Evangelical and Orthodox Churches and the Islamic states of the Gulf States in defending these positions.

These anti-choice movements reject the dissociation between sexuality and procreation and seek to return to a "so-called natural order". They use the language of human rights, but refer to a transcendent and unchanging "Natural Law".

We are witnessing a second generation of anti-choice movements, formed by alliances between different conservative, reactionary, far-right and religious fundamentalist currents. The rise of anti-choice movements has led to a regression in terms of bodily autonomy, self-determination and the right to abortion,

One emblematic example is Poland and the anti-abortion association Ordo Juris. The Polish government has tightened the law on abortion, banning abortions on the grounds of foetal malformation, which has led to the deaths of several women as a result of clandestine abortions and the refusal of doctors to carry out an abortion even when the woman's life is in danger.

There have also been other restrictive actions, such as the creation of a compulsory census of all pregnancies in Poland. It should be stressed that the rise of these anti-choice movements is endangering liberal political democracy, in particular by rejecting the primacy of European law and calling into question the principles of the State.

Various European bodies, including the European Parliament, have reacted in favour of the right of access to safe and legal abortion. Unfortunately, there are other regressive actions in other countries, such as the "Geneva Consensus" declaration supported by certain governments.[1]which calls into question the right to abortion as a human right, as well as the US Supreme Court's reversal of its position on the constitutional protection of women's right to terminate their pregnancy.[2].

The challenge of constitutionalising the right to abortion

Following this news in the United States, the French President is going to propose that this right be enshrined in the French Constitution and in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Two formulations have been proposed, one emphasising a entitlement which commits the State to guaranteeing access to voluntary interruption of pregnancy in return for the payment of taxes and social security contributions, and the other insisting on an right-freedom with no obligations for the State.

The situation in the European Union is uneven and can lead to regression, particularly in countries where authoritarianism and right-wing populism are on the rise.

The European Parliament resolution adopted in July 2022 recognises that protecting the right to abortion has a direct implication on fundamental rights. The Catholic Church (COMECE) has reaffirmed its opposition to the recognition of the right to abortion in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, claiming that this would run counter to human dignity.

But the debate on the constitutionalisation of the right to abortion must not overshadow the extension of citizenship rights, such as sexual and reproductive freedom. The importance of social policies, sex education, reimbursement for contraception and abortion, and access to health services in combating the inequalities faced by women must be emphasised.

We need to distinguish between human rights, which are inclusive and concern the human being as such, and citizenship rights, which are exclusive and define who can be a citizen and what their rights and duties are.

ut according to the principle of subsidiarity, effective access to safe and legal abortion depends on the State as the guarantor of citizenship rights and on the social State as the guarantor of social citizenship. However, austerity policies and conservative political forces can compromise this access.

Women without citizenship status, such as migrants or foreign nationals, are particularly affected by restrictions on access to abortion. Underage girls are also affected in most EU countries.

Conclusion: how to react?

There is a real risk that women's rights, and in particular access to abortion, will be undermined, and we need to take action. How can we do this?

Gramsci is said to have advocated "the pessimism of intelligence and the optimism of will".

The pessimism of intelligence must lead us to recognise that the future is bleak, but we must refuse to deny it. It is important to highlight the mechanisms and expressions of reactionary logic in our democratic societies, and to emphasise the foundations of these democracies, in particular the freedom we enjoy under the rule of law.

Freedom calls for a duty of solidarity and vigilance to preserve what Hannah Arendt called the "right to have rights" and to demand new rights.

The optimism of the will should lead us to support the actions taken by pro-choicers defending the right to abortion, including vigilance against legislative regression, mass demonstrations, legal action at European and international level, the formation of coordination between pro-choice associations, and the organisation of concrete solidarity to help women who wish to terminate their pregnancy.

This solidarity can go as far as civil disobedience, as was the case in Belgium and France in the 1970s, or providing information and resources for safe abortion. The reactions of European bodies to situations in Poland or created by the Supreme Court of the United States (in Texas, for example) are in line with the defence of the right of access to safe and legal abortion.

Abortion has thus become a crucial geopolitical issue, not only for women's autonomy and sexual and reproductive health, but also for the future of democratic regimes in the face of the rise of authoritarian regimes. The regression of women's rights is one of the main expressions of democratic regression.

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The editorial committee

[1] Brazil-Bolsonaro, Egypt-Al Sisi, Hungary-Orban, Indonesia-Widadp, Uganda-Museveni and United States-Trump

[2] Invalidation of the 1973 "Roe v Wade" judgment)

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