EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Emerging contestations of abortion rights: new hierarchies, political strategies, and discourses at the intersection of rights, health and law
Location U6-37
Date and Start Time 21 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Joanna Mishtal (University of Central Florida) email
  • Claudia Mattalucci (Università di Milano Bicocca) email
  • Silvia De Zordo (University of Barcelona) email

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Short Abstract

This panel examines the articulation of abortion politics with new social formations across moral, medical, political, and scientific fields in 21st century, and maps possible directions for future analysis in this contested anthropological research arena.

Long Abstract

This panel engages with the theme of power in relation to both the topic of abortion rights and policies, as well as with the trajectory of anthropological engagement with this topic.

Women's right to legal abortion in many nations in Europe and elsewhere is fraught with uncertainties. In some nations it is facing increasingly significant challenges since its widespread legalization in the post-World War II era. Legislation restricting rights and access to abortion has been introduced and passed in some European nations, especially in Eastern Europe, and in the United States where restrictions are increasing at an unprecedented rate and constitute the litmus test for politicians in electoral politics. Furthermore, serious obstacles to abortion access are increasingly evident in procedural barriers and conscience-based refusals by healthcare providers, while anti-abortion/pro-life movements are working with renewed vigor.

Yet, there are relatively few ethnographic studies of abortion qua abortion since Faye Ginsburg's pathbreaking study, Contested Lives (1989), published over 25 years ago.

This panel will examine the articulation of abortion politics with new social formations across moral, medical, political, and scientific fields in 21st century. We consider how the study of abortion provides a sharply focused lens onto broader theoretical debates around: gender and personhood; the legitimacy of scientific knowledge; neoliberalism; the role of women and women's rights in a liberal democracy; church-state relations; and social justice movements.

This panel also maps possible directions for future empirical and theoretical analyses in this enduring and contested anthropological research arena.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


When 'rights' meet 'wrong': an approach to abortion rights in the light of virginity taboos in Istanbul

Author: Patricia Scalco (University of Helsinki)  email

Short Abstract

This paper proposes a discussion on the potentially ambiguous character of abortion in the lives of unmarried and sexually active women in contexts where premarital sexuality is culturally perceived as taboo, and abortion is legally available. It draws on ethnographic research conducted in Turkey.

Long Abstract

This paper proposes a discussion on the potentially ambiguous character of abortion in the lives of unmarried and sexually active women in contexts where premarital sexuality is culturally perceived as taboo, and abortion is legally available. Are there specificities to unmarried and sexually active women in their understanding and exercise of the right to abortion in such contexts? Are there particular stakes for them? The paper addresses these questions drawing on the case of Turkey, where premarital sexuality, especially for women, is constructed as a cultural taboo, and where abortion is legal since 1983. Engaging with the work of Parla (2001) and Ozyegin (2009), and grounded on 13 months of ethnographic research focused on everyday configurations of sexual moralities in Istanbul, the paper introduces contraceptive and abortion-related experiences of unmarried and sexually active young women. Their experiences will guide a reflection on how context-specific gender ideologies and sexual moralities contribute for a complex conundrum whereby women feel empowered by breaking taboos of virginity while not always succeeding in accessing and negotiating effective contraceptive strategies. In the same vein, the paper proposes to reflect on the impact of such configurations, suggesting that while abortion stands as a right for married women - who are socially authorized to have sexual intercourse - it can become a normative expectation in the case of single women facing premarital pregnancy.

Quietly 'beating the system': the logics of protest and resistance under the Polish abortion ban

Author: Joanna Mishtal (University of Central Florida)  email

Short Abstract

I analyze Polish women’s use of abortion underground and online networks as a form of resistance to abortion restrictions. I argue that this individualized resistance is a limited stopgap strategy for dealing with larger social and collective concerns about reproductive rights and gender equality.

Long Abstract

This paper examines Polish women's use of the clandestine abortion underground and online networking as a form of resistance developed in response to severe restrictions on access to abortion services in Poland since 1993. Since the abortion ban, the Polish feminist movement has been actively advocating for reinstituting abortion rights, but with little success, as the medical community and the public at large have generally abstained from meaningful political participation in the controversies of this struggle. Because the ban allows limited exceptions, it is often depicted in political discourses as a "compromise" with the Church, while in reality Poland's abortion law is one of the harshest in Europe.

Rather than complying with the abortion ban, imposed unilaterally by postsocialist state and the Catholic church, Polish women's response has been to develop their own coping strategies to control fertility, including circumventing the legislation by pursuing illegal abortions and sharing this knowledge on the Internet. I argue that this individualized and privatized form of resistance is a limited stopgap strategy for dealing with larger social and collective concerns about reproductive rights, health, and gender equality that should be addressed with collective policy solutions.

"Take care of themselves" in the political and moral uncertainty of illegal abortion in Mérida (Mexico)

Author: Anastasia Martino  email

Short Abstract

My research deals with sexuality, reproduction and power. In a local context where abortion is illegal, how state policies, social activism, moral stands and medical knowledge can define and influence personal life trajectories?

Long Abstract

Abortion is illegal everywhere in Mexico, except in Mexico City, where it's has been legalized in 2007. This (political and juridical) decision has produced a strong reaction of dissent by the more conservative political groups and by the Catholic Church.

Abortion represents today in Mexico, as in other countries, "a political arena" within which different actors (public and private) place, compare and confront themselves about the "women rights" and the "unborn rights".

In this paper, I would like to present some results of my PhD research - carried out from 2011 to 2014 - focused on family planning policies, use of contraceptive methods and the issue of abortion (illegal but allowed in specific circumstances) in Mérida, the capital city of Yucatán.

In order to comprehend the variety of positions, ideas, behaviours, ethical and moral stands, that people take on sexuality, reproduction and contraception, I decided to set my fieldwork taking into account different social actors: women and men, health professionals and doctors working in public hospitals, and social movements activists. I have been working with public associations (pro-choice and pro-life movement) that are ideologically, ethically, morally and - above all - politically oriented on specific positions about reproduction and sexuality.

In this paper, I want to reflect on the links between biological issues, moral regimes, subjective values and conducts about reproduction and sexuality. I'll try to explore the relationship between the abortion rights, the state political strategies and the ethical and moral "intimate governance" defined by specific social movements (pro-life and pro-choice).

"Good Doctors do not object?": abortion, stigma and conscientious objection to abortion care in Italy, in obstetricians-gynaecolosists' perspectives

Author: Silvia De Zordo (University of Barcelona)  email

Short Abstract

In this presentation I discuss how abortion stigma and conscientious objection to abortion care impact on obstetricians-gynaecologists’ experiences and attitudes towards abortion, based on a qualitative study carried out in 2011 in four public maternity hospitals in Italy (Rome and Milan).

Long Abstract

In this presentation I discuss the results of a qualitative research on health professionals' experiences and attitudes towards abortion and conscientious objection, carried out in 2011 in Rome and Milan (Italy). I examine particularly obstetricians-gynaecologists' experiences and attitudes to abortion and explore how they deal with the medical, legal and moral conflicts raised by doctors' and other health professionals' refusal to perform terminations and to assist women undergoing these procedures. The first part of the presentation discusses the public debate on reproductive rights since the 70s, when abortion was legalized in Italy. It argues that an important political shift occurred over the last decade from the partial recognition of women as moral/political autonomous subjects to the recognition of the embryo/foetus as a "bio-political" subject to be protected at the cost of women's health and rights. The increase in conscientious objection rates during the 2000s may be considered a consequence of this shift. However, how has this shift occurred and why? Has it actually influenced medical training and practice and how? In the second part of the presentation I answer these questions, building on the main results of a study that I carried in 2011 in four public maternity hospitals in Rome and Milan. My study shows that conscientious objection and abortion stigma are strictly related to each other, and that the increasing medicalization of contraception and pregnancy (via prenatal screening techniques) has increased abortion stigma and strongly influences physicians' attitudes towards abortion and their choices concerning abortion provision.

Beyond medical bureaucracy: an inquiry into the obstacles to abortion in a maternity ward in Turin, Italy

Author: Chiara Quagliariello (European University Institute)  email

Short Abstract

Based on an ethnography in a maternity ward in Turin, I will show how medical bureaucracy rather than being a merely procedural obstacle, reveals a number of political, social, gendered and moral implications to which women are subjected in the abortion process.

Long Abstract

Medical consultations, rather than constituting a path to access care and abortion, are increasingly becoming obstacles of procedural nature for women's access to their right to legal abortion. My contribution is based on ethnographic research I have conducted in 2014-15 in a maternity hospital in Turin - Italy. Referring to the findings emerged during my fieldwork I could observe how the abortion bureaucracy reveals a number of political, social, gendered and moral implications to which women are subjected. I will focus on three key aspects. First, the informed consent, a procedure aimed to increase women's medical awareness, often results in a moral questioning of women's choice to abort even when there is no conscience-based refusal by healthcare providers. Secondly, the criteria adopted by psychologists - constantly involved in the consultations - to evaluate psychic sustainability of abortion is not only based on the overall psychological integrity of a woman, it rather relies on social norms, for which abortion is discouraged in stable sentimental relationships. Thirdly, the participation of women's partners through all the abortion process, during talks and medical procedures alike, has determined a shift to abortion from being (or should be) a women's centered choice to a couple based experience. Furthermore, I will argue that these phenomena, require us to reflect on the reconfiguration of power relations within healthcare providers - so that the voice of psychologists is becoming as important as gynaecologists' one - and in gender relations during the abortion process.

Antiabortion collaboration and the movement for reproductive justice

Authors: Patricia Zavella (University of California)  email
Cristina Aguilar (Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights)  email

Short Abstract

Antiabortion activism has increased recently in the United States, introducing legislative restrictions and funding cuts. This paper discusses the strategies by and collaboration between three organizations within the movement for reproductive justice that counter antiabortion activism.

Long Abstract

Antiabortion activism has increased recently in the United States where conservatives are becoming proactive. Conservatives have introduced a municipal ban on abortion in Albuquerque and a constitutional amendment defining personhood in Colorado three times, and restricted access to reproductive health care in Texas through funding cuts. These efforts have provoked opposition and collaboration by organizations in the movement for reproductive justice by and for women of color that frame their work through intersectionality and human rights. Dorf and Tarrow (2014) call for analyses of reciprocal relations between movements and countermovements in legal and political opportunity structures. This paper discusses the strategies by and collaboration between three organizations within the movement for reproductive justice that counter antiabortion activism. I argue that women of color working in the movement for reproductive justice resist antiabortion forces using particular strategies: 1) They construct a "strengths-based" approach that does not engage the opposition directly but instead frames their work as drawing on the resiliency and spirituality of communities; 2) They strategically use storytelling—eliciting narratives and dialogues in public settings—to garner voter support; 3) They reach out to political actors who previously have not been involved in reproductive justice by collaborating "across sectors"—differences by race, religious affiliation, political emphases, etc. 4) They provide resources and moral support to one another. These practices concretize the praxis of intersectionality through "world-making" (Duong 2012)— creating a collective political identity that incorporates constituents across the political spectrum that range from LGBTQ to faith-based activists.

Abortion and women's mental and bodily health: the language of trauma in the public debate on abortion in Italy

Author: Claudia Mattalucci (Università di Milano Bicocca)  email

Short Abstract

Based on field research conducted in Italy between 2009 and 2013, my presentation examines anti-abortion activists’ discourse about the risks that abortion involves for women. I argue that analysing the language of trauma provides a lens onto representations of gender, choice, women's health and rights.

Long Abstract

My presentation examines the emergence and spread of the highly contested idea that abortion causes a psychological disorder comparable to post-traumatic syndrome. Since appearing in English speaking countries in the 80s, the debate about Post Abortion Syndrome has spread through multiple national contexts, taking on various context-specific forms. Anti-abortion activists have used ideas about Post-Abortion Syndrome, and more widely about the repercussions the voluntary termination of pregnancy has on women's mental health, as a tool to contest the argument that a legal and safe abortion serves to protect women's health.

Based on field research conducted in northern Italy between 2009 and 2013, my presentation describes the spread of a discourse among Italian anti-abortion activists according to which abortion involves serious risks for women's mental health. The construction of abortion as a traumatic experience mobilizes multiple registers in which scientific arguments reflect moral positions and serve political agendas.

During the '70s, when abortion in Italy was still illegal and unsafe, feminist activists likewise described abortion as a traumatic experience that threatened women's bodies and lives. Comparing their arguments to those of contemporary anti-abortion activists, I argue that the language on trauma provides a lens onto different historically and ideologically situated ideas about gender, choice, women's health, and rights.

Lobbying for the unborn: anti-abortion discourses in contemporary Romania

Author: Lorena Anton (University of Bucharest)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the controversies surrounding abortion in Romania, by analyzing the main pro-life actors and their discourses, and the way they challenge the contemporary understanding of reproductive rights.

Long Abstract

Reproduction control (1966-1989) in communist Romania is considered to have been one of the most repressive political demographies in twentieth century Europe. First day after Ceaușescu's trial and execution, the new Romanian government legalized abortion on request. Since the early 1990s, many changes have occurred in post-communist abortion governance, both in legislation and associated healthcare. For example, the (first) National Network of Family Planning was created in 1994, and in 2003 the Patient Rights Law established, in its Reproductive Rights Chapter, that 'the right of the woman to decide whether or not to have a child is guaranteed' (article 28).

Nevertheless, more and more controversies surrounding abortion legislation have occurred in recent years, on the background of a massive demographic decline and the rise of religious influence in contemporary society. Since 2009, regular Marches for Life have been organized in Romania's major cities, and a growing number of pro-life groups are developing strong anti-abortion campaigns, especially online. As a direct consequence, more and more cases of conscientious objection are reported among the medical practitioners. This practice, not officially regulated, is strongly supported by BOR (the Romanian Orthodox Church).

Drawing on the partial results of a long-term ethnography (2013-2017) concerning reproduction control in post-communist Romania, I show that anti-abortion group's lobby is challenging women's reproductive rights, as their discourses starts to gain serious influence in the public arena, especially for the young generation who did not experience Ceausescu's abortion ban.

Pro-abortion rights policies in Brazil: the interruption of pregnancy in the Supreme Court case of an anencephalic fetus

Author: Lilian Sales (Universidade Federal de São Paulo)  email

Short Abstract

This paper analyzes the controversy between pro-life and pro-choice groups during the debates of the legality of abortion performed in the cases of anencephalic fetus and examined by the Brazilian Supreme Court in 2012.

Long Abstract

Abortion is a crime under the Brazilian law except in two situations: when the life of the woman is threatened and in cases of rape. New pro-abortion rights policies tried by the federal government starting from 2008 with Lula De Silva's government, resulted in the mobilization of pro-life groups which aim to prevent the advancement of these policies. These groups have also been trying to reverse the two exceptions in the current Brazilian abortion law.

The Supreme Court judgment legalizing anencephalic fetus abortion and the accompanying pro-life mobilization exemplifies the actions of these groups in the Brazilian public arena, seeking to interfere in the decision-making process. Throughout the court case the agents linked to the Catholic Church and members of pro-life movements were articulated and positioned against the Court's action.

This paper observes how these agents sought to intervene in this judgment, their forms of organization and their repertoires of justifications. I analyze the strategies and measures used by these agents in the constitution of the argument against aborting anencephalic fetuses. The resulting justifications sought to be convincing in the public arena of discussions. To understand this dispute my analysis extends to understanding the broader controversy, identifying the repertoires of justifications produced by the agents and groups favorable to the lawsuit. This paper identifies elements of different orders - science, morality, religion and rights - in the discourses of these two blocks, as these discourses are mobilized and articulated in the actions and justifications of both sides.

Conservative responses to legal abortion or what is left after Gallardon Bill discussion in Spain: an anthropological analysis of the Andalucian situation

Author: Susana Rostagnol (Universidad de la República)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the conservative responses to the expansion of women rights in the discussion of the Gallardon Bill in Spain. Based on ethnographic work in Andalucía, it analyzes moral, legal and health issues, and considers the impact of this discussion on the actual practice of abortion.

Long Abstract

In Spain, the expansion of women rights discussed during the Gallardon Bill debates was followed by conservative responses that intended to diminish those rights. This paper examines and presents this process. Abortion has been legal in Spain for over 20 years. When the Gallardon Bill intending to ban legal abortion was presented in 2014, it had an immediate social reaction. Social movements dramatically opposed its aim to ban abortion, to the point that after a few months of public discussion, the bill was rejected. This paper examines how this process took place and specifically how and if it affected the practice of abortion. The emphasis in this analysis is given to the conservative responses to women's rights expansion, and considering these responses in the domains of moral, legal and health issues. Finally, this paper also presents some comparisons with conservative responses in the Uruguayan case, where gynecologists' moral objections have become an important issue in the implementation of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy Act.

Methodologically this paper is based ethnographic fieldwork in Andalucia with women's rights movement and health care staff. Additionally, these data are combined with the analysis of public and political documents.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.