Image: Abortion Laws Around the World| Obtained from Center for Reproductive Rights via Council on Foreign Relations 

A global analysis of the evolution of abortion rights and the implications for our generation.

By Desiree Menezes, Staff Writer 

“It is unthinkable to allow strangers, whether individually or collectively as state legislators or others in government, to make such personal decisions for someone else.” – Sarah Weddington (Library of Congress).

For decades, the abortion debate has been a long-standing controversy in many nations around the world, polarising on the terms pro-life and pro-choice. Pro-life supporters believe the fetus is a human and has an inherent ‘right to life’ equal to that of the mother. Pro-choice supporters advocate for women’s right to bodily autonomy and to be able to make decisions regarding their reproductive health.  The core principle that underscores arguments on reproductive rights is highlighted above by Sarah Weddington, the defense attorney in the landmark ‘Roe v Wade’ United States Supreme Court Case (1973), which ratified abortion in the US as a federal right for women. 

In the tapestry of history, society’s perspective towards abortion has been ever-changing. In ancient civilizations, abortions occurred with little moral or even legal scrutiny, as it was viewed to be a matter within the private sphere. However, these attitudes evolved with the growth in support for religious institutions. The Catholic Church’s condemnation of abortion dictated moral and legal attitudes throughout most of European history.  Fast-forward to the 20th century, when the Soviet Union became the first country to legalize abortions. Amid flares in geopolitics, many countries followed suit. From Roe v. Wade in the United States to legislative battles in nations like Ireland and Argentina.

France 

On March 4th, 2024, the French parliament voted to enshrine abortion rights in the constitution, receiving widespread support from even the far-right. In contrast to the United States, in France, this issue proved to be less polarising between political groups. In France said issue falls in line with the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, which protects individual liberties, such as the right to bodily autonomy, from unnecessary state intervention. This constitutional amendment serves as a fortress to safeguard these fundamental rights, which potentially risk being manipulated or even overturned by political groups.  

“We’re sending a message to all women: your body belongs to you” (TIME, 2024)

This statement by French PM Gabriel Attal was emblazoned on the Eiffel Tower to support International Women’s Day. 

Macron’s government hopes to enshrine these freedoms in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which will prove to be difficult as it requires unanimity from every state involved. Countries like Poland, where anti-abortion laws are some of the most restrictive in Europe, will deliver significant resistance to this charter amendment. 

France’s commitment to bodily autonomy in the name of feminism is far from perfect, evident through the criticisms by human rights organizations, who have pointed out the double standard in paternalism directed towards Muslim women wearing the hijab in public. The secular March 2004 law banned the wearing of religious symbols in public but unfairly targeted Muslim women wearing their hijab. These anti-veiling laws undermine a woman’s right to make decisions concerning her bodily sovereignty, which contradicts the values being preached by the pro-choice French parliament. Can a woman’s body truly belong to herself if her religious commitments are being dictated government?

United States

In the United States, the discourse around abortion rights experienced a seismic shift on June 24, 2022, when the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade (1973): a case that set a precedent for abortion laws in the US. This unexpected reversal granted state governments the ability to implement their abortion laws, which has led to a kaleidoscope of legal frameworks across the country. 

The Centre for Reproductive Rights reported that 14 states, with Texas and Oklahoma as spearheads for the pro-life movement, have enforced near-total abortion bans. Most notably, these laws have little to no exceptions for cases of rape and incest, drawing communal anger from women’s advocacy groups for the stringent nature of these policies. These policies are enforced with strict criminal penalties, including ‘bounty hunter’ laws that permit any individual to sue anyone who aids or abets in the inducement of an abortion.

Essentially overnight, nearly 1 in 3 women found themselves having to live in states with restrictive reproductive policies, plunging many women into a state of turmoil. (Centre for Reproductive Rights). The disparity in policies between states has forced many women to travel hundreds of miles or cross state borders to seek safe and legal abortions. With no consistent lawmaking, marginalized groups have been disproportionately burdened. Banning abortions does not eliminate the existence of illegal abortions. These marginalized women, who may not have the privilege to travel across state lines, have no access to healthcare and are forced to endure high-risk pregnancies and pregnancy-related morbidity by being forced to continue their pregnancies.

This evolving political landscape, in the backdrop of the upcoming 2024 presidential elections, could potentially play a key role in swaying voters and shifting federal policies for the near future.

University

For university students, this tumultuous landscape of reproductive rights has forced many to confront their values and the ability to make informed decisions on broader societal discourse. Universities have become crucibles for student advocacy groups. In Canada, these tensions are palpable as university campuses have seen a rise in anti-abortion protests. One organization is the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR), whose website reflects their opinion that “Human rights are for ALL human beings” (CCBR). These groups tend to present themselves as a support service for women facing unplanned pregnancies, aiming to provide resources and guidance. 

Critics have asserted that through the depiction of gruesome images of late-term pregnancy abortions, these organizations spread misinformation to incite fear and gain attention on campus. Through spreading false claims like abortion causes infertility and breast cancer, many women are robbed of their informed consent. Many of these organizations have been denied legitimization by their Student Unions. CBC reported on how the Acadia Pregnancy Support Group operating out of Acadia University in Nova Scotia had to surrender their club status for handing out pamphlets, that contradicted the union’s bylaws (CBC 2018).  

Despite the backlash, the directors of these associations invoke the principle of freedom of speech to defend their actions, arguing that shutting down these groups is tantamount to stifling healthy debate. As these debates unfold, it becomes imperative for universities to balance freedom of speech and ethical responsibility to provide accurate information. While discourse should be encouraged, it should be respectful and rooted in evidence, allowing women to make informed decisions regarding their individual reproductive health.

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