Progressives have been too slow to appreciate the attack on reproductive rights in eastern Europe and the US.
News of attacks on reproductive rights in the United States fills the headlines. Meanwhile, white mothers with cute white babies smile down from expensive billboards advertising motherhood—from Hungary to Poland, Germany to Denmark, Russia to Serbia—and condemning abortion.
In the US, due to the well-planned and successful Republican takeover of the judicial system, the Supreme Court criminalisation of abortion is close. In Europe where regulation of reproductive rights varies from country to country, the public discourse is more about demographic decline. As a result, not only was a European commissioner (Dubravka Šuica) appointed with ‘demography’ in her portfolio but illiberal governments have introduced several familialist measures to incentivise marriage—offering joint loans to bind spouses and encouraging couples to have children via income-tax exemptions.
Why have reproductive rights become such a battlefield, when the number of abortions is steadily declining and is clearly linked to social inequality? Surveys by the Hungarian Central Statistical Office show that poor, underage women and women who already have multiple children consider abortion as the only affordable means of birth control, since social-security systems do not support any other. To make the picture even more complex, new family policies are not only securing solid electoral support—as in the recent general election in Hungary—but at the same time traditional tools of classical leftist, redistributive welfare politics are being applied by illiberal governments.
Attacks on reproductive rights aim to unite globally very different forces, from conservative politicians and fundamentalist religious actors to illiberal pragmatists and warmongers such as Vladimir Putin. Their aim is to create an ostensibly attractive alternative to liberal democracies: much more is at stake here than the right to abortion. In Texas relatives and neighbours are expected to report if they happen to have information about abortion and are authorised to sue to enforce a law, even if they are not harmed, which represents the insertion of an illiberal paradigm into the liberal legal system.
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The winds of change regarding reproductive rights have been blowing for more than a decade, together with intellectual and institutional preparation for this contest. Yet progressive political forces missed the obvious signs that reproductive rights were destined to become the battlefield. Illiberal forces have not merely criticised the various legal frameworks but, at the same time, have been building alternative institutions and capturing existing ones, replacing discourses of rights with a new language about reproduction—all largely under the radar of progressive actors.
This contest does offer space for a discussion on crucial issues of gender equality. But it is happening on three interconnected levels—transnational, national and local—and especially on the local level.
Even a national legal framework for abortion can be disabled if, for example, certain hospitals in Poland and Hungary receive European Union funding via their respective governments to improve their gynaecology departments only on the condition that they become ‘family-friendly’—code for not performing abortions. When a public hospital in Hungary or a small municipality in Poland can declare itself to be outside the jurisdiction of universal human rights, international treaties, EU directives or national law, without any real legal or practical consequences, a new conceptualisation of citizenship is required: certain citizens then have access to public goods while others do not.
The same is happening in the US, as far as differences among states are concerned. A brave midwife in a hostile state can however ensure that a women can control her fertility. As this contest is global, requests for abortion-inducing medication by mail can circumvent legislation, alongside international companies such as Amazon financing the journey by an employee to get access to healthcare not available in the area.
American Christian-fundamentalist narratives and branding are, though, also exported. For example, the ‘heartbeat’ principle—a pregnancy cannot be terminated once the foetus’ first heartbeat is detected in the sixth week of pregnancy—has not only been adopted by some conservative states but has been associated with reductions of reproductive rights abroad.
A transnational network of illiberal non-governmental organisations and government-supported ‘GONGOs’ has been set up to that end. The World Congress of Families has already organised four so-called Demographic Summits, in 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2021, where politicians gathered with religious leaders to share strategies for raising birth rates. In October 2020, the Hungarian government co-sponsored with five other countries a virtual gathering for the signing of the ‘Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family’.
This document is meant to be an alternative to the Council of Europe Istanbul convention on violence against women and domestic violence and the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) mechanism. The Geneva declaration, initially signed by 32 countries, stated that ‘there is no international right to abortion, nor any international obligation on the part of States to finance or facilitate abortion, consistent with the long-standing international consensus that each nation has the sovereign right to implement programs and activities consistent with their laws and policies’.
The universal human-rights paradigm focuses on the individual rights of women. It does not mitigate the injustices stemming from the economic order imposed in east and central Europe after the transition of 1989 or the austerity policies pursued following the 2008 financial crash which have affected women’s everyday lives.
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The illiberal contestation of reproductive rights is thus not only a political movement against universal rights, masked as a moral force creating an alternative to liberal values—it also has a material basis. Since resources are becoming more and more scarce, women take them from wherever they are available, which also explains why illiberalism is so popular among women. Reproductive rights, maternalism and the family as an institution can be a resource when no others are available from a dysfunctional state apparatus.
Lisa Brush has called maternalism ‘feminism for hard times’. When the electoral support of traditional progressive parties is stalling while social and economic problems are increasing, a rethinking of maternalism might be the way to stop illiberal contestations of reproductive rights appropriating the institutions and values of progressive politics.
A French version of this article was published by Le Monde
Andrea Pető is a historian and professor at the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University, Vienna and a research affiliate of the CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest. Recent publications include: The Women of the Arrow Cross Party: Invisible Hungarian Perpetrators in the Second World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and Forgotten Massacre: Budapest 1944 (DeGruyter, 2021).