Ni Una Menos
In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull endorsing the ‘correcting, imprisoning, punishing and chastising’ of witches, who stood accused – among other crimes – of devising and applying methods of contraception that ‘hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving’, and creating abortifacients which ‘ruin and cause to perish the offspring of women’. The population of Europe still hadn’t recovered from the ravages of the Black Death and other disasters; it was critical that women be punished for these nascent forms of birth control.
Our first year of plague ended on a more hopeful note. On 30 December 2020, the government of Argentina passed landmark legislation to permit abortions before 14 weeks, becoming only the third South American nation – with Uruguay and Guyana – to legalise abortion on request. Activists campaigned under the slogan ‘Ni Una Menos’ (‘not one [woman] less’), borrowed from a movement against domestic violence.
The picture elsewhere is less optimistic. Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party is poised to ban terminations in cases of foetal abnormalities, further shrinking the scope of one of Europe’s most draconian abortion regimes, which already drives 100,000 women abroad to seek terminations each year. Last week, the governor of Ohio signed a bill that requires foetal remains to be cremated or buried, at the expense of those who choose terminations. Two days later, a bill initiated by Mike Pence in his former role as governor of Indiana made it mandatory for anyone seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound scan first. Since Trump’s election in 2016, hundreds of creative new laws have been passed to erode access to terminations, and the number of independent abortion clinics in the US has fallen by a third.
Opposition to abortion in the United States extends far beyond its own borders. One of Joe Biden’s first acts as president later this month will be to revoke the Global Gag Rule. Introduced by Ronald Reagan in 1984, it prevents any overseas organisation in receipt of US federal funds from so much as mentioning abortion. Every Democratic president since Reagan has repealed it; every Republican has reintroduced it. There is an infamous photo of Trump in the Oval Office, surrounded by white men in suits, signing a supersized version of the policy. It previously covered funds for family planning, but now applies to the entire $8.8 billion budget for global health funding.
For the last four years, any overseas NGO in receipt of US money has had to certify that they will not ‘perform or actively promote abortion’ using any of their funds, from any sources, US or otherwise. Healthcare providers in some of the most under-resourced settings have been faced with either ceasing provision, counselling, referrals and advocacy around abortion (even in nations where it is legal), or declining US funding and thereby facing such severe shortfalls as to undermine much of their work, including their abortion services.
There couldn’t be a more brazen instance of moral imperialism. The policy exploits poor countries’ dependence on US aid to impose controls on the bodies of women of colour in the Global South. Its effect is to ravage an already inadequate patchwork of health services in some of the world’s poorest communities, and to silence or defund abortion advocates while emboldening and bankrolling regressive groups. Abortion rates do not decline when the Global Gag Rule is in operation. They rise, because other forms of family planning are also defunded. The major difference is that unwanted pregnancies are more likely to end in risky clandestine abortions, leading to an increase in death and injury. Foetuses are not saved, but women are taught a costly lesson.
Biden’s presidency will bring a hiatus to this neocolonial sanction, and that is a good thing. But it’s also a devastating reminder of where we are: the bodily autonomy of millions of women in the Global South hangs on the stroke of a white man’s signature, and we count it a success when the whims of a bullish superpower swing the right way.
Little is guaranteed in the coming months, but we can be sure that the Covid-19 pandemic is dropping us into the deepest global recession in a hundred years. Our slow scrabble out of the downturn will be led by right-wing politicians who will author the austerity measures, choose the scapegoats, and manufacture the moral lessons. It is doubtful that abortion will escape their need for control and distraction. There will be witches again.