ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Health and wellbeing in post-war Europe: the contentious issue of abortion

Location Appleton Tower, Seminar Room 2.04
Date and Start Time 20 June, 2014 at 09:00


Lorena Anton (University of Bucharest) email
Silvia De Zordo (University of Sussex) email
Joanna Mishtal (University of Central Florida) email
Mail All Convenors


After 1945, European states developed new politics concerning reproduction. This panel examines the abortion issue, and past and present debates concerning reproductive health and wellbeing. It considers multiple actors' perspectives and negotiations around abortion access and governance.

Long Abstract

After 1945, deep political transformations occurred in European debates around human reproduction, resulting in important sociocultural and economic changes in gender relations and practices. Simultaneously, major changes occurred in abortion legislations, in particular after 1955, when the Soviet Union allowed women to terminate pregnancy on request for the first time in post-war Europe. Shortly after abortion was legalized in most communist countries, and then, progressively also on the other side of the Berlin Wall, starting with the UK in 1968. Since the 1990s, two major politico-economic shifts have had a profound impact on the governance of abortion: the fall of communist regimes, and the embrace of neoliberal economic policies across the New Europe. In several post-Soviet nations abortion rights have been significantly restricted due to the political revitalization of religious institutions. The general 'remasculinization' of politics after the fall of communism and the end of the wave of feminist protests of the 60s-70s, have been threatening gender equality across Europe. Economically, the welfare state decline evidenced by the neoliberal cuts in social services and healthcare have greatly affected women's experiences related to their reproductive and sexual health and wellbeing.

This panel invites contributions from anthropologists researching local developments of the abortion issue in Europe, as well as associated debates (either pro-choice or pro-life). We encourage participants to approach the topic using ethnographic analyses and to focus on negotiations of reproductive health and rights, and questions of women's wellbeing in the context of state-individual relations and politics.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Abortion stigma, foetal 'rights' and conscientious objection in Italy: a qualitative study on obstetricians-gynaecologists' experiences and attitudes to abortion in Rome and Milan

Author: Silvia De Zordo (University of Sussex)  email


This paper discusses abortion, its stigmatization and conscientious objection based on research carried out in 2011 in four public maternity hospitals in Rome and Milan with obstetricians-gynaecologists and other health professionals.

Long Abstract

This paper discusses abortion, its stigmatization and conscientious objection based on a research carried out in 2011 in four public maternity hospitals in Rome and Milan with obstetricians-gynaecologists and other health professionals.

The first part of the paper summarizes and discusses the public debate on abortion rights and, more largely, reproductive rights in Italy since the 70s, when abortion was legalized under broad circumstances in the 1st trimester and in the 2nd trimester in case of serious life or health risks for the woman. It shows how new actors and political rationalities are emerging from the abortion debate, since the increase in conscientious objection to abortion care has become its main focus in recent years.

The second part shows how an important political shift occurred over the last decade from the partial recognition of women as moral and political autonomous subjects to the recognition of the embryo/foetus as a juridical subject whose rights must be defended. Can the increase in conscientious objection be considered as a result of this shift or should other phenomena (e.g. the impact of antenatal screening techniques and abortion stigma) be also examined to understand this process? In the third part I answer this question by exploring how Italian obstetricians deal with the embryo/foetus and with the medical, legal and moral conflicts raised by termination and by physicians' and other health professionals' refusal to provide abortion care.

Healing the wounds of abortion: pro-life activism and the (re)construction of denied motherhood

Author: Claudia Mattalucci (Università di Milano Bicocca)  email


This paper analyzes the discourses and practices of pro-life activism, paying particular attention to the re-signification of abortion as an event that adversely affects women's reproductive health and wellbeing.

Long Abstract

My analysis of some strategies used by pro-lifers to contest abortion stems from ethnographic research conducted in Northern Italy between 2009 and 2013. The presentation focuses on women seen as "victims of abortion". Based to this idea, in most cases abortions are coerced and cause women physical and emotional harm. In recent years some pro-life associations and individual practitioners have started to offer spiritual healing and psychological assistance to women who have had abortions. My paper discusses two forms of post-abortion healing: one offered by the Italian branch of Rachel's Vineyard (an international Catholic association active in Italy since 2010), and the other proposed by a Catholic psychologist and family counselor who treats women, either individually or in groups. In both cases, the healing processes, which draw largely on the Catholic religion, are aimed at reconciling the parties involved in abortion. Recognizing the aborted "child" is an essential element of the post-abortion healing experience, which involves the naming, the celebration of a symbolic funeral, a memorial mass, etc. For pro-life healers, recognizing the child and entrusting him to God through ritual leads to the reconstruction of lost motherhood.

The recent spread of post-abortion healing has given visibility to the fact that abortion causes suffering for some women. In the current national debate on abortion, these newly introduced practices feed a counter-discourse that echoes the 70s pro-choice argument centered on women, and condemns abortion as a violation of their right to be mothers and as an event that causes harm to their physical and mental health.

Mother rights or unborn rights? Laws and loopholes in Madrid's healthcare services

Author: Beatriz Aragon Martin (UCL/ Max Planck Institute for the Study of Ethnic and Religious Diversity)  email


This paper explores abortion governance in Spain with ethnographic data from public health care facilities. It analyses the entanglement between women's and unborn rights and the legal loopholes used to grant access to publicly funded abortion to migrant women.

Long Abstract

This paper explores abortion governance in Madrid (Spain) and physician's strategies to facilitate access to funded abortion to migrant women. The paper analyses how abortion legislation is put in place in public health care facilities and how the translation of the law in everyday practice generates a specific constellation of opportunities and constraints, which accounts for the great heterogeneity in the provision of reproductive health services in this local scenario.

I analyse healthcare entitlement legislation, its politics of inclusion and exclusion and its implementation in local practice, as well as the changes in abortion legislation and its turn into the rights' discourse. I present an example of healthcare professionals' practice that circumvents entitlement law to grant access to abortion to migrant women. Pregnant women, regardless of their nationality or legal status, have the right to healthcare by law in order to protect the rights of the foetus as a child-to-be. However, pregnancy healthcare entitlement is not specifically limited to antenatal care and healthcare professionals profit this legal loophole to grant access to public funding for abortion for migrant women.

The instrumental use of a document primarily conceived to protect the rights of the unborn, paradoxically, enables women to exercise their rights. This example reveal one of the mechanism by which doctors and women by-pass the non-evident obstacles to exercise the right to abort.

For the good of the nation? Abortion politics during Ceaușescu's Romania

Author: Lorena Anton (University of Bucharest)  email


Reproduction control in Ceausescu’s Romania is considered to have been one of the most repressive demographic politics in the 20th century Europe. This paper presents the abortion politics of that period, in order to discuss the lack of public protest towards the pronatalist policies of the communist regime.

Long Abstract

In communist Romania, draconian pronatalist policies were developed from 1966 to 1989 in the name of the socialist nation and its needs. Besides the lack of modern contraception, voluntary pregnancy interruptions (previously legalized in 1957) were forbidden and severely punished under the Penal Code. First day after Ceaușescu's trial and execution on December 25, 1989, the new Romanian government legalized abortion on request (in the first trimester of pregnancy and under the supervision of the medical profession).

In order to understand the lack of public protest concerning pronatalist policies and the development of underground abortion practices, this paper tackles the official construction of pregnancy-interruptions as 'a social plague' and women's memories about this period of time. The analysis is based on long-term oral history and archival research (2005-2009) which addressed the issue of different forms of the memory of abortion in Ceausescu's Romania.

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

Author: Joanna Mishtal (University of Central Florida)  email


This paper examines Polish women’s use of the abortion underground as a form of protest logics developed in response to reproductive rights restrictions in Poland. It draws on research in 4 medical clinics in Gdańsk, Poland and an analysis of online discussion groups about abortion services.

Long Abstract

After the fall of communism in 1989 Poland implemented severe restrictions on family planning, due primarily to the renewed power of the Catholic Church. This 'return of God' and 'masculinization' of the political sphere was marked by new effort to control women's reproduction and sexuality, and nationalist resurgence of pronatalist discourses. The postsocialist Church-state morality politics resulted in a near-total ban on abortion, as well as the implementation of the conscientious objection law, and the elimination of health insurance coverage for contraceptives. The abortion ban fueled the development of a clandestine abortion underground. In this paper, I examine the extent to which women's strategies to 'beat the system' by circumventing the ban on abortion can be considered a form of protest logics developed in response to reproductive rights restrictions in Poland after 1989—a form of civic resistance that bypasses both structural constraints of the abortion ban policy and simultaneously challenges the hegemonic meta narrative of Polish motherhood as a patriotic imperative. In my analysis, I draw on research conducted in 2007 in four medical clinics in Poland, in Gdańsk and the Tricity area, with women patients who came to the clinics for general care. I conducted semistructured interviews with 55 women ages 18-40 on site at the clinics in private rooms about clandestine abortion services. I also draw on an analysis of Polish online discussion groups and forums, which I have followed in 2013, in particular discussion vignettes which are about abortion knowledge, access, and services.

Abortion governance in the new Northern Ireland

Author: Robin Whitaker (Memorial University of Newfoundland)  email


The restoration of devolved government to Northern Ireland has tightened an already restrictive abortion regime, making abortion there illegal in virtually all circumstances. This paper argues that Northern Ireland’s abortion regime exemplifies the disjunctive quality of post-Agreement democracy.

Long Abstract

The 1998 Belfast Agreement was widely heralded as a 'new beginning': a means to end ethno-national conflict and restore democracy to Northern Ireland. However, greater political autonomy has tightened an already restrictive abortion regime. In Britain, women have ready access to publicly funded abortions under the 1967 Abortion Act. That law does not extend to Northern Ireland, leaving abortion illegal there in virtually every case. This paper argues that Northern Ireland's abortion governance reveals the disjunctive character of post-Agreement democracy and citizenship, to use Teresa Caldeira and James Holston's term. State policies and political discourses tie legitimate sex to reproduction in a way better characterised as pro-birth than pro-life. Even as these make the 'unborn child' a bearer of rights, the anti-abortion discourse of governing politicians also construes pregnant women as 'vulnerable' and requiring state protection. This leaves women facing an unwanted pregnancy either to continue against their will or seek a privatised solution, legal or illegal, but always illicit in terms of Northern Ireland's official abortion regime. The strength of this regime is inseparable from the Agreement's authorization of ostensibly rival nationalisms. Cross-community consent safeguards privilege unionist and nationalist politicians and give institutional backing to the rhetorical force of conservatives' claims to unite former enemies in a shared morality that cuts across national and sectarian boundaries. Thus, the invocation of a shared 'Northern Ireland' ethos and demands for exceptional status within the United Kingdom hinge, paradoxically, on the continued strength of competing nationalisms in the post-Agreement period.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.