At a recent conference ‘Finding Common Grounds’, organized by the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research, in Duisburg, in July, Mariana Prandini Assis (Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Federal University of Goiás, Brazil) and Claire Pierson (Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Liverpool, UK) both spoke about abortion care in different regimes – Northern Ireland and Latin America. Both their talks analysed the politics of abortion and the development of models of care in regions with restrictive laws, but both believe that research on abortion can tell us much about wider politics, inequalities, and social justice. We continued this conversation via email and our exchange is presented here.
Mariana: Claire, we recently met at the ‘Finding Common Grounds’ workshop and we both spoke about our research on abortion. I was curious about what led you to research abortion in the first place. Because this is still an understudied and stigmatized topic, all of us have some interesting personal story of why and how we came to engage with it.
Claire: So I had been living outside Northern Ireland for some time and when I moved back in 2008 I started a Master’s degree in human rights and later working for a feminist magazine based in Belfast (Women's News) and attending meetings of a new feminist group – Belfast Feminist Network. During my law degree, it had never really been explained how restrictive our abortion laws were (an almost total ban), and it was only then I realized how bad the situation was. During my PhD (which wasn't on abortion), I continued going to events and rallies and then in 2015 a friend and colleague, Dr Fiona Bloomer, asked if I wanted to do some research on the political discourse on abortion in Stormont (NI Assembly) debates. This was a real eye-opener! One of the earliest debates after the Good Friday Agreement (the peace agreement ending violent conflict in 1998) was about abortion and was attempting to stop the extension of the British 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland – this was during a time when criminal justice issues hadn't been devolved to the NI Assembly so it wouldn't have been possible anyway – but it illustrates how strong the opposition to abortion was. The language in the debates also told us a lot about how women's role in society was perceived, some of the earlier debates talked about 'selfish career women' and more recent ones were based a lot on women being 'vulnerable' and in need of 'protection' by politicians (who are mostly male). Researching abortion can tell you a lot about people’s attitudes towards gender equality and women's role in society. Since then, I've done research with trade unions in Ireland and more recently have been working with healthcare professionals and activists in Malta (an island with the most restrictive laws in Europe). Context is obviously important, but I can see a lot of similarities between the island of Ireland and Malta – in particular the influence of religion on the legal system and people’s views about abortion.
Claire: As you mentioned in the beginning of our conversation, we met at that workshop and coincidentally we both study abortion and ended up speaking about very similar issues, even though we are doing our work in very different sites – I, in Northern Ireland and Malta, you, in Latin America. I remember that we talked about the difficulty of being in spaces outside the ‘abortion world’ because we are often placed back in the category of the abortion researcher who can only talk about it. However, we both know that studying abortion gives us insights about so much more. For you, what can abortion research tell us about broader political trends and events in the world?
Mariana: Even though I'm not a historian, I think it is very important to look at practices, events, and concepts historically in order to understand what meaning and place they have in the world today. So when we look back in time, abortion had always been a common event in people's reproductive lives, and up until the nineteenth century, something that was not regulated by the state or at least not treated as a criminal offence. Interestingly enough, it was not religious authorities or even arguments that were behind the criminalization of abortion, but rather the medical profession, as people like Carole Joffe and Reva Siegel have shown. The nineteenth century was a time when the medical profession was aiming to establish itself as a profession and by asserting their opposition to, and even their jurisdiction over abortion (and birthing), physicians could distinguish themselves from other health care providers (mainly midwives). At the same time, the nineteenth century is also when governmentality came to full fruition, as we learn from Foucault. The modern state was then, as it continues to be today, concerned not so much with controlling territory itself, but rather with controlling and managing the mass of the population on its territory. And that way, regulation of reproduction in general, including abortion, becomes also a matter of statecraft, the means through which state power gives shape and size to populations. But also, through the regulation of reproduction, gender norms, roles, and stereotypes are produced and reproduced, and, over time, naturalized. From this brief historicizing, I think it becomes clear that through the study of abortion we can learn all kinds of political things, from state building, to the establishment of professions and their power, to the development of sex-gender systems (as you mentioned, people's attitudes towards gender equality and women's role in society), to the meaning and force of the law, and so on. If we apply the analysis to contemporary times, we can also add far-right movements, de-democratization, to mention only a few. I like to think of abortion as a window that, when opened, allows you to see an entire new collection of actors, practices, and issues that had always been out there but remained not fully seen.
Mariana: While answering you, I had at the back of my mind one of the questions that was addressed during the workshop – how to create and foster common grounds. I would love to hear more about what you have learned from activists and people having abortions in Northern Ireland that might inspire some of our practices towards creating the conditions for sharing our common world.
Claire: Abortion activism gives us a great model to learn from. Whilst a lot of abortion rights is rightly focused on legal change and ensuring better access to abortion in the long-term, activism has to foreground the real material and bodily conditions of inequality – that someone is pregnant now and doesn’t want to be, or can’t be, for whatever reason. Legal change in the future doesn’t help someone who needs an abortion right now so activism has to start from helping people in the here and now. We can see this DIY or prefigurative activism in the way abortion care has developed outside of state frameworks in illegal regimes – the fact that the abortion pill (now recommended by the WHO and used globally for safe early medical abortion) was discovered by Brazilian women who noticed that ulcer medication could cause a miscarriage is a great example of this – bad laws don’t stop abortions, they just mean that alternative means have to be found. Those alternatives are often better than what would be provided by the state so activist and abortion-seeker-led care practices, developed out of necessity and material need, can provide us with models for the future of abortion care, taking power away from the state and the over-medicalization of abortion experiences. Coming back to what you ask about finding common grounds and sharing our world, I think we need to start from this perspective of centring what we need in the here and now and putting in place experimental practices now which could be transformative for the future.
Claire: I think we both agree that through abortion research we learn and unlearn a lot about care. It would be great to end our conversation with some reflections around care, abortion activism, and the challenges that we face today in the world.
Mariana: Even at running the risk of repeating myself, I want to start by picking up from something I mentioned before in the conversation – the medicalization of abortion. Before this happened, abortion was an event in people's reproductive lives and for which they received care from someone, mainly a woman, who had knowledge and experience but did not claim any authority over it. Medicalization changed everything, including the type of care that people receive. As I have learned with activists, most doctors establish a hierarchical relationship where they are the experts exercising control and performing their knowledge over people's bodies. The stories about people being discriminated against, harmed, punished, assaulted, and mistreated in their abortion itineraries in the formal health system are countless. Feminist abortion activists offer an experience counter to that. For almost seven years now, I have worked closely with what in Latin America we call acompanhantes (accompaniers), that is, people who provide those going through an abortion with support and care – logistically, informationally, physically, and emotionally. Acompanhantes have built alternative models of care that are based upon political values such as holistic care, social justice, horizontal power, and deep listening. By practising these values, acompanhantes establish encompassing infrastructures of care that have enabled them to create common grounds among people coming from very diverse backgrounds – race, class, sexual orientation, religion, and so on – while tackling a practical issue that is highly disputed and still stigmatized. I believe that we have a lot to learn from this model of care in these times of multidimensional crisis that we are living in, a model of care that centres people’s needs and experiences and, as you said, that starts from what we have right here, right now.
Mariana and Claire will continue this conversation, both online and offline, looking for ways to strengthen and deepen the connections that the workshop allowed them to create. If you are interested in reading more about their work, you can find Mariana’s writings here and Claire’s writings here. They can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Mariana Prandini Assis is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Federal University of Goiás, in Brazil, and co-founder of the Margarida Alves Collective for People’s Legal Aid, a group of feminist antiracist lawyers. She holds an LLB from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, and an MPhil and PhD in Politics from the New School for Social Research, in the US. Mariana's research areas include feminist political and legal theory, human rights, social movements, public policy, and informality in economies, institutions, and practices. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research.
Claire Pierson is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at University of Liverpool. She specialises in feminist politics, reproductive justice and gender security. She is the Chair of the Feminist Studies Association of UK and Ireland, and co-founder of Reproductive Health Law and Policy Advisory Group. She is a board member of Alliance for Choice, Northern Irelands abortion campaign group. She is currently working on abortion and social movement building in Malta and Northern Ireland and reproductive rights of survivors of human trafficking in Sierra Leone.