The ban on abortion is not about saving lives, it’s about sexism and control

WORDS ARE NOT NEUTRAL. The way we use them leaves a print. Abortion is and has been for a while one of the most polemical words precisely because of the culturally coined baggage it has carried for centuries, which is linked to concepts such as life, death and killing.

One of the most well-known anti-choice arguments claim to be based on a humanitarian defence of life (the ‘pro-life’ argument). However, close examination reveals that this argument is actually a mechanism of a sexist discourse that seeks to preserve the status quo in gender relations.

 Who is affected by the ban on abortion?

Firstly, women who do not have access to legal and safe procedures. In most cases, these women live in developing countries. According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than 97% of abortions in Africa and 95% in Latin America were not safe in 2008. As if risking their lives were not enough, the legal and moral prohibition make them feel like sinners and killers. Such is the case of Akech Ayimba. Her two traumatic experiences in Kenya, where abortion is restricted to specific cases and was almost completely banned before 2010, lead to a deep depression and suicidal thinking:

“I would really hate myself – I couldn’t look myself in the mirror because I knew in my heart what I’d done was so wrong.”[1]

But the ban on abortion is not limited to developing countries. In the UK, for example, the case of Northern Ireland is notorious, where the Abortion Act that ensures legal and free abortions through the NHS since 1967 stops at Britain. Around 1000 women from Northern Ireland travel to hospitals in England every year, facing a strain on their finances and shame from their community.[2]


The testimony of a woman who narrates her own experience having an NHS abortion in 2006 summarizes to which extent the imperative cultural and religious understanding of abortion affects women’s self-perception, even in cases in which it is performed legally and safely:

“I don’t remember exactly how long I had to wait for the procedure; looking back it felt more like 6 weeks as the days blended together. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I still had to experience symptoms of pregnancy – a reminder every single morning that ‘society hates you’ and that you’re a ‘bad person’, or so these anti-choice campaigners would have you believe. […] By the time a woman has been to her GP to discuss the termination she has already battled this decision. She has fought her own personal demons and is aware of the implications the abortion will have on her body (e.g. it’s not over the second you leave the clinic), how she is viewed by friends and family, and how she will be viewed by wider society. If she is already aware that this is simply a collection of cells being removed through a relatively minor surgical procedure that’s great, but in so many cases this will be a person who’s grown up being told it’s wrong, evil, hateful. I personally was raised Catholic so you can imagine the fun I had!”[3]

There is an enormous gap between speaking of “a collection of cells being removed through a relatively minor surgical procedure” and of the act of killing unborn babies. A foetus, as David Mellor, from the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Center at Massey University in New Zealand, says, “is not a baby who just hasn’t been born yet.”[4]. Defining things through their potentiality is misleading and manipulative. Eating an apple could also be understood as deforesting if we define the apple as a potential apple tree.

The real answer to this question is rather: all women are affected by the ban, for any women is influenced by such a discourse, whether she needs an abortion or not. Changing the prevailing narrative on abortion is not only a matter of health; it is also about stopping the criminalization of women who decide. Access to legal, free and safe abortion, as well as to non-biased information about it, is a matter of human rights.

Pro-what exactly?

The first obvious problem in the pro-life argument is the question with no answer: how should we define life? The definition of life is either intuitive or arbitrary: we know what life is the same way we know what love, justice or sadness are. We never seem to find a final, all-embracing way to express the essence of life, but we recognize certain characteristics. We also seek to find life’s nature through formal disciplines such as Biology and Philosophy. But a universal, unequivocal and satisfactory definition of life is not to be found in any of these; not in the way they can provide a rather unanimous definition of, for example, water, speed or gravity. The beginning of life and life itself are open fields to be interpreted. To say that life begins at the moment of conception is only one definition – but it is the first brick in the building of the concept of abortion as a dreadful act of killing and torture.

Instead of worrying about the definition of ‘life’, the discussions regarding abortion should be focus on preventing suffering and injustice. According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, there is no evidence whatsoever suggesting that a foetus can experience pain before 24 weeks of gestation. Other studies claim that it takes even longer. [5] But it is non-negotiable that forcing a woman to continue with an unwanted pregnancy or seek illegal procedures causes suffering. Women in environments with highly restrictive legislations on abortion not only have to go through the risk and many times endure life-long consequences of illegal and unsafe abortions.


So where does the controversy come from?

It becomes clearer why decriminalising abortion is such a polemical issue once we take into account the context in which this struggle takes place: a sexist world. A good approach to understanding the complex ways in which sexism operates in our modern society is the Ambivalent Sexism Theory, which suggests that during the last decades of the twentieth century attitudes towards women had “transformed from hostile to ambivalent”[7]. This prevailing ambivalent attitude is the result of the interaction of ‘hostile’ and ‘benevolent’ versions of sexism, which operate through a system of rewarding and punishing women according to their ability and intention to fulfil socially imposed roles —which is actually not at all new.[8]

Benevolent sexism can be more ambiguous to identify, as it implies ‘positive’ attitudes towards women. However, benevolent sexism actually tells women that their bodies are not their own. They are instead subjected to a ‘greater purpose’: the survival and reproduction of humanity. This theory makes the link between sexism and the ban on abortion crystal clear. The ban on abortion is about telling women that there are always more important principles, such as religious and ideological ones, that are worth giving up their agency for. When only women’s and not men’s bodies are instruments of human preservation, it becomes a gender issue. All arguments focused on the rights of the foetus distract from the rights of mothers to decide on their own terms whether to carry a child.

[1] “Abortion case study: ‘There was no anaesthetic’”, BBC, 12 Jan 2012.

[2] “Northern Ireland won abortion ruled ‘incompatible with human rights’, The Guardian, 30 Nov 2015.

[3] “Case study: One woman’s story of having an abortion under existing rules”, British Humanist Association, 4 Sep 2011

[4] Annie Murphy Paul, “The First Ache”, The New York Times, 10 Feb, 2008.

[5]  Susan J. Lee, JD; Henry J. Peter Ralston, MD; Eleanor A. Drey, MD, EdM; John Colin Partridge, MD, MPH; Mark A. Rosen, MD, “Fetal Pain: A Systematic Multidiciplinary Review of the Evidence”, JAMA. 2005; 294(8): 947-954.

[6] “Northern Ireland: Urgent law reform needed as woman faces charges for using ‘abortion pills’”, Amnesty International UK.

[7] Glick Peter, Susan T. Friske, “Ambivalent Sexism Revisited”, Psychology of Women Quarterly, Sep 2011, 35:3, 530-535.

[8] Ibid.

This article was written by Bárbara Pérez Curiel


One Comment Add yours

  1. Another interesting read: ‘The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion’, which details how women can simultaneously ask for an abortion whilst holding anti-abortion beliefs:

    Also see The Atlantic’s series on abortions, a collection of personal stories:


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