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OP-EDS

Overturning Roe v. Wade a symptom of endemic violence against women

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I won’t lie. I slumped when I heard the news.

A generation of feminists my age feel like our life’s work has just been obliterated.

In the 1990s, as a young, inflamed women’s rights activist, I was part of the Reproductive Rights Alliance in South Africa, which advocated for the legalisation of abortion as part of our strategy to protect women from all forms of violence.

In 1996, South Africa legalised abortion within the first 12 weeks with the Choice in Termination of Pregnancy Act. South Africa’s globally progressive law was a humane response to a national study about the dangers of unsafe abortion to women’s lives. Since then, the morbidity of young women through unsafe abortions has decreased by almost 90%.

On 24 June 2022, the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade passed down by the United States (US) Supreme Court in 1973 was overturned by a bench stacked with three judges Trump nominated and appointed: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Coney Barrett. Half a century of constitutionally protected access to abortion for women and girls in the US has been wiped out.

Now, instead of the younger generation turning its attention to solve climate change and progress equal rights, they, in Sisyphusian exhaustion and frustration must now claw back rights previous generations fought so hard to attain while the backstreets become clogged with sepsis and morbidity.

I have spent my life advocating for an end to violence against women. It comes in many guises beyond sexual and domestic abuse. A law that takes away anyone’s right to live their best life – in whatever form they choose – is violence.

Part of the struggle the women’s movement has faced has been to wrestle the language of “sanctity of life” from the state and church and reframe abortion as a health and safety issue for women.

It is – and must be – an equality conversation. If women cannot access safe abortion, we will have unsafe ones. If we don’t want a pregnancy (the consequence not of our actions alone, but a sperm-wielding participant) because we cannot afford a child, have mental or physical health issues, the pregnancy was rape-induced, or we have planned a life that doesn’t include motherhood, we must have the freedom to choose. Anything less is a form of reproductive slavery – and there’s simply no equivalent oppression men can suffer.

I am, of course, enraged.

But let’s stop and think clearly for a moment.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade is only a symptom of systemic endemic violence against women and minorities. Imagining this is the end is a mistake. We’re nowhere close to that ground zero.

It’s not only women’s rights that will continue to be tenuous and unstable going forward, but those of people with disabilities, the poor, the LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex) community and our climate. The whole ugly violent patriarchal system is implicated here. Access to contraception and gay marriage are the Supreme Court’s next targets. The right to reproductive choice can’t be separated from the multitude of attitudes, laws, and systems that devalue the powerless.

Rich women will continue to be able to afford to pay their private doctors to terminate unwanted pregnancies (as mistresses, wives, and daughters of the wealthy have always done, sometimes funded by the man responsible). But what of the rest?

This is not a judgement about anyone’s personal view on abortion (we all have one). But we cannot confuse our personal opinion based on our spiritual beliefs with a law that tells someone else what to do when they have an unwanted pregnancy. Men also benefit enormously from a woman’s right to choose because unprotected sex could always potentially lead to child-support claims.

Even though the resonance of this travesty has universal implications, it’s unlikely South African women’s rights are endangered. Equality is the founding principle of the Constitution, against which all legislation is measured, unlike in the US, where the cult of individualism informs its policy, evidenced in its allegiance to “the right to carry arms” in spite of endless shootings.

Rage fuels revolutions, and we are on the brink of systemic transformation.

In the past 50 years, feminism and gender equality have evolved. It’s one revolution to be granted a right you never had, and quite another to have one you’ve busted your life for taken away. In this time, we’ve raised fierce children in the #metoo generation. We are stronger, wiser, and a force to be reckoned with.

The amplification of catastrophe always drives an evolutionary leap. When we understand that it’s the system that needs fixing, we’ll know that when things fall apart, the system is rearranging itself and reconfiguring all its relationships.

The question for each of us is how we can show up on behalf of a fairer system that honours and protects all human and non-human rights (including the reproductive rights of women). Without understanding all these intersections, the future of our planet is at risk and the “right to choose” will become irrelevant.

  • Joanne Fedler is the internationally bestselling author of 14 books, a women’s rights and environmental activist, and ocean swimmer. www.joannefedler.com

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Auryt

    Jun 30, 2022 at 3:51 pm

    So very well expressed Joanne. It is about so much more than it appears to be at first glance. This revolution will need to be led by the outraged in order to ensure that this does not become the beginning of an unstoppable backslide into the Dark Ages

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