CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Reproductive rights are a matter of principle, but their indispensability is never better demonstrated than when the effects of their absence or limitation— on women, men, and society—are concretely examined. In this respect, the social history of fertility management practices adds temporal depth to presentist approaches while capturing what the study of discourses, norms, and controversies cannot show on its own. To what extent can public authorities and/or organized groups that aim to govern private conduct actually prevent the acts they prohibit or condemn—particularly when the illegal action is primarily a matter of self-preservation? This question is all the more complex insofar as governed bodies, much as they are enclosed in a network of norms and constraints, can also take advantage of opportunities. This includes spatial mobility, which is reinforced by globalization and the development of transport networks.

2The contributions gathered in this volume, edited by Christabelle Sethna and Gayle Davis, constitute a body of rich and original material for reflection. By examining geographical movements (both between and within countries) involved in getting an abortion—a topic they articulate with medical or reproductive ‘tourism’ without assimilating the two—they shed light on how access to abortion is made into an obstacle course. In some cases, these obstacles are legal, in others extralegal. As Sethna emphasizes in the introduction, abortion does not have to be illegal to be inaccessible. The insufficiency or degradation of services in public healthcare systems, the discretionary power of physicians (an often unnoticed side effect of the medicalization of abortion), the pressure of ‘pro-life’ groups (who contribute, for example, to a thousand Northern Irish women travelling to Britain each year to have an abortion), and simple spatial disparities do the job very well.

3This series of studies, whose temporal scope ranges from the 1960s to the present (regrettably, the book does not cover the earlier history of cross-border travel for abortion), is characterized by an almost ethnographic attention to the material constraints on travel and movement. Every detail matters: territorial coverage, distances in kilometres, the price of plane tickets, the identity of the physician involved, but also, for example, luck with the choice of taxi driver at Heathrow Airport. Thirty per cent of the abortions performed in Great Britain in 1972 under the Abortion Act were for women from abroad, particularly France and Germany. It is impossible to summarize all the contributions in the book: a study of media coverage of the voyage of Sherri Chessen (also known as Sherri Finkbine) an American woman who, in the early 1960s, after taking a drug containing thalidomide during her pregnancy and worried about the fate of the foetus, decided to travel to Sweden to have an abortion; a forward-looking reflection on the effects of Brexit; a study on Britain’s reaction to the influx of foreign women following the Abortion Act; an investigation of the circuits that enabled Spanish women to travel to London at the end of the Franco regime; and a study on another ‘voyage’, that of the emblematic feminist and ‘pro-choice’ book Our Bodies, Ourselves in Communist and then post-Yugoslav Serbia.

4The book brings out the many similarities between the contexts explored in its various chapters, while a diversity of methodological approaches means that each chapter is of distinct interest in its own right. While not novel, the general conclusion that emerges is superbly documented. Abortion cannot be prevented; it can only be made more dangerous, more expensive, and more painful. The more barriers created, the more unequal access to fertility control becomes, penalizing the most disadvantaged categories in social, spatial, and ethnic terms. This issue must be approached dialectically and at multiple levels. Prohibition is a source of crime and, from a certain point of view, an encouragement to ‘agency’, to makeshift strategies, and to solidarity/sisterhood. Deficiencies in public sexual and reproductive health systems fuel the lucrative exploitation of distress. The stance of moral absolutism adopted by some governments amounts to cynically relinquishing the responsibility and the burden of abortion services to others.

5That the real power of those opposing abortion amounts primarily to an ability to cause harm is perfectly illustrated by the state of Texas, a paradise for gun rights and the death penalty, and a hell for sexual and reproductive health. Through a set of particularly insidious decisions, the state rendered what is a right ‘on paper’ (under the US Supreme Court judgement of 1973), impracticable for a large fraction of the population. Between 2013 and 2015, under Governor Rick Perry, who later joined the Trump administration, and under the influence of ultra-conservative Christian movements, numerous measures were adopted in the name of ‘protecting women’s health’ that attacked the right to abortion. Non-reimbursement of abortion costs by Medicaid, a requirement to renovate clinics offering outpatient procedures, public funding of ‘alternatives to abortion’ programmes in addition to so-called crisis pregnancy centres (religious pseudo-clinics offering free ultrasound scans and disinformation to women who come to them). In very little time, half of the medical centres providing abortion services were driven to close, leaving nearly a million Texas residents of reproductive age more than 150 miles (240 km) from the nearest abortion centre.

6Abortion Across Borders is recommended reading for two reasons. First, it provides a wealth of empirical material to inform public debate on reproductive rights, bearing in mind that the transnational issue arises in a comparable way in the area of medically assisted procreation. But also, and above all, it presents a set of beautifully executed studies on the social (and ‘connected’) history of the reproductive body, the social interactions that surround it, and the networks and routes that structure and condition access to services.

Uploaded on on 08/04/2021
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