There is a seemingly endless variety of laws, restrictions, customs and traditions that affect the practice of abortion around the world. Globally, abortion is probably the single most controversial issue in the whole area of women’s rights and family matters. It is an issue that inflames women’s right groups, religious institutions, and the self-proclaimed ‘guardians’ of public mortality. The growing worldwide belief is that the right to control one’s fertility is a basic human right. This has resulted in worldwide trend towards liberalization of abortion laws. Forty per cent of the world’s population live in countries where induced abortion is permitted on request. An additional 25 per cent live in countries where it is allowed if the women’s life would be endangered if she went to full term with her pregnancy.
Feminists have viewed the patriarchal control of women’s bodies as one of the prime issues facing the contemporary women’s movement. They observe that the definition and control of women’s reproductive freedom have always been the province of men. Patriarchal religion, as manifest in Islamic fundamentalism, traditionalist Hindu practice, Orthodox Judaism, and Roman Catholicism, has been an important historical contributory factor for this and continues to be an important presence in contemporary societies. In recent times, governments, usually controlled by men, have ‘given’ women the right to contraceptive use and abortion access when their countries were perceived to have an overpopulation problem. When these countries are perceived to be under populated, that right has been absent.
In the early 1960s, even when it was widely known that the drug, thalidomide, taken during pregnancy to alleviate anxiety was shown to contribute to the formation of deformed ‘flipper-like’ hands or legs of children, abortion was illegal in the United States. A second health tragedy was the severe outbreak of rubella during the same time period, which also resulted in major birth defects. These tragedies combined with a change of attitude towards a women’s right to privacy lead a number of states to pass abortion-permitting legislation. On one side of the controversy are those who call themselves ‘pro-life’. They view the foetus as a human life rather than as an unformed complex of cells; therefore, they hold to the belief that abortion is essentially murder of an unborn child. It also observed that legalised abortion is especially important for rape victims and incest victims who became pregnant. It is due to physical and mental health reasons why women should not have unwanted children.
Women’s reproductive and family roles are seen as potential barriers to full equality. But a time has come where motherhood should be seen a voluntary, not a mandatory or ‘natural’ role.