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What the new global pro-choice movements can teach politics

The world is experiencing a vital moment in pro-choice politics. There has been huge progress in countries like Argentina and the Republic of Ireland contributing to historic commitments by their governments to ensuring abortion access. But this is not just an important moment in abortion rights. It is a critical juncture in feminism and politics.

Until now the public image of pro-choice politics has been heavily influenced by 1970s “women’s liberation” movements in the US and the UK (also known as Second Wave feminism).

The Second Wave model of feminist politics spoke of women’s “right to choose” (restricting this definition to people born female) to have an abortion. At its core was personal sexual freedom and individualism. This movement very much focused on the problems faced by women at an individual level.

The current global pro-choice movement’s message is much broader than earlier strands of feminism. Take Repeal, the Irish pro-choice movement which campaigned for the repeal of the 8th Amendment to Ireland’s constitution (the provision which equated the right to life of the “unborn” to the pregnant woman). This group did not just look at abortion or sexual liberation. It used abortion as a starting point for a discussion about a range of other social issues, such as migration and economic inequality.

Argentinian campaigners do not just argue for personal sexual freedom. Their campaign focuses on collectively felt, gendered, social injustices. For example, male-to-female violence (and violence against transgender people) and femicide (the killing of women). The latter concern is reflected in the Argentinian movement’s name Ni Una Menos (“not one more”).

‘Intersectional’ feminism

Ireland’s Repeal movement and Argentina’s Ní Una Menos are not just feminist campaigns, they are intersectional feminist campaigns. Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, professor of law at Columbia Law School, first used the term “intersectionality” in 1991. It is a theory of feminism that recognises and opposes the many different forms of oppression which individuals and communities can experience daily and simultaneously.

Intersectional feminist movements like Repeal argued that activism needed to reflect intersectionality in its objectives and its practices. Social justice activism must include all voices and injustices or it is not socially just. This ideology was expressed in the Irish context through a very straightforward message – the restrictions affected everyone and people needed to resist them together.

The distinction between a Second Wave and an intersectional approach is summarised by the academic Claire Snyder who notes that whereas the Second Wave prioritised the needs and voices of cis-gendered (or “biological”) women, current movements promote inclusivity of all voices and experiences.

By adopting an intersectional approach, the current global pro-choice discussion uses individual rights to start a conversation on collective experiences which are linked to, but not solely about, abortion rights. But this is not the only transformation these movements drive forwards. A key contribution of current pro-choice movements globally is that they clearly illustrate the effectiveness of actions previously cast as not really politics.

Transforming politics

The most obvious example of how pro-choice feminist movements are transforming what it means to “do politics” is found in their use of social media. To date, political movements online have been criticised as ineffective “slacktivism” or part of a liberal echo chamber. However, the use of social media and art have been central to pro-choice movements globally.

The Repeal movement used social media platforms to spread its message, gather support, protect activists from abuse online, and undermine the spreading of factual inaccuracies by anti-choice campaigns.

But pro-choice politics does not solely operate online. A further important characteristic of contemporary feminist movements is their occupation of public spaces and spectacles. Public demonstrations of politics are a longstanding means of demanding change. In recent years, protesters have been recast as disruptive and uncivil. Public demonstrations and protests have been marked by mass arrests and protests positioned as less effective than engagement in politics through other means.

But pro-choice movements in Ireland have been intentionally public and disruptive in order to force the government and the public to discuss systemic oppression. A fantastic example of this is the pro-choice group Speaking of IMELDA’s “Knickers for Choice” protest where giant pairs of knickers saying “Repeal the 8th” were hung outside the Irish parliament and delivered to the Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Another example is the mass demonstrations in Poland where thousands carried coat hangers through the streets of Warsaw, highlighting the fact that a lack of abortion access would result in women taking drastic steps. Not only this, but through having regular, coordinated protests in different locations, these groups were better able to engage a broad range of people.

Global pro-choice movements are now showing that broad-based, social justice oriented movements that mobilise online and engage in spectacles and protests are effective. They prove that disruption (whether through mass coordinated protests or small spectacular actions) is an important political tactic. They show that a specific site of injustice can be a vehicle for highlighting wider social inequalities and that intersectionality does not undermine a movement’s political efficacy.

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