VTM, sukupuolentutkimuksen maisteriopiskelija
In this essay I am going to examine the anti-gender movement and abortion rights mostly in post state socialist countries. However, I’m going to give some recent examples from the West as well. In this essay I refer to East European countries – especially Poland, Hungary and Russia – as post state socialist countries. It is important to remember that while some similarities might exist, East European countries are not one united cultural or political area but rather have had their own historical paths and other differences.
The anti-gender movement is a largely funded and well organized transnational and political movement, an ideological vacuum filled with nationalism and religion (mostly catholicism and orthodoxy). The movement’s enemy is fictious “gender ideology” that is understood as a conspiracy to weaken traditional values. The movement is not centralized; it consists of international networks cross-border. Anti-gender movement’s one common denominator is so called “pro-family” rhetoric that stresses the importance of a heterosexual nuclear family as ‘natural’. This means that practices which don’t follow the logic of reproductive sexuality, like abortion or gay marriage, are denounced. (Honkasalo, 2020, Kahlina, 2021.) I see claims that highlight the unborn child’s or fetus’ right to live ultimately conflicting with the right to decide whether one wants to be pregnant or not. Anti-gender mobilization’s anti-abortion rhetoric declines every individual’s right to make their own choices about their sexual and reproductive health. This movement is a serious threat to women’s rights as well as to LGBTIQ+ minorities. It also opposes for example gender studies (Honkasalo, 2020, Saresma, 2020) and constitutional state.
The first step to stopping anti-gender movement is to recognize the phenomenon. Finnish equality activists, researchers and politicians have raised awareness on the topic lately (Hinkula, 2021, Summanen, 2021). This subject was discussed at Tasa-arvopäivät 2021, the biggest yearly equality event in Finland. The right to abortion is a human right. I argue that anti-abortion stance is one the most essential and visible parts of anti-gender movement and for that reason I’m going to focus on that in this essay. Let’s begin by taking a look on how abortion rights have developed in some post-state socialist countries.
It is interesting to look at abortion rights in former state socialist countries because gender and sexuality have been seen as markers of “Western” superiority. According to Western stereotypes of the “East” these countries lacked all kinds of freedoms, such as political, economic and personal. (Kahlina & Taavetti, 2021.) Abortion can be seen tangled to all of these aspects mentioned, but at the same time it is also a question of social rights. However, generally after World War Two abortion rights were much more advanced in “East” than in “West”. At first this could be seen as unexpected. Communist parties started guaranteeing women’s reproductive rights (Ghodsee & Mead, 2018, 104). Simultaneously it is important to note that there were differences between these countries; abortion was available in Hungary but not in Austria. Nevertheless, the abortion debate in Hungary was lively and had many phases to it (Gal, 1994).
In 1920 abortion became legal for women during the first trimester of pregnancy: The Soviet Union was the first European country to make this decision. It was very modern and even radical that women got control of their fertility so early. This emancipatory and revolutionary turn led to a massive dip in birth rates. (Ghodsee & Mead, 2018, 111-112.) During the Soviet period abortion was in fact the main format of birth control (Stella & Nartova, 2015, 32) which is nowadays quite the opposite target of reproductive health. Today many parties emphasize that abortion is actually not a form of birth control.
The premises for liberal abortion rights in state socialist countries were rooted in socialist approach to everyday life and order. In state socialist countries women were seen as workers and mothers. The right to abortion was more about practicality than for example about women’s rights to their own bodies. One could access abortion more freely in state socialist countries also because it was a question of economics. (Kahlina & Taavetti, 2021.) Countries in Eastern Europe were damaged in the World War Two which elaborated in a way that they could not afford to “push women back into the kitchen”, to the private, because women were needed as a work force (Ghodsee & Mead, 2018, 103). History was one reason for women’s liberal rights and freedom in some Eastern European societies. This aspect is one illustration that showed how different women in the East had it in comparison to their Western counterparts. Because women had to work they had more independence and liberty in a sense. At the same time women in these countries still had main responsibility for family life. They had a double burden upon them.
A shift happened after the Soviet Union and the “Eastern bloc” collapsed. Nation-state building processes started and the church got more power. In fact, church was one of the biggest anti-abortion and anti-gender agitators. (Kahlina & Taavetti, 2021.) This rhetoric was loud in their agenda. At the same time the word gender was written in the Beijing Declaration in the 1990s; Vatican and the catholic churches of the US protested wildly the word choice and what it symbolized (Honkasalo, 2020). However, there were differences in religiousness in Eastern European countries: Poland, Croatia and Romania were highly religious whereas e.g. Estonia and Czechia were more secular and the church did not hold that much political influence. This is yet another example of how Eastern Europe was not and still isn’t a homogeneous area.
On the other hand some researchers have been arguing that while it is true that each Eastern European country had its own transition to post-socialism, there were some commonalities and widespread processes when it came to gender. According to Susan Gal in all post-socialist countries reproduction became a hot public topic and it was under a strict legislative action. Before so liberal regulations of birth control and abortion became largely challenged in the turn of the 1990’s. This happened at the very highest parliamentary levels which consisted of next to zero women. (Gal, 1994, 257–258.) This is concerning because the ones bearing the child should always be able to make choices about their own bodies and futures. Sexual and reproductive rights and health concerns cannot be separated from gender equality.
Traditional gender roles went hand in hand with nationalistic views. Reproductive sexuality did not only secure the perpetuation of life but also of nation and its “racial purity”. Practices which did not follow the logic of reproductive sexuality – such as abortion or being queer for that matter – were seen as threats to the new system. The new system was very much built on a common understanding of one nation where everyone had their roles. In contrast, allowing abortion was seen disrupting ”natural gender roles”, which now became a big deal. Motherhood became the most important role for women and very much emphasis was put on women’s heterosexual reproductive capacity. State-socialism with more laid-back abortion rights was now regarded as anti-national. (Kahlina, 2021.) The roots for anti-gender movement had been created.
Anti-gender policies like anti-abortion actions can be enforced from above or from below. For example in Russia, Poland and Hungary the state politics is the main force of anti-gender and anti-LGBTIQ+ outcomes whereas Slovenia, Czechia and Croatia (but also France, Germany and Italy) have their focus more on the grassroot level. (Kahlina, 2021.) Although laws do not necessarily mean that things are carried out it is still important that gender friendly laws exist. If legislation is permissive even on the paper one can more easily try to argue why they should have their rights met. Besides social policy one way to make a difference is to try to affect from the grassroot level for example by activism. Anti-abortion movement has used this aspect of influencing as well.
Like said, limiting abortion rights is one example of anti-gender actions. Banning or restricting abortion rights is also a question of biopolitics. Michel Foucault has developed a concept of biopower. Biopolitics is a specific form of power that is aimed to control the biological and social processes of population especially in a modern nation-states. (Foucault 1978/1998.) To put it another way biopower is a deeply political form of social control. Thus the body becomes an object that needs to be controlled to meet the purposes of the power users. (Oksala, 1997, 170.) The battle over women’s reproductive rights and forced sterilization of trans people are examples of biopower and biopolitics. Besides that, for example the mortality and birth rate, social medicine and public hygiene are at the core of biopolitics (Stella & Nartova, 2015, 28).