Moving beyond abortion law (Part 2): Change culture, not law

As I go through my MA,  I am encountering many ideas  which are becoming integral to my activism and politics, so I am going to write a series of posts which make some of those ideas clear and accessible. The first one was about how abortion law in the UK actually works, and how it regulates women as much as liberates them. This, part two, will look at why changing abortion law might  not actually increase access to abortion services, and why the cultural narrative about abortion needs to change.


As we have seen, the medicalisation of abortion in the UK has couched the issue in scientific, politically ‘neutral’ terms in law. This creates pretence that abortion is a private medical decision one makes about one’s health, and an exercise of an individual right. I explored in my previous post that this medicalisation also means greater surveillance and control of women’s bodies.

So, if it’s the medicalised language that’s the problem, we should just change the law, right? The problem is, a legal right cannot guarantee good access to abortion. As we’ve seen in the US, where abortion is enshrined in the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, there are some states where abortion access is so poor it may as well be banned.

Also, dealing with abortion purely from the perspective of legal rights plays into the neoliberal fetishisation of ‘choice’ as an end in itself. The language of rights claims is individualistic and shies away from the reality that access to abortion is a societal problem. Taking into account the realities of hospital care, adoption processes, and the state’s contribution to childcare costs, unwanted children are a physical, emotional and financial burden on society, not just the unwilling parent. Therefore, abortion is not an issue for individual women but for society as whole.

This is not to reject rights claims as unimportant. The right to abortion is, of course, fundamentally important to women’s reproductive freedom, and framing social justice issues in terms of rights legitimizes them. However, as Carol Smart wrote in Feminism and the power of Law that “in accepting law’s terms in order to challenge law, feminism always concedes too much,” and that applies significantly to abortion if feminists stop short at rights-based claims and do not recognise the restricted freedom a formal right entails.

Many people have a top-down approach to law which implies a change in the legal framework would trickle down to change cultural discourses. Changing abortion law in the hope that it would improve women’s reproductive freedom and access to services still plays in to the fallacy that  that society follows law, when in fact there are strongly rooted cultural discourses around abortion which make access difficult. The reality is, law generally follows society. Look at the Equal Marriage campaign – it’s happening now because legislators are finally catching up with a society that is increasingly supportive of LGBT equality.

There is no silver-bullet approach to achieving the feminist aim of reproductive freedom. However, be wary of approaches which only aim at changing the law. Reforming existing legislation on abortion in the UK is unlikely to shift power from doctors to pregnant women, because there is no indication that MPs want to de-medicalise the existing Abortion Act. Changing abortion law does not guarantee a wider change in the manner that medicine and the law approaches women’s bodies; it certainly doesn’t solve the problem of anti-abortion sentiments and cultural stereotypes of women who seek abortions as irresponsible or immoral.

Carol Smart warns us that “it is impossible to ensure that legislation, once in force, will be used progressively in the future,” and we still believe that changing the law solves our problems[1]. What we really need to change is cultural attitudes, the attitudes which lead even pro-choice campaigners to say “every abortion is a tragedy”[2]. These ideas can be challenged, but not simply by law; we have to fight misinformation and misrepresentation of abortion everywhere we see it (we also need to improve sex education, but that is a whole other post!). If they are challenged by feminist campaigns, and a wide enough slice of society shifts its values, only then can abortion legislation eventually change to become feminist and woman-centred.

[1] Smart, 106.

[2] Diane Abbot, MP, in Hansard HC Debate, 31st October, 2012, Volume 522, Part 60, Column 89WH, [accessed 19th December, 2012].


3 thoughts on “Moving beyond abortion law (Part 2): Change culture, not law

  1. This series of posts was really difficult to read, as, living a few hundred miles away from yourself in Ireland, I’m in a country whose people utterly dependant on the UK’s abortion laws to access abortions ourselves. From here, anything that challenges the status quo in the UK is terrifying.

    I’m torn, therefore, between absolutely agreeing on a theoretical level with pretty much everything you say, and also wanting to emphasise that laws restricting/forbidding/allowing abortion do make very real differences to the lives of pregnant people. The law is why doctors here can leave pregnant women to die, must force them to carry doomed fetuses and why women with severe health complications from pregnancy are forced to travel overseas for treatment. Yes, cultural change is important- without it there’s no way we can change the law- but getting laws in place that protect women is essential.

    On the other hand, I do agree with your points! Maybe, though, there’s a certain amount of privilege in those distinctions being meaningful? Not that they’re not meaningful, and I’m not using the term ‘privilege’ in a negative way at all here. Much food for thought, though.

    1. Hi there,

      I do agree with you, and these posts only really apply to the particular laws and culture around abortion we have in England and Wales.

      However, I think what I’m trying to emphasise is that *only* legal reform is a bit pointless if the structures aren’t in place to promote access. I do think legal reform is important to the whole process, but I think it’s misplaced when feminists think if we change the law we’ve solved the problem (not that you were suggesting that). It’s a tough one, though.

    2. Oh, and to add, I totally see where you’re coming from in terms of if the UK restricted abortion law, the consequences for Irelandnwould be ten times worse. I think that shows that if the laws change to suit the cultural atmosphere – in Ireland, anti-abortion – they are very effective because people want to bring those laws into effect. But changing the law against that cultural atmoshpere – e.g. if the EU ruled NI had to make abortion legal – that change would be impotent without the structures and support on the ground to carry through those laws.

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