Women Can’t Have it (At) All: Why the Abortion Debate is More Sexist than it Seems


With Simone Veil’s death, the world is losing an icon, a key figure in the fight to legalize abortion. Her death reminds us that women rights to access safe and legal abortions has been a milestone in history which needs to be protected. In recent years, there has been a marked trend to restrict this access by right-wing populist politicians. However, we need to keep in mind that this right guarantees a woman’s freedom to choose, regardless whether her choice results in keeping a fetus notwithstanding difficult socio-economic circumstances, opting for an abortion, or giving up the child for adoption.

Simone Veil’s death invites reflection upon the fact that the right of a woman to choose to have a child or not is not self-evident and needs to be protected. Maybe today more than ever. Donald Trump is just one example of a world leader who has put the fight against abortions on his foreign policy agenda, thereby making women’s bodies a debatable topic in international politics. The claim to protect “the life of unborn children” and the traditional family, while denying women’s ability to make their own choices about their body is foremost misogynist and touches their most intimate rights. Even more so as studies have found that the number of abortions in fact slightly decreases in countries where access remains legal.

No Choice but Abortion

The attempt to restrict abortions has resulted in a worldwide “pro-choice” movement fighting for women’s legal access to safe pregnancy termination procedures, there is also a downside to the pro-abortion debate that has largely been ignored: Women do not often have any other choice but to opt for abortion, and little open discussion concerns what happens to those who are willing to give birth to a child under difficult circumstances.

In Western countries women who find themselves in difficult socio-economic circumstances such as those who are students or single parents are considered “irresponsible” if they keep the baby and put their career or financial situation at risk. They are being stigmatize as selfish or a burden to society and can only count on little or no support. Giving up a child for adoption requires a woman to go through with a pregnancy and people will eventually realize that the woman is expecting a child and ask questions. Abortions on the other hand are put forward as an easy – or the only responsible –, option to get out of unwanted pregnancies. This ignores the reality that if abortions are not entirely conducted out of free will, they come with a high risk of regret and depression for the affected woman.

In other countries, an illegal and unsafe abortion is less of a risk to the (unmarried) mother compared to the stigmatization she faces if she keeps the child. Patriarchal structures bar a single mother from society and the access to legal or financial support. In most Western countries too, children of unmarried parents are still legally less protected than children of married couples, and single mothers face discriminations and lack financial support or the option to continue their career. In Switzerland, for example, children of unmarried parents were only granted the same rights regarding child custody than children of married couples in 2017, and children of single parents remain the group most affected by poverty.

Women Can’t Have it (At) All

If women should have the right to choose freely about what to do with their body, the abortion debate needs to include a dialogue on the actual options a woman has if she finds herself pregnant. Real alternatives to abortion are needed: financial, legal and moral support for women in precarious situations; incentives for (unmarried) fathers to be part of a child’s education; and good and affordable contraception. So far, women all over the world are often left alone with their responsibility to care and raise a child. The right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy needs to be guaranteed in a progressive and gender-equal society, but a society that leaves a woman no choice but to get an abortion restricts her right to make an autonomous decision.