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Anthropology: Conflicting International and Domestic Perspectives in Women’s Reproductive Rights

Reproductive Rights: Introduction

Reproductive rights have been a cornerstone issue of women’s rights, as well as the larger realm of human rights, for many decades. However, not a lot of ground has been gained in these issues, despite a large feminist- based social movement. Conflicting international and domestic politics have played a large role in limiting reproductive rights for women. There are many problems related to reproductive justice itself – including choice, autonomy, access, and self-determination. Largely, these problems are related to abortion, coercive sterilization, and effective family planning. 

As with any global issue, various economic workings collide with policies and social issues. People are political. Issues about the most intimate aspects of people will, therefore, follow the same politics. As such, government incentives and laws have historically sought to control the reproductive choices of men and women. Although very much still a problem for the modern world, reproductive issues have been of long standing concern in many societies. 

As well, issues of reproductive justice are not unique to any corner of the world. Western contemporary feminism tends to focus on issues in North America and Europe. However, this is very much a global concern, with women especially in the Global South facing unique problems. In the Global South, particularly in rural areas, international development policies propel population control measures. This is done in the name of labor and capital accumulation. 

Reproductive Rights and Justice Definition

Reproductive rights are human rights reads the text overlaid on a blue background with a black bird in the upper right corner
Credit: janesdueprocess.org

Reproductive justice includes a few different aspects. Core components of reproductive justice include equal access to safe abortion, affordable contraceptives and comprehensive sex education, as well as freedom from sexual violence. It also means the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities. 

Basic Political Background

When discussing issues related to global politics, it is important to look at neoliberalism. In its essence, neoliberalism is a form of an economic, and consequently, social system. The choices of the individual are prioritized. It is meant to give the perspective of the responsibilities of governance isolated away from the state, and back to the individual person. Historically, this was an advantage, as in the economic boom seen after WWII in western nations. As globalization grew in the 1970s, social, civic, and policy sectors experienced a shift in their organization, behaviour, and practices. Although a very Americanized idea, the effects were global. The world basically runs on free market capitalism.

Towards the end of the late 20th century, transnational and international organizations, such as the World Bank, began “comprehensive” development projects in the Global South. Many of these projects operated under the guise of economic development and pulling people out of the extreme poverty that both the colonialist and capitalistic processes of the Global North had placed these nations in. However, to who this development would be benefiting was not obvious. As the truth reveals, through ethnographic studies, scientific studies, and review boards – these policies and investments were to keep the North secure – in food, politics, war, and morality. It was less about the battement and conditions of these nations’ economies, but rather the development of nation states that would help investors.

Development and Population Control

Development projects in the Global South also facilitated these populations becoming test subjects in a sense. Population control and testing reproductive drugs became commonplace. Some of these tests were typically contraceptives, but some were sterilities in nature. Women in the Global South who seek out any form of family planning or contraceptives may be at risk of being implanted with long term hormonal implants. A woman may have the choice to put it in but may have little to no choice when it comes out, due to the expensive and time-consuming nature of removal procedures. Given that these birth control methods last a long time, these contraceptives could last up to five years of a woman’s peak reproductive timeframe.

It should be noted that globally, governments and states play a large role in controlling women’s bodies. Reproductive justice is truly a worldwide concern, and morally ambiguous contraceptive and sterilization goes on in places in North America and Europe as well.

Dispossession and Labour

A colourful illustrative comic depicting farmers literally having their land stolen from them by large hands in suits
A visual depiction of land-grabbing, an important aspect of accumulation by dispossession. Credit: grain.org

The 21st century has been ripe with accumulation by dispossession. By definition, this is the capitalist policies that result in a centralization of wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public and private entities of their wealth or land. As such, there has been a need for population control measures that intensify and exploit women’s labor, particularly rural women. Compared to her urban peers, a rural woman spends far more time doing labor – often unpaid – and is most typically centered around the family unit. Furthermore, rural women are less likely to have bodily autonomy and self-determination, especially when it comes to reproductive issues and bearing children. Men, husbands in particular, are typically the ones who dictate reproductive “choices” for women.

Unfortunately, this is rarely seen as a human rights issue, or a matter of reproductive justice. For the organizations and investors of development, it is seen as an infringement of a more productive labourer and consumer. Therefore, population control is as much about maintaining social and political order between the north and the south as much as it is about creating and mobilizing a larger work force. Women cannot be productive in the wage economy if they are responsible for familial duties, thus, investing in and providing relatively cheap methods of contraception seemingly promotes a woman’s right to her fertility and body.

Access and Commodification

A smiling family of a mother and father and two children backdropped by a rural landscape
Credit: orfonline.org; Family planning as a human right: The way forward

However, rather than giving poor women in the Global South the access to and knowledge about safe contraception that they need, control becomes one more step removed for women – in that the strategy for mass promoting of long-acting hormone injections and implants further undermines women’s health, autonomy, and their right to choose over reproductive decisions.

Rather than truly foster women’s rights, and invest in reproductive justice for women, the shift is being made towards the further commodification of a woman’s body. Providing women in the Global South with access to family planning methods, regardless of their long-lasting complications, is a double-edged sword. In one sense, those investing in development can keep social spending limited by limiting population growth. On the other hand, there will be an intensified labour force to use; the poor rural woman who therefore has less children. In any scenario, it appears that women are caught in the middle.

Appropriating women’s rights issues and feminist ideals to further accumulation by dispossession doesn’t solve any issues at their core. In fact, it allows for the continued liquidation of health services, education, sanitation, and civic wellbeing.

Reproductive Rights and Economies

A colourful mural showing women of different ethnicities with different colours flowing throughout
Credit: ontheissuesmagazine.com

Reproduction is central to the organization of an economy. In Fired Up About Reproductive Rights, Jane Kirby states, “Children must be raised to be workers. Birthing and raising children is usually unpaid work, but this reproductive labour is essential. Governments and corporations encourage people at times to have children and discourage them at others”. She continues, “Dictating who can have children, how many, and under what circumstances is a tool of state power. To protect political and economic interests, governments often encourage some people to have children and prevent others from doing so”.

These concepts are essentially the driving force behind what is occurring with reproductive justice and women in the Global South. Unfortunately, under certain economic structuring, women’s bodies and abilities to have children become a sort of commodification. When children are needed to grow the economy, then reproduction is encouraged, expected, and women are shamed for not reproducing as they are seen as not contributing adequately to the needs of their country. However, when costs are high and resources are low, women are discouraged from having too many children or from reproducing entirely.

Albeit a rather recent development, encouraging or discouraging reproduction isn’t necessarily seen on a grand scale anymore in the Western world. In places like Europe and North America, laws and regulations have been put in place that prevent coercive sterilization of minority groups. As well, abortions have been decriminalized in certain counties, allowing women more of a choice if access allows. While choice is more of a possibility for women in the Global North, in the Global South, choice is less so an option. Especially in rural areas, women are to varying levels controlled by fathers and husbands. There is a lack of access, knowledge, and autonomy in regard to reproductive health services.

Intersectionality and Resources

two women facing opposite directions and in the space between them are various birth control methods
Credit: Quartz India; Women’s bodies are under attack: The alarming reality of reproductive rights in India and the US by Sophie Cousins

Regrettably, much discussion about feminist issues tends to leave out intersectionality. That is, we are lacking the perspectives of the interconnectedness of race, class, and gender, and how they apply socially to individuals. Less familiar are often the experiences of those for whom intersectionality cannot be ignored. To connect with feminist scholarship, politics in the Global South brings up questions about whether individual agency or social structure shape women’s lives.

This is more so true in rural areas. Due to globalization, these structural adjustment policies and foreign investments leave women between a rock and a hard place. The privatization of land and resources on which women depend greatly increase the costs of daily and generational reproduction. State and community services and subsidies often take a cut, as well as local jobs.

Reproductive Decisions Influenced by Socioeconomics 

As traditionally rural sustenance farmers are forced to enter the wage economy, many families end up living in poverty from these structural adjustment policies. With more labor to be done, less resources and money to do it, and less time to raise children or focus on the family, women essentially have to choose between what labor is deemed more important. Traditional women’s work that has remained important in these rural communities is now under fire. Fertility reduction and population control has been stolen from true women’s rights movements and co-opted to in the discourse of gender and development with ‘rights’ and ‘choices’ for all, while simultaneously seeking to facilitate the increased economic labor capacities of women.

Social pressures are used to force women into the reproductive decisions that best suit nation states, corporations, and transnational organizations. In the Global South, population control measures are being used to give these women the illusion of choice in their reproductive health. Globally, stories about reproduction justice from women stem from the same patriarchal systems that commodify and prioritize the labor and reproductive abilities of women; at the same time allowing limited, if any, choice in their own reproductive journeys. Global politics seek to enhance female productivity for global capital by participating in labor markets outside of the unpaid familial sector.

Ultimately, choice, access, and autonomy are what continue to be withheld from these women. Through measures of appropriation of agricultural land, uprooting of villages, displacements of people, and the illusion of contraceptive or reproductive choice, women are usually forced into family planning measures beyond their control.

Reproductive Justice: Moving Forward

a protest where the foreground is a banner being held by women saying

Reproduction is central to economy. Historically, governments have been in control of the reproductive choices of men and women. Reproductive justice aims to put control of these intimate choices fully in the hands of individuals. A tool of state power is the ability to dictate who can have children, how many, and when. Reproductive rights would allow individuals to declare their rights to have children or not; and to decide their preferred birth control options.

How power and autonomy are both distributed in society must be considered as well. The idea of “choice” makes reproductive issues seem like its merely a matter of the individual. In reality, collective responses and restraints play a huge role. In order for policies and governments to realize the shift that must be made, intersectionality theories need to be brought to the forefront of any reproductive rights concerns. Reproductive justice is one avenue where intersectional feminism requires being put into true practice. This justice includes fighting systems like patriarchy, racism, and colonialism

Reproductive rights are human rights. Politics will always play a part in the most intimate aspects of individuals. As such, there is a human responsibility to ensure civil liberties for all. When access, choice, and autonomy can be achieved for reproductive issues, we will be one step closer to achieving global human rights for all.


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Jane Kirby. 2018. Fired Up About Reproductive Rights. Toronto: Between the Lines. 

Kapoor, Priya. “Between Fact and Fiction: Can There Be a Postcolonial Feminist Ethnography?” Women’s studies international forum 60 (2017): 58–68.

Lane, Suzie, Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, and Arianne Shahvisi. “Impacts of the Global Gag Rule on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in the Global South: A Scoping Review.” Global public health (2020): 1–16.

Leve, Michelle. “Reproductive Bodies and Bits: Exploring Dilemmas of Egg Donation Under Neoliberalism.” Studies in gender and sexuality 14, no. 4 (2013): 277–288.

Loveland, Kristen. “Feminism Against Neoliberalism: Theorising Biopolitics in Germany, 1978–1993.” Gender & history 29, no. 1 (2017): 67–86.

Mpembeni, Rose N. M, Deodatus C. V Kakoko, Henriette S Aasen, and Ingvill Helland. “Realizing Women´s Right to Maternal Health: A Study of Awareness of Rights and Utilization of Maternal Health Services Among Reproductive Age Women in Two Rural Districts in Tanzania.” PloS one 14, no. 5 (2019): e0216027–e0216027.

Rayna Rapp. “Reproductive Entanglements: Body, State, and Culture in the Dys/Regulation of Child-Bearing.” Social research 78, no. 3 (2011): 693–718.



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