On 12 June, a woman in Britain was sentenced to over two years in prison for using medication to induce an abortion. The sentence has sparked outrage and protest, and underlined the need to continue to fight for the full decriminalisation of abortion. Here, rs21 member Luigi Hay reviews a new book that examines the links between the far-right and attacks on abortion access.
Abortion Rights protest, London 17th June 2023. Photo Credit: Steve Eason/Flickr
Sian Norris. Bodies Under Siege: How the Far–Right Attack on Reproductive Rights Went Global. Verso, 2023. 304 pp, £18.99
As capitalism lurches from one crisis to another, it is quite easy to assume that the representatives of the ruling class are turning to attacks on trans people, immigrants and abortion rights simply as a way to deflect attention away from their own inability to find a solution. The ruling class might also aim to get working class people to turn on each other and divide the potential threat that we pose, which is a real risk. Norris’s book focuses on attacks on abortion rights as part of a general move to the right amongst significant sections of the ruling class and an increasingly widespread adoption of some or all of the ideas contained in a paranoid far-right conspiracy theory known as ‘the Great Replacement’.
In essence, the Great Replacement suggests that there is some kind of satanic conspiracy by a metropolitan elite that is trying to replace the white population of Europe and North America through migration from the Global South. They claim that a curious mixture of cultural Marxist elites and Jewish billionaires (who are also Marxists) is behind this plot, which does seem particularly similar to the Nazi rhetoric about a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy from the 1930s.
The far-right solution to this is for white men and women, based entirely on their biological gender of course, to ‘return’ to their traditional roles in society, from some mythic past where everything was noble and chivalrous. Organisations such as Citizen Go and Agenda Europe and the World Organisation of Families are examples of far-right organisations pushing the anti-abortion agenda while claiming to defend the (obviously white European) family. Men’s role is to wage war, at the behest of their rulers, and women’s is basically to incubate the next generation of the master race.
Norris outlines how the fascist group Patriotic Alternative tries to pretend that they are all in favour of treating women with ‘respect’ by clearly positioning them as objects of desire for men, but at the same time pushes the idea that women should also be obedient and ignores the domestic abuse which is common amongst men in these groups.
The attacks on abortion rights stem from this central idea that the decline in the white population is linked to abortion access and women having roles outside the home. Norris goes through the way that these far-right ideas have infiltrated mainstream conservative politics and helped fascist parties to enter government.
Access to safe abortion, from the Abortion Act of 1967 onwards, transformed the lives of millions of women in living memory, allowing women to choose whether they wanted to have children and avoid dangerous ‘back-street’ abortions which killed dozens of women a year just in the UK. Between 1961 and 1963 there were 160 deaths; in 1982-4 there were nine. In Kenya around 2500 women a year die from unsafe abortions.
Attacks on trans people are often the first stage of a wider attack on the freedoms that have been won by struggle over the decades. The idea that people should have the right to identify as a different gender to their birth sex, or indeed as non-binary is absolute anathema to the right (and indeed some sections of the liberal left) as is the idea that we should welcome the victims of the various conflicts. Norris details how the far-right governments of Hungary and Poland, in particular, use that kind of isolationist rhetoric to begin to roll back the advances that have been made. The book addresses the way that the right has co-opted ‘gender critical feminists’ to support attacks on trans people, claiming to defend ‘sex-based’ rights for women.
She explains how the Great Replacement theory advocates use a variety of strategies to legitimise their ideas by claiming to defend freedoms. Spain’s Vox party made great play about defending the right of parents to refuse their children sex education in schools. In Orban’s Hungary, the government has put forward a tax bribe for women who have large families. On the other hand, the Trump administration attacked LGBTQI rights and also cut protections for survivors of domestic abuse.
I was surprised by the source of finance for these campaigns to curtail access to abortion in Europe. The money is often assumed to be coming from fundamentalist Christian organisations based in the USA, and there are staggering amounts of cash available to these far-right groups. Out of around $700 million spent by groups such a Citizen Go, ‘only’ about $80 million comes from US sources (around 11-12%), the vast majority is from sources inside Europe ($437 million, 62-63%). All the organisations in question claim to be grassroots funded but the vast bulk of their money comes from other sources. European business people make large donations (typically 10,000 Euros) and these include some of the wealthiest people in Europe, including old aristocratic families who still control enormous amounts of wealth. Not surprising, as many of them hanker after the ‘good old days’ when heavily armed white European dynasties were able to boss the rest of the world around.
There is some funding from governments, Malta stumped up $250,000 in July 2020 to a group called Life Network to support its ‘counselling’ activities, and there is money from the European Social Fund and the European Regional Development Fund. Even in Britain the anti-choice group Life received £250,000 from money raised for groups concerned with women’s issues. The second-largest source of funding is from Russia with $186 million (26-27%) although this is more difficult to quantify due to EU sanctions after the annexation of the Crimea. Putin’s mythology of Mother Russia tries to glorify Russia’s imperialist, patriarchal past and to set older rural Russians against younger urban dwellers who are more likely to identify as European.
I was interested to read something which clearly explains how even traditional mainstream conservative parties are linked to proponents of Great Replacement theories. In Britain, it’s not just Hitler wannabe Alek Yerbury and his like who are promoting these ideas; prior to Brexit, the Conservative Party was part of a group of a European Parliamentary group that also included Vox (Spain), AfD (Germany), the Brothers of Italy and Lega (Italy) and the Austrian Freedom Party. The recent National Conservative Conference shows that many supposedly mainstream Tories are connected to these conspiracists.
My only criticism of the book is that it doesn’t address how women, Georgia Meloni and Marine Le Pen in particular, can lead these groups despite their sexual stereotyping of women’s place in their parties’ ideology.
Overall, this book is well worth a read. I found out a lot that I hadn’t previously been aware of.