Introduction

In his last novel Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy illustrates the typical response of poor unmarried women to their unwanted pregnancies through his description of the history surrounding the protagonist's, Maslova's, birth.

This unmarried woman [Maslova's mother] had a baby every year, and, as often happens among village people, each one of these unwelcome, unwanted babies, after being carefully baptized, was left to starve by its mother, whom it hindered in her work.  Thus she disposed of five children... The sixth child, whose father was a gypsy, was a girl, and would have shared the fate of the others had not one of the maiden ladies while visiting the farmyard... happened to catch sight of the mother with her pretty, healthy child... she offered to be its godmother... This was how it happened that the girl lived, and forever after the old ladies called her "the rescued one" (Tolstoy 1899).

Tolstoy's dramatization of the plight many poor unmarried women faced during the 19th century in Russia continues to resonate even today.  While many women in similar circumstances now opt to have abortions when possible rather than starve their children, the fact that women in the past and present continue to find it necessary to terminate unwanted pregnancies prompts one to ask whether the legal and financial circumstances limit a woman's ability to choose motherhood.  In Tolstoy's example, the dairy maid's sixth child becomes "the rescued one" only after the dairy maid is able to secure the monetary means to do so.  The decision to carry a pregnancy to term and to accept the role of motherhood seems to be tied not only to a desire to have the child, but also, to the fiscal means to properly raise the child.

While economic considerations represent only one set of aspects of a complex set of factors determining a woman's decision to carry a pregnancy to term, or terminate it, they are nevertheless a major factor in the decision for women with low socioeconomic status.   According to Kathy Rudy (1996), simply permitting abortions to occur does not necessarily mean access for everyone. Rudy explains:

Liberalism rests on the assumption that we are all equal and unencumbered to begin with and that we are all similarly placed in relation to the benefits society has to offer. This presumption... not only masks major differences in access to power and resources, it also disregards the material needs associated with reproduction.

 

Consequently, for real choice to exist, a country should offer both liberal abortion and maternal welfare policies.  The objective of this paper is to determine the extent to which abortion and maternal welfare policies in the Western world constrain the choices of poor and working-class women, and to argue for the reform of policies to offer more choice to women.  The analysis is limited to four countries based on whether they hold liberal or conservative abortion and maternal welfare policies.

As Table 1 illustrates, Switzerland, the Republic of Ireland, the United States, and Sweden are the four models of policy approaches to abortion and maternal welfare.   While there are other countries in the Western world that fit into these four policy categories, the aforementioned countries came the closest to matching these categories.

Table 1
Summary of Abortion and Maternal Welfare Policies

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In terms of maternal welfare policy, conservative policies are those that provide little or no financial assistance for abortions and child-rearing expenses such as the costs related to pregnancy and child care.  By contrast, liberal maternal welfare policies refer to policies that not only provide government assistance for the costs associated with abortions, either through direct funding, or through indirect subsidies, but also, that provide assistance for costs related to pregnancy and child-rearing.

Conservative abortion policy reflects laws that make abortion illegal except on grounds of necessity (such as that the mother's life is in danger) or that permit abortion only when there is "serious danger to the pregnant woman's health, likelihood of serious disease or defect in the fetus, or situations where the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest" (Glendon 1993).  Liberal abortion policy constitutes elective abortions in the early stages of pregnancy or until viability, in the case of the United States.

Rudy (1996) documents the role of Reproductive Rights workers in advocating on behalf of a more comprehensive system for women than the traditional pro-choice movement of the mid-1970s.  According to the Reproductive Rights workers' position, abortion "is not a real 'choice' until the social conditions exist wherein a woman can realistically make a different choice" (Rudy

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Johanna Wilson - Women's Choices in the Western World: A... [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]