- Abortion Under Apartheid: Nationalism, Sexuality, and Women's Reproductive Rights in South Africa par Susanne M. Klausen
Abortion as a topic often brings out the worst in people, whether "worst" is measured by outright misogyny or simple callousness towards women's and girls' lives. The fact that poorer women and women of colour suffer disproportionately from lack of access to safe, state-funded abortion services adds an element of class and race contempt to the equation. As I write, this is manifest in the Trump administration's executive order to defund any organization currently receiving US support that provides abortion counselling, let alone abortion itself. This order threatens to create a surge of unsafe abortions and maternal deaths in the Global South and will wreak havoc on efforts to control population growth in Africa in particular, with predictably devastating impacts. Apparently black lives do not matter in the current White House.
Susanne Klausen's moving and timely book sheds powerful light on the interplay of abortion policy and the defence of white male supremacy in apartheid South Africa which still resonates there and more widely. Indeed, as I write, this is manifest in the Trump administration's executive order to defund any organization currently receiving US support that provides abortion counselling, let alone abortion itself. This order threatens to create a surge of unsafe abortions and maternal deaths in the Global South and could wreak havoc on efforts to control population growth in Africa in particular, with all the suffering and inequality that implies. Even in South Africa today, where women are now guaranteed free, state-provided abortion on demand and constitutional protections of their health, privacy, and dignity, tens of thousands of South African women still turn to the often brutally incompetent private sector to obtain abortions. The law may have changed but the attitudes that women fear have not kept up.
Klausen begins by acknowledging her own longstanding abortion rights activism, and the inspiration (and subsequently direct assistance) that she drew from Helen Bradford, the pioneering historian of abortion in South Africa and a powerful critic of androcentrism in the radical historiography. Klausen aims [End Page 466] to carry on Bradford's work both with a rich enhancement of our empirical knowledge about the role of abortion in South African history, and a compelling theoretical argument to extend gender and sexuality studies into mainstream scholarship. She ably succeeds in both these aims, drawing upon a wide range of sources including newspapers, memoirs, court transcripts, official documents, and interviews with some of the key players in the struggles mostly from the 1960s to eighties. These sources evoke the tumble of emotions experienced by the victims of cruel laws and harsh social judgements, the passion of activists in the struggle for women's rights, and the often rank hypocrisy of those appointed to police the morality of the nation. Michael Watts, for example, was jailed for providing safe, and sometimes free abortions following a show trial conducted to demonstrate the state's rectitude. In prison, a high-ranking official asked if Watts could perform an abortion for his daughter, which Watts obliged.
The narrative begins with an overview of precolonial practices as attested in the ethnography of South Africa's various African cultures and elsewhere on the continent. The evidence shows that African societies were pro-natalist but tacitly enabled women's discreet use of herbal abortificients in a variety of situations. The criminalization of abortion was subsequently "one of the many unfortunate by-products of colonial rule" (p. 15). Chapter one then details how abortion procedures were perceived, performed and/or punished under white settler rule, and examines the differential impacts that clandestinity had upon women by race. Chapter two explores links this differentiation to the political agenda of Afrikaner nationalism in the apartheid era. National Party ideologues were in particular fixated with defining sexuality for whites in "a nation-building and race-affirming" manner (p. 58). This required suppressing anything that promoted promiscuity, declining fertility among whites, and communism and...