skip to primary navigationskip to content

Revisiting the Concept of Reproductive Rights

The recent developments in world politics provide a good opportunity to re-examine ideas about reproductive rights; what is embedded in these rights? How they have changed over time? And what are the limitations of reproductive freedom?

Nitzan Peri-Rotem, January '16 - available to download as a PDF.

In the aftermath of the US elections and other related political developments, concerns for women’s reproductive rights have been on the rise. This month, as Donald Trump enters the White House, major demonstrations are scheduled to take place around the world in protest of potential threats to human rights and to women’s reproductive rights in particular. The largest of these protests is expected to be the Women's March in Washington D.C., in partnership with Planned Parenthood and well-known social activists as Gloria Steinem and Harry Belafonte. These events provide a good opportunity to reflect on the concept of reproductive rights; what does this concept encompass? And, what are the settings in which reproductive autonomy is being contested?

Reproductive rights may involve a wide range of issues, such as health, reproduction, gender, sexuality and the intersection between them. The definition of reproductive rights has been rather fluid and is constantly being reshaped alongside social, political and technological progressions. From the start, the promotion of reproductive rights has been subversive and in some cases radical. The concept is most commonly identified with the struggle to access safe and legal abortion and contraception during the 1970s and 1980s in industrialized countries. However, the beginning of the campaign for birth control is traced back to the late nineteenth century in the United States, when the voluntary motherhood movement advocated for increasing women’s “control over their own bodies”[1]. The proponents of this campaign were considered radical and outlandish, and, like the initial advocates of woman suffrage, were subjected to mockery and other sanctions[2]. Today, more than a century later, the struggle for women’s sexual and reproductive sovereignty is as relevant as ever.

Only in recent decades, a wider institutionalized recognition of reproductive rights was achieved, first through the focus on ‘reproductive health’ and later, the more volatile concept of sexual rights was also included. In 1995, the Platform for Action of the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women declared that:

“Reproductive health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in all matters relating to the reproductive system and to its functions and processes. Reproductive health therefore implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so”[3].

Despite significant progress in the recognition of reproductive rights by international organizations, as the United Nations and the World Health Organization, many aspects of female reproduction remain contentious and reproductive autonomy is being continuously threatened in different parts of the world. The remarks made by Donald Trump during his presidential campaign, according to which women should be punished in some way for undergoing illegal abortion, is only one example. More recently, the threat has become more tangible as Congressional Republicans announced their intentions to defund Planned Parenthood, as they offer abortion services (alongside preventative health care, birth control and other women’s health care services). Another example is from Poland, where only a few months ago the government has proposed to further restrict the abortion law, a move which would have led to a near-total ban on abortion. However, following mass protests, this proposal was eventually dropped.

The notion of reproductive freedom as formulized by the UN Platform for Action in 1995 is therefore far from being a widely-accepted norm. In many societies, motherhood remains mandatory, and voluntary childlessness is not considered a legitimate option. This situation may be defined as a form of ‘reproductive violence’, according to sociologist Orna Donath, as in some cases women are forced to choose between bearing children against their will or facing various sanctions, including divorce, loss of economic security and denunciation by their family and community[4].

While reproductive rights are primarily associated with free and unrestricted access to family planning, it also consists the right to reproduce and to be able to choose when to do so. This right is potentially compromised in countries that restrict women’s access to assisted reproductive technologies (ART) based on their age or marital status. Although technological advances now offer the possibility for postmenopausal women to give birth (by using egg donation or by using their own frozen eggs), there is no consensus on whether women at the age of 50 or above should have access to this technology. The arguments against older women using ART vary from claims that motherhood at this age is ‘unnatural’ or that this could be against the best interest of the child if the mother is more susceptible to illness or death before he or she reaches adulthood[5]. On the other hand, preventing women the opportunity to utilize a technology that would enable them to fulfil their reproductive aspirations - simply based on their age - does not comply with the principles of reproductive autonomy.   

The technological advances over the past decades have not only stretched the biological boundaries of human reproduction, but also challenged other deeply rooted perceptions about gender, family relationships, reproduction and sexuality. In addition, there are signs of a changing discourse around issues related to female reproduction that have so far been highly stigmatized, as in the example of the “menstruation revolution” or the discourse on female sexuality. Yet, despite increasing access to knowledge about reproduction and sexuality in the digital era, reproductive autonomy remains highly fragile.



[1] Gordon, L. (1973). Voluntary motherhood: The beginning of feminist birth control ideas in the United States. Feminist Studies, 1(3/4): 5-22.

[2] Davis, A. (2003). Racism, birth control and reproductive rights, in Lewis, R. and Mills, S. (Eds.) Feminist postcolonial theory (pp. 353-367). New York: Routledge.

[4] Donath, O. (2015). Choosing motherhood? Agency and regret within reproduction and mothering retrospective accounts. Women’s Studies International Forum, 53: 200-209.

[5] Ekberg, M. E. (2014). Assisted reproduction for postmenopausal women. Human Fertility, 17(3): 223-230.

The Reproductive Sociology Research Group supports research and teaching on the social and cultural implications of new reproductive technologies. ReproSoc is part of an expanding concentration of Reproductive Studies at Cambridge, is led by Professor Sarah Franklin and has funding from the Wellcome Trust, British Academy, ESRC, ERC, and Office of the Vice Chanccelloer, as well as several other funding bodies.

Video Podcast

Our latest video podcast is our second annual public lecture, Cosmopolitan Conceptions in Global Dubai by Marcia Inhorn.