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Abortion Under Apartheid

Nationalism, Sexuality, and Women's Reproductive Rights in South Africa

by (author) Susanne M. Klausen

Oxford University Press
Initial publish date
Nov 2018
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    Publish Date
    Nov 2018
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Abortion Under Apartheid examines the politics of abortion in South Africa during the apartheid era (1948-1990), when termination of pregnancy was criminalized. It analyzes the flourishing clandestine abortion industry, the prosecution of medical and "backstreet" abortionists, and the passage in 1975 of the country's first statutory law on abortion. Susanne M. Klausen reveals how ideas about sexuality were fundamental to apartheid culture and shows that the authoritarian National Party government - alarmed by the spread of "permissiveness" in white society - attempted to regulate white women's reproductive sexuality in the interests of maintaining white supremacy.

A major focus of the book is the battle over abortion that erupted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when doctors and feminists, inspired by international developments, called for liberalization of the colonial-era common law that criminalized abortion. The movement for legal reform spurred a variety of political, social, and religious groups to grapple with the meaning of abortion in the context of changing ideas about the traditional family and women's place within it. Abortion Under Apartheid demonstrates that all women, regardless of race, were oppressed under apartheid. Yet, although the National Party was preoccupied with denying young, unmarried white women reproductive control, black girls and women bore the brunt of the lack of access to safe abortion, suffering the effects on a shocking scale.

At the heart of the story are the black and white girls and women who - regardless of hostility from partners, elders, religious institutions, nationalist movements, conservative doctors and nurses, or the government - persisted in determining their own destinies. Although a great many were harmed and even died as a result of being denied safe abortions, many more succeeded in thwarting opponents of women's right to control their capacity to bear children. This book conveys both the tragic and triumphant sides of their story.

About the author

Susanne M. Klausen is Associate Professor in History at Carleton University, and Senior Research Associate, Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg. She lives in Gatineau.

Susanne M. Klausen's profile page

Editorial Reviews

"This study makes a powerful case that concerns over restricting abortion were about policing women's bodies within a conservative patriarchal community in order to maintain its reputation, one is tempted to say, 'honour'. It is distressing to learn from the conclusion that although a very liberal law was passed by the African National Congress government in 1996, clandestine abortion remains ubiquitous in South Africa for complex reasons including continuing stigmatising attitudes, lack of resources, and inadequate public health education."

--Leslie Hall, Women's History Review

"Susanne M. Klausen should be commended for writing a book that is compelling, timely, and highly original...In this elegantly written narrative, Klausen explains that gender and sexuality were just as important as race or class to the construction and maintenance of the apartheid system...There is much to appreciate about this book. Besides being innovative and very well researched, the book is written in accessible language. The author is a gifted storyteller who has the ability to captivate her audience through her engaging prose. She helps us realize that this is a story that is much larger than 'just' abortion. Indeed, it is a story of nation-building and of state collapse, one that is painfully written on the bodies of women...It is certainly not one to be missed."

--Alicia C. Decker, American Historical Review

"The history of abortion and, indeed, of reproductive rights more broadly has received relatively little attention in African contexts. Susanne Klausen's study of abortion under apartheid is therefore both welcome and significant. Using interviews and a range of documentary sources, the book examines how the apartheid state sought to control women's and girls' bodies and reproductive choices through the enforcement of restrictive abortion laws and the promotion of a patriarchal Christian Afrikaner culture, and, crucially, the ways in which women and girls defied these restrictions....This is a passionately argued, sensitive book, which lays a foundation for future research on abortion in South Africa and the broader region."

--Sacha Hepburn, Journal of Southern African Studies

"Abortion Under Apartheid is a beautifully written, multi-dimensional, and convincingly argued examination of women's reproductive choices under the South African apartheid regime."

--The Canadian Commission on Women's History Book Prize

"This meticulously researched landmark study by Susanne M. Klausen explores the complex ways in which interlinked ideologies concerning race, gender and sexuality underpinned the restrictions placed by the South African apartheid state on women's access to reproductive rights, in particular to safe abortion....The book is written in an engaging, accessible style, although the subject matter makes for disturbing reading at times. Klausen shows....that, while abortion legislation in contemporary South Africa is amongst the most progressive in the world, for many South African women access to safe, affordable abortion remains a challenge, and Klausen calls for 'the struggle for reproductive rights' to be 'connected to the broader struggle for social justice and human rights' (p. 218). It is a call which should resonate with everyone who reads this troubling but important book."

--The English Historical Review

"Drawing on a compelling range of sources, including novels, popular press stories, oral history interviews, medical journals, and university and hospital records, Klausen argues that white, South African social elites vehemently opposed abortion as part of their wider obsession with the sanctity of the so-called white race....South African historiography has tended to focus on either white or black South Africans, given that apartheid actively worked to divide these populations. By contrast, Klausen here includes black and white women's experiences with abortion. In doing so, she demonstrates the entanglements of racism and its effects on white and black life in South Africa."

--Rachel Sandwell, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

"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....Klausen aims [to write] 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."

--Marc Epprecht, Histoire sociale

"The author does not keep her sharp analysis hermetically sealed off from global and colonial forces. She is alert to the wider historiography, to the intersection of race and class, of masculinity and women's reproductive rights. She has trolled through dozens of newspapers, a dozen archives, conducted multiple interviews, and like every good historian, read almost every single secondary source on her subject. The reader will be pulled into an engaging, riveting and horrifying set of stories, one in which vulnerable human beings, professionals and activists are caught in a vortex of cultural and gendered politics....Here are the stories of courage and victimization of both black and white couched in the politics of a regime in its death throes."

--Chris Youe, Canadian Association of African Studies, on behalf of the Joel Gregory Prize Committee

"This meticulously researched volume helps redress the privileging of race and class, together with a persistent gender blindness, in much South African historiography on apartheid. In this powerful and clearly argued study of the apartheid politics of fertility, Klausen shows how Afrikaner nationalism was persistently active in its attempts to control women's sexuality...Klausen provides complex and sympathetic accounts of the experiences of women of all races caught up in this nightmare world..."

--Anne Digby, Social History of Medicine

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