Motherhood Is a Right, Not a Duty

Translated by Danica Jorden

Any analysis of motherhood must start from a double perspective. In the first place, motherhood must be considered as a biological function, linked to procreation, pregnancy and childbirth. In the second place, motherhood must be considered as a social practice that references all activities related to the daily task of caring for the life of sons and daughters, a task that can be carried out by either the biological mother or by other persons (men and women) capable and willing to perform such care.

From this perspective, motherhood is a complex experience, which when experienced in a holistic, planned, and safe manner, can become both a means of personal realization, as well as a means to guarantee the sustainability of life. On the other extreme, when motherhood is experienced as a duty and/or as the result of violent machismo, it can become a source of suffering and oppression for women.

The international system of human rights recognizes that women have reproductive rights that should be recognized and protected by the State. These reproductive rights include our right to decide whether to procreate or not procreate, the right to decide when to procreate, theright to get information and access to safe and effective methods of birth control, and the right to get free healthcare services when we decide to interrupt a pregnancy in progress.

In accordance with these international norms, no woman should be forced to be a mother against her will, and neither should women be denied this right. No woman should be sterilized without her consent. No woman should be singled out by society for enjoying her sexual life and not wanting (or not being able) to be a mother. No woman should be forced against her will to interrupt a pregnancy for any reason whatsoever. No woman should be imprisoned for interrupting a pregnancy she did not want. No woman should have to face the tragedy of ending the life of a newborn that she could not or does not want to care for.

Unfortunately, in patriarchally-based societies, motherhood is no longer a right but a duty, one which is imposed with more or less cruelty, depending on the social class to which women belong and/or depending on the State’s degree of autonomy with regard to the cultural, religious and political influence of the agents of the patriarchy.

In Nigeria, the Boko Haram cult has imposed kidnapping, rape and forced pregnancy on girls and women as a weapon of war by means of which it intends to impose an Islamic State based on an ultra-fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran. Only last year, the UN Population Fund reported the existence of 16,000 forced pregnancies in regions controlled by Boko Haram. More recently, the Nigerian army managed to free 700 captives, among whom were 217 women who became pregnant as a result of the repeated rapes to which they were subjected. None of them have the possibility of abortion, because it is prohibited by national laws, imposed by this African country’s powerful Catholic fundamentalist sectors.

In El Salvador, due to the absolute criminalization of abortion put forward in 1997 by groups linked to religious and/or moral fundamentalism, lower class women and girls who have survived sexual violations perpetrated by gang members and are faced with pregnancies as a result of these brutal rapes are being forced to continue their pregnancies. Consequently, they have only three options: commit a crime by aborting under unsafe conditions, commit suicide, or continue on with a forced pregnancy. All of this is occurring in a country that is a member of the United Nations Committee on Human Rights, but one that paradoxically refuses to accept this same Committee’s recommendations in terms of revising existing legislation to at least permit the interruption of pregnancies in situations of sexual violation and the risk of death for the mother.

In Paraguay, whose Constitution authorizes abortion only in cases in which the mother’s life is in danger, President Horacio Cartes’s government has just denied a 10 year old girl the right to an abortion, because in the opinion of the authorities, “the mother’s life is not at risk by continuing this pregnancy.” The girl weighs 34 kilos (less than 74 lbs), is 139 cm (less than 4’7″) tall, and her pregnancy is the result of repeated rapes by her stepfather. The request for the abortion was made by the girl’s mother, who in response to the request was imprisoned, charged with “complicity and neglect of the duty to protect a minor.”

I am convinced that motherly love and maternal care can do a great deal to save this world from the catastrophe to which capitalism and patriarchy are leading us. But we will not achieve this while motherhood is forced upon women as a duty, and not taken for what it really is, which is a right that must be freely exercised.