Nelson Mandela, the pro-choice, intersectional feminist

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Photo: Dennis Lee Royle, Wire

Nelson Mandela and his incredible legacy were lauded today during his memorial service. But the great leader’s record on women’s rights, and specifically abortion rights, is not getting the recognition it deserves. 

The right wing and anti-choice zealots are quick to condemn Mandela for his pro-choice statements, views and policies. And while criticism from many of these groups translates into an automatic honor, in my humble opinion, we should highlight all that Mandela did to empower women.

Mandela praised women for their role in fighting against apartheid and, like a true intersectionalist, saw the inextricable links among struggles against various forms of oppression. Speaking at South Africa’s first National Women’s Day in 1995, Mandela said:

As a tribute to the legions of women who navigated the path of fighting for justice before us, we ought to imprint in the supreme law of the land, firm principles upholding the rights of women. The women themselves and the whole of society, must make this a prime responsibility […] Together, we have it in our power to change South Africa for the better.

He proclaimed that freedom was contingent on women’s freedom at the opening of the first parliament in 1994:

It is vitally important that all structures of government, including the President himself, should understand this fully: that freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.

Mandela words were accompanied by actions and policy. Over a third of Mandela’s cabinet appointees were women. Today, women constitute 44% of South Africa’s politicians. Mandela created the Commission for Gender Equality, an organization which uses research, public education, policy development, legislative initiatives, effective monitoring, and litigation to fight for a ”society free from gender oppression and all forms of inequality.” The Constitution which Mandela, as president, shaped, protects women from discrimination, rape and domestic violence. And, unlike the United States, Mandela’s South Africa ratified the U.N Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Mandela also enacted free prenatal and postnatal care to mothers in the public health system and free health care to children.

And Mandela transformed women’s lives through his commitment to reproductive rights. The Abortion and Sterilization Act, passed by the apartheid government in 1975, prohibited abortion. It provided exceptions in cases when the woman’s health or life was at risk, there was a high probability of a genetic defect, the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.  The rape or incest had to be proven, and in all cases, two doctors, neither of whom could perform the abortion, had to approve of the procedure. Not surprisingly, this had terrible ramifications. According to the Guttmacher Institute, “Admissions to gynecologic wards increased substantially due to women presenting with incomplete and septic abortions. Maternal morbidity and mortality resulting from septic abortions also increased… the 1,000 or so legal abortions performed in South Africa annually represented a tiny fraction of all abortions carried out. Estimates of the number of clandestine abortions were dramatically larger, ranging from 120,000 to 250,000 per year between 1975 and 1996.” Also not surprising were the racist results: according to a 1994 Medical Research Council study on unsafe abortion in South Africa, 99% of the women treated at state hospitals for incomplete abortions were Black.

But that all changed with Nelson Mandela’s 1996 Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, which repealed the 1975 Act and granted all women “the right to choose whether to have an early, safe and legal termination of pregnancy according to her individual beliefs.” Minors do not need to notify their parents and there is no extra medical or legal approval required. Victims of rape or incest do not have the extra burden of documenting their violation. The bill recognizes “the values of human dignity, the achievement of equality, security of the person, non-racialism and non-sexism, and the advancement of human rights and freedoms which underlie a democratic South Africa.” The bill was ahead of its time both in its recognition of autonomy–”the Constitution protects the right of persons to make decisions concerning reproduction and to security in and control over their bodies”–and in the way it framed abortion as a health care issue and the responsibility of the state:

Both women and men have the right to be informed of and to have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of fertility regulation of their choice, and that women have the right of access to appropriate health care services to ensure safe pregnancy and childbirth;

… the decision to have children is fundamental to women’s physical, psychological and social health and that universal access to reproductive health care services includes family planning and contraception, termination of pregnancy, as well as sexuality education and counseling programmes and services;

… the State has the responsibility to provide reproductive health to all, and also to provide safe conditions under which the right of choice can be exercised without fear or harm.

The Constitution of 1996 explicitly endorsed equality for women and freedom from discrimination based not only on race or “colour” but gender, sex and notably, pregnancy. It also guaranteed that “everyone has the right to bodily and psychological integrity, which includes the right ­to make decisions concerning reproduction” and “to security in and control over their body.”

speech in 1993, he made his intersectionalist view clear: 

The normal condition for human existence is democracy, justice, peace, non-racism, non-sexism, prosperity for everybody, a healthy environment and equality and solidarity among the peoples.

If we want to honor Mandela’s legacy, we must acknowledge and continue the various but interconnected struggles against racism, poverty, classism, imperialism and sexism for which he fought.

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