Like many other countries in Latin America in the early 1990s, El Salvador had a ban on abortion with a few exceptions including cases of rape, serious fetal malformation, and great risk to the mother’s life. In 1995, Pope John Paul II appointed Fernando Sáenz Lacalle as the new archbishop to San Salvador. He was a member of the conservative Catholic Group Opus Dei, who like the right-wing conservative party–Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA)–and the Catholic Church, opposed abortion. As explained by writer Jack Hitt, “What he brought to the country’s anti-abortion movement was a new determination to turn that opposition into state legislation and a belief that the church should play a public role in the process.”
Abortion rights continue to garner widespread attention in the United States and around the world, with restrictions on abortion and the reproductive rights of women constantly in flux. In May 2018, Ireland was acclaimed when it passed a referendum that struck down the eighth amendment of its constitution, which previously placed the life of a fetus and the life of a woman at equal importance. Most recently, in April 2019, South Korea followed suit by moving towards more progressive legal options for abortion.
Abortion had been legally restricted under South Korean criminal law since 1953. Certain exceptions were granted to allow abortion in the case of rape, incest, or serious threat to the mental or physical health of the expectant mother. However, even in these exceptional cases, the procedure required consent of the spouse. Otherwise, a woman would face up to one year in prison or a fine of up to 2 million won for an illegal abortion (approximately $1,750). A case was brought to the court in 2018 by a doctor who was facing prosecution for performing nearly 70 abortions. Medical professionals, if prosecuted for performing the procedure, may be sentenced for up to two years in prison under the current law. The Constitutional Court reviewed the law in 2012, but the ban was upheld since the court was split evenly. In a landmark victory for human rights in April of 2019, South Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled the 1953 law was unconstitutional. The verdict gives the Korean Parliament until the end of 2020 to revise the law, after which it will become null and void.
In South Korea, the “pro-choice”—or pro-abortion—activism gained momentum in 2017 when 230,000 people signed an online petition to strike down the ban on abortions. In the months leading up to the court decision, rhetoric and protests from both sides intensified. On March 30, 2019, more than a thousand women took to the streets to protest the ban on abortion. Activists have argued that the government has long viewed women simply as “baby-producing machines.” In the 1970s and 1980s, the government was faced with the challenge of curbing the unsustainable population growth. During this time, the government simply ignored illegal abortions, as it pushed for only one child per household. In recent years, the government has grown worried about the falling birthrate—one of the lowest in the world—and has become more stringent about restricting abortions. As a consequence, many women in South Korea feel that their reproductive freedoms have been taken away from them.
Access to safe abortion services should transcend national borders because it directly violates women’s right to health. When abortion is illegal and cannot be conducted safely, it forces women to carry out unwanted pregnancies, face serious threats to their health, or even risk death. According to Human Rights Watch, approximately 13 percent of maternal deaths worldwide are attributable to unsafe abortion—between 68,000 and 78,000 deaths annually. In fact, unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide and lead to an additional five million largely preventable disabilities, according to the WHO.This is easily preventable by legalizing abortion. Banning abortion does not end abortions; rather, it drives it underground and forces women to seek illicit and unsafe procedures. This has been the case in South Korea where, despite the ban, abortions are rampant. Collecting accurate data regarding abortions in Korea is extremely challenging as government statistics have relied on calculating national health insurance claims and doctors who perform abortions do not report their procedures. As a result, most estimates about Korean abortion rates likely undercut the actual rate. Data based on surveys of various medical providers put the estimated number of abortions in 2005 at 342,433. The Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimated that approximately 3,000 abortions occurred daily in 2017, which also contradicts other figures reported by national agencies.
Although the court’s ruling is welcomed by women’s rights activists, concerns about the stigma surrounding abortions persist. Many Koreans see abortion as immoral and for “naughty” girls. The Catholic Church in Seoul has expressed regret over the court’s ruling and urged people to choose “life over death.” The discussion on reproductive freedoms cannot end at increasing access to abortions, but must also address society’s prevailing attitudes on reproduction. In most societies and cultures, the burden of preventing unwanted pregnancies is left to the woman.
A study conducted by the UN in 2015, Trends in Contraceptive Use Worldwide, shows that across the world contraceptive methods such as female sterilization and IUD’s make up the majority while male sterilization and male condoms make up only a small fraction of total contraceptive usage. Female surgical sterilization methods can be much more complicated and dangerous procedures than male sterilization, yet they are hardly done. This is only a symptom of a larger trend. Similarly, the most recent effort in 2016 to create a male birth contraceptive pill was stopped before completion since the side effects on the health of the participants were deemed too severe. It can be argued that the effects experienced by men—including acne, mood disorders, and raised libido—are relatively minor compared to those suffered by women on the pill, which include anxiety, weight gain, nausea, headaches, reduced libido, and blood clots. Additionally, restricting abortion unfairly raises the stakes for women. This can be worse in countries such as South Korea where there have been multiple cases of husbands and boyfriends using women’s secret abortions to blackmail them to extort large sums of money.
Society and culture do not change overnight, and women who seek abortions will undoubtedly continue to face strong stigmas despite the newly-won legality. This is the reality for many women across the world. However, legalizing abortion guarantees—at the very least—safer and affordable access to procedures. Still, there are further steps needed to ensure positive change.. If the Korean government is committed to this issue, it must build infrastructure to support women who suffer from serious physical and mental consequences after the procedure.
The years since 2012 have broadly been classified under fourth-wave feminism. Brave individuals have battled against systematic sexism through multiple avenues; most recently, the work of 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winners Dennis Mukwege and Nadia Murad stands as a powerful example of individuals striving to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. In many countries, the feminist movement has heavily utilized technology and social media to fight for gender equality. Specifically, the #MeToo movement has been the most publicly acknowledged feminist campaign in the last year. Differences in perception of the movement in various countries provide important insight into the cultural distinctions that define each country’s views on feminist issues.
In particular, France’s wary reception of #MeToo stands out compared to the widespread support the movement received in the United States. This stems from French views on sexuality, suggesting that greater consideration of intersectionality is necessary when considering the cultural nuances that complicate a global social movement.
Is it a Global Movement?
The #MeToo movement was launched by the “#MeToo” hashtag, which spread virally on social media in October 2017. People who have been victimized by sexual violence used the hashtag to share their stories, revealing the extent of sexual assault and harassment faced by women everywhere, especially in the workplace. The hashtag went viral and was adopted by many celebrities soon after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against Harvey Weinstein, a famous American film producer. Later that year, TIME magazine named ‘The Silence Breakers’ collectively as their “2017 Person of the Year”, honoring not one individual but all of the people involved with the rise of the #MeToo movement.
#MeToo resonated with individuals around the world, with many translating the movement into their own languages.An article in the Washington Post describes the scope of the movement: “From Stockholm to Seoul, from Toronto to Tokyo, a torrent of accusations has poured forth. Survivors spoke out, and many were taken seriously. Powerful men lost their jobs. A few went to prison. How diverse societies — some liberal, others conservative — saw sexual harassment seemed to be changing.” As the movement spread across the world, it raised new questions on how different cultures view sexual harassment and what kind of challenges may arise when trying to spur a change across different societies.
The “#MeToo” Movement in France
The French counterpart to the #Me Too movement is known as “#BalanceTonPorc”, which loosely translates to “Rat Out Your Pig.” First started by journalist Sandra Muller, #BalanceTonPorc resulted in thousands of French women speaking out on social media. However, unlike in the United States, the movement faced a backlash from the same demographic that had championed it in America. One hundred prominent French women ranging from artists to intellectuals, including famous French actress Catherine Deneuve, signed a highly publicized open letter denouncing the #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc movements. They defended what they called a “right to pester” and explained that “Trying to seduce someone, even persistently or cack-handedly, is not a crime”. The letter argued that the movement had gone too far: seduction was an inherent part of French culture and the movement was too moralizing, threatening to curb the sexual freedom that people enjoyed in France.
With the letter facing criticism from many inside and outside France, Deneuve apologized to victims of sexual harassment and distanced herself from the incident. Regardless, the letter provides an important perspective on the role of cultural differences in global movements. France has historically valued artistic freedom and prided itself on its lack of censorship in art. As a result, movements such as #MeToo face a challenge in adapting to a culture which fears cultural purging for accommodation of political overcorrection and fights censorship while still striving towards building a safer environment for women. Many in France were quick to reject the movement as an American import, while many in the United States called the letter a reflection of French internalized misogyny. Americans failed to recognize French concerns that the massive power of the movement, stemming from its popularity and size, could result in a censorship of the artistic, sexual and even ideological freedoms earlier generations have fought hard to achieve. Their anxiety stems from a past where a woman exerting her own sexual agency and depicting that in cinema, art and other forms of culture, were considered brave acts in defiance of existing patriarchal taboos. It seems people on both sides are ultimately trying to protect the same thing—an individual’s agency to make his or her own decisions. However, the letter’s argument is put forth in a problematic manner, potentially allowing harassers to present themselves as victims of misconstrued advances and entrenching the idea that a “certain” level of harassment is normal and should be accepted. The letter has highlighted a fundamental debate within feminism-sexuality as a source of power versus a source of oppression. France must not let traditional views on the nature of courtship and social interactions such as flirtation restrict it from participating in the new, albeit difficult, conversation on sexual harassment.
The challenge that the #MeToo movement has encountered in France–cultural criticism and religious stereotyping–amplifies the need for intersectionality in not only France’s feminist movement but in feminist movements across the world. Intersectionality refers to interconnected ways in which different social categorizations-in this case class, race and gender-apply to a group (or individual), aggravating overlapping and interdependent features of sexism. In analyzing the Deneuve letter, there is a need to remember that the ultimate goal of the #MeToo movement is to empower people. If the movement starts restricting the freedoms of others, then it must be restructured. Cultural differences like those demonstrated by France’s reception of #MeToo must ]be an essential consideration in feminism. Similarly, those supporting the letter must not forget that many individuals sharing their stores as part of #BalanceTonPorc are on the lower end of an established social hierarchy. They are often intimidated into remaining silent in the face of abuse. Therefore, publicly defending the “right to pester” only emboldens harassers who would like to use the “seduction” argument to defend themselves in situations where their actions could be considered harassment. Therefore, the social element of privilege has to be accounted for when considering any argument regarding feminism. Intersectionality is not only relevant to French feminism but across all feminist movements. If a movement seeks to be truly global, it must cease to be purely American and become a more inclusive platform. More efforts are needed to combat systemic sexism; ensuring global movements account for cultural differences and resonate with those of all backgrounds is an important step in that direction.