Fifty years ago, American women, in 1973, were guaranteed the right to abortion, which the Supreme Court found implicit in the Fourteenth Amednment. Consequently the court found Texas statues criminalsing abortions as violative of women’s constituional rights. This case came to be called the Roe vs Wade case, where Henry Wade, was the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas, and the plaintiff, Norma McCorvey, was referred to as Jane Roe, to protect her identity.
Two years, before the Roe vs Wade in USA, France witnessed its own revolution in the form of a “pro-choice” movement, with Manifesto 343. The struggle for women’s bodily autonomy by the French, encapsulated within the Manifesto, echo even today through the arguments of the pro-choice movement.
Unfortunately, the fact that Manifesto 343 is as valid today as some fifty odd years ago is ironical, for it amplifies that the mirage of ‘modernity’ is hinged on the edifice of technological progress, rather than a social one.
What was Manifesto 343 and what did it demand?
“One million women in France have abortions every year. Condemned to secrecy they do so in dangerous conditions, while under medical supervision this is one of the simplest procedures. We are silencing these millions of women. I declare that I am one of them. I declare that I have had an abortion. Just as we demand free access to contraception, we demand the freedom to have an abortion”, reads Manifesto 343.
Manifesto 343, also known as the Manifesto 343 of the Sluts, was written originally in French by feminist icon and scholar Simone de Beauvoir in 1971 for Le Nouvel Observateur, a weekly French News Magazine known for its commentary on political and literary matters.
“Women are nothing but machines for producing children” or so, the self-styled French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) believed. Born of the ‘1789 French Revolution’, premised on ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, Bonaparte turned away from the legacy that he leveraged to seize power.
The Napoleonic laws, famously called the Napoleonic Civil Code, formulated during his reign (1804-1815) were, amongst other things, a staunch assertion of patriarchal rights of fathers and husbands over daughters and wives. These regressive and repressive laws on women, defined the society and its ethics for the next one fifty years in France.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote Manifesto 343, against the backdrop of the continued criminsalisation of abortion in 20th century France. In writing and signing this manifesto alongside 342 other influential women, Beauvoir and these French women testified that they had all had secret abortions.
This not only put at stake their professional integrity, but also ran the risk of them being imprisoned. Some of the signatories lost their jobs and some of them were disowned by their families. The highly polarised debate culminated with the legalisation of abortion upto the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, in 1975.
Pro-choice movement: Abortion as feminist assertion
“To be a feminist is to fight for free abortion on demand.Abortion, It’s a women’s thing, like cooking, diapers, something dirty,” cites Manifesto 343. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, exposed that the ‘othering’ of women was fundamental to their oppression, for it allowed the society to exclude their problemes by treating them as anomalies from the normalcy of ideal, which is embodied in the performativity of masculinity by men.
She notes, in a powerful statement, “We do not want any part or any place in this society which has been built without us and at our expense.” The Manifesto 343 rejected the “supervised freedom” that society granted women. It marked a watershed event in the argument of French women’s citisenship at par with French men, the foundation of which was first laid by Olympe de Gouges with her “Declaration of Rights of Women and Citizen”, a “sin” which led to her guillotining.
Bodily autonomy: Fighting patriarchy and capitalism
“It goes without saying that we do not have the right to choose what we want to do with our bodies, as other human beings do. Our wombs, however, belong to us,” mentions Manifesto 343.
Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman, ‘died’ at the age of 31, after experiencing a miscarriage, following which the doctors refused to evacuate the fetus, which would amount to a medical termination of pregnancy, as it still carried a heartbeat. Following her death, Savita’s name became the clarion call for the pro-choice movement that unweapped in Ireland, culminating with the repealing of the Eighth amendment in 2018. Halappanavar’s ordeal, is as true for 21st century women, as was it for signatories of Manifesto 343, who wrote, “One million women in France have abortions every year. Condemned to secrecy they do so in dangerous conditions, while under medical supervision this is one of the simplest procedures.”
The women of the 21st century continue to be victimised by patriarchal onslaught, just as the women in the 20th century were and women before that. The control over female sexuality, while may have started out as patriarchal dependence on reproductive production undertaken by women for demographic reasons, that in the beginning of human history were quintessential for clan survival; today is a controlled product of patriarchal and capitalist collusion.
Beauvoir shows this nexus evidentially in the manifesto. She quotes, “No woman will have an abortion while Debré wants 100 million more French people. You will have 100 million French people, as long as it costs you nothing. You will be particularly severe with poor females who cannot go to England. As such you will have a wheel of unemployment to make your capitalists happy. You will save the fetus, since it’s more interesting to kill them off aged 18, the age of conscription. You will really need them as you pursue your imperialist politics.”
The economic soundness with respect to policy-making of these arguments was as sound then, as it is today. Attacking the then Prime Minister, Beauvoir noted that anti-abortion stance benefitted the state-capital nexuss which thrived by preying upon forcing poor women in unfair labour contracts and young men into precarious jobs (such as the army), much out of compulsion than choice.
The master-stroke of her argument, was her marxist construction of women as producers viz a viz their reproductive capacity and thus, her powerful statement, “I will have a child if I want one, and no moral pressure, institution or economic imperative will compel me to do so. This is my political power. As any kind of producer, I can, while waiting for improvement, put pressure on society through my production (child strike).”
The legacy of Manifesto 343
On the fifteenth anniversary of the Manifesto, the youngest signatory Claudine Monteil, then aged twenty one said, “We hoped it would be talked about. Its great success was that everyone was forced to comment on it. Women in their 70s and 80s began to tell their granddaughters that they had had an abortion. Its impact was symbolically very strong.”
A pro-choice debate or a pro-abortion debate at the surface, may look like a debate between the state upholding the rights of its birth giving citizens over their bodies and balancing them, against the potential rights of the fetus they carry. But this debate only represents a superstructure of the larger edifice of patriarchal capitalism that divests women of all forms of bodily autonomy and in turn, develops them into either ideal consumers of capitalism or providers of cheap labour, who are coerced into precarious labour contracts by often the unwanted moral and ethical burden that children place on a mother’s body.
A woman is called a “slut”, not because she is sexually promiscous, but everytime she exerices her right to chose, she threatens the structures of subjugation that are based on strict socio-sexual codes. The pro-life movement is based on a shaky premise where it privileges the right to life of a fetus for a temporally short span, and post its birth, subjects both the baby and the birth giver to a life of socio-economic disability by denying the child an environment conducive and suitable for raising children and the mother, by stripping her off her citizenship rights which stand tall in theory.
Also read: Understanding Feminist Existentialism
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