The history of reproductive justice

Progress for sexual and reproductive rights has often come from the fearless mobilisation of activists. In our Moving History series, we look at key moments in the history of reproductive justice and consider their significance.

Advancements for sexual and reproductive freedom took different paths depending on national context. During the 20th century, movements in Western Europe pushed for the legalization of abortion care while citizens in most countries of the Soviet block had state-provided care.

That said, contraceptive care in the Soviet block was often hard to obtain. But the restricted space for protest meant that calls for sexual and reproductive wellbeing were not issued from the streets. But following the break-up of the Soviet Union, this all changed. 

From the 1960s on, movements for gender equality and reproductive freedom allowed for transformative change in European societies. In continuing the fight against reproductive coercion it is important to remember that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. 

It's also important to consider how we might now improve these movements with the privilege of hindsight. Were these movements exclusionary to certain groups? Could they have made greater efforts to amplify the voices of marginalised groups? 

As we work to strengthen 21st century movements for reproductive freedom, how do we ensure that we are inclusive and non-discriminatory. This should always be to the forefront of activism for freedom and dignity. 

  • The year is 1971. Irish women arrive into Dublin on the Contraceptive Train. In an act of protest, they have brought contraceptive pills from Northern Ireland into the Republic, where they are still illegal. It later emerges that the pills brought back were aspirins – the pill was unattainable without prescription. Nonetheless, this stunt was an important moment in stoking outrage among Irish women about inequitable access to contraceptives. The pill was fully legalised in 1992.
    The year is 1971. Irish women arrive into Dublin on the Contraceptive Train. In an act of protest, they have brought contraceptive pills from Northern Ireland into the Republic, where they are still illegal. It later emerges that the pills brought back were aspirins – the pill was unattainable without prescription. Nonetheless, this stunt was an important moment in stoking outrage among Irish women about inequitable access to contraceptives. The pill was fully legalised in 1992.
  • UK, March 6th, 1971: 4’000 people brave snow and hail for the first women’s liberation march in London. They march for equal pay and education, free contraception and abortion care, and 24-hour state-funded nurseries. Championing the right to live free from coercion and have families without risk of poverty, this march was an important step in the ongoing fight for reproductive justice.
    UK, March 6th, 1971: 4’000 people brave snow and hail for the first women’s liberation march in London. They march for equal pay and education, free contraception and abortion care, and 24-hour state-funded nurseries. Championing the right to live free from coercion and have families without risk of poverty, this march was an important step in the ongoing fight for reproductive justice.
  • France, 1971: women stand up against the state ban on abortion care. Hundreds of women add their name to ‘Manifesto of the 343’ and speak publicly about having resorted to illegal abortions in the face of state restrictions on reproductive freedom. Abortion was legalised in France in 1975 after the law was pushed forward by Simone Veil, who was also responsible for a law which facilitated access to contraceptives.
    France, 1971: women stand up against the state ban on abortion care. Hundreds of women add their name to ‘Manifesto of the 343’ and speak publicly about having resorted to illegal abortions in the face of state restrictions on reproductive freedom. Abortion was legalised in France in 1975 after the law was pushed forward by Simone Veil, who was also responsible for a law which facilitated access to contraceptives.
  • Austria, 1972: artist Erika Mis protests Article 144 which banned the provision of abortion care in Austria. Through public protest and petition, Austrian women made reproductive freedom a subject of public discussion and in 1974 abortion care was legalized (with limitations).
    Austria, 1972: artist Erika Mis protests Article 144 which banned the provision of abortion care in Austria. Through public protest and petition, Austrian women made reproductive freedom a subject of public discussion and in 1974 abortion care was legalized (with limitations).
  • Belgium, 1973: women in Ghent go on hunger strike in protest of state limitations on abortion care. Their banners read ‘masters of our own bellies.’ Due in part to the coercive religious conservatism at the time, it is another twenty years before abortion is legalised on April 4th 1990.
    Belgium, 1973: women in Ghent go on hunger strike in protest of state limitations on abortion care. Their banners read ‘masters of our own bellies.’ Due in part to the coercive religious conservatism at the time, it is another twenty years before abortion is legalised on April 4th 1990.
  • The Netherlands, 1973: The Dutch ‘Dolle Mina’ movement rally for access to the contraceptive pill. The Dolle Mina was a movement of women (and men) who campaigned for contraceptive access, improved sexuality education, reproductive freedom and equal pay for women. n 1969, the Dutch government lifted its ban on contraceptives – they were available under the national health insurance scheme 2 years later. Abortion care was legalised in the Netherlands in 1984.
    The Netherlands, 1973: The Dutch ‘Dolle Mina’ movement rally for access to the contraceptive pill. The Dolle Mina was a movement of women (and men) who campaigned for contraceptive access, improved sexuality education, reproductive freedom and equal pay for women. n 1969, the Dutch government lifted its ban on contraceptives – they were available under the national health insurance scheme 2 years later. Abortion care was legalised in the Netherlands in 1984.
  • Iceland, 1975: Icelandic women go on strike for equal rights with men. Known as ‘The Women’s Day Off’ the strike was a watershed moment in the country’s movement towards gender equality.
    Iceland, 1975: Icelandic women go on strike for equal rights with men. Known as ‘The Women’s Day Off’ the strike was a watershed moment in the country’s movement towards gender equality.
  • Italy, 1975: members of the Women’s Liberation Movement  protest the criminalization of abortion care. Feminist resistance to the denial of abortion care had grown during the 1960s and had galvanised public discussion of the issue. Abortion was legalised in 1978.
    Italy, 1975: members of the Women’s Liberation Movement protest the criminalization of abortion care. Feminist resistance to the denial of abortion care had grown during the 1960s and had galvanised public discussion of the issue. Abortion was legalised in 1978.
  • Portugal, 1975: a demonstration is held by the Portuguese Movement for the Liberation of Women. The women had planned to burn a bridal veil, mop and dust cloth which they saw as symbols of women’s oppression.
    Portugal, 1975: a demonstration is held by the Portuguese Movement for the Liberation of Women. The women had planned to burn a bridal veil, mop and dust cloth which they saw as symbols of women’s oppression.
  • Spain, 1977: after pressure from feminist movements, the government passes legislation to legalise contraceptives. Before the bill, and in spite of facing jail sentences of 6 months and fines between $125 -  $2,500, many Spaniards had found ways to obtain the pill.
    Spain, 1977: after pressure from feminist movements, the government passes legislation to legalise contraceptives. Before the bill, and in spite of facing jail sentences of 6 months and fines between $125 - $2,500, many Spaniards had found ways to obtain the pill.
  • The UK, 1988: activists protest Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Section 28’ which banned schools and local authorities from creating or distributing information on same-sex relationships. Section 28 was finally repealed in November 18, 2003.
    The UK, 1988: activists protest Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Section 28’ which banned schools and local authorities from creating or distributing information on same-sex relationships. Section 28 was finally repealed in November 18, 2003.
  • Macedonia, 2013: people gather outside the Parliament to protest a bill which would restrict women’s access to safe abortion. In spite of protests, the law is passed on June 10th less than three weeks after the first draft was submitted. Six years later after continued fighting by civil society, the bill is transformed - the right of the women to lead safe and dignified reproductive lives is reaffirmed.
    Macedonia, 2013: people gather outside the Parliament to protest a bill which would restrict women’s access to safe abortion. In spite of protests, the law is passed on June 10th less than three weeks after the first draft was submitted. Six years later after continued fighting by civil society, the bill is transformed - the right of the women to lead safe and dignified reproductive lives is reaffirmed.
  • Croatia, March 2017: 6000 Croatians march against patriarchal injustice. They are spurred into action by the threat of new restrictions to the abortion law, government inaction on violence against women and ongoing attacks faced by human rights organisations in the country.
    Croatia, March 2017: 6000 Croatians march against patriarchal injustice. They are spurred into action by the threat of new restrictions to the abortion law, government inaction on violence against women and ongoing attacks faced by human rights organisations in the country.
  • Poland, 2016: thousands mobilise against a government initiative to ban abortion. The mobilization unites women across regional and class divides and ultimately causes the government to abandon its proposals. The ‘Black Protests’ are, however, only the first in a series of protests that will arise as the government continues its assault on women’s reproductive freedom.
    Poland, 2016: thousands mobilise against a government initiative to ban abortion. The mobilization unites women across regional and class divides and ultimately causes the government to abandon its proposals. The ‘Black Protests’ are, however, only the first in a series of protests that will arise as the government continues its assault on women’s reproductive freedom.
  • Romania, 2019: a protest against gender-based violence is held in Bucharest. Activists hold banners bearing the slogan ‘sexism kills’ following news that a 15-year-old girl has been killed in what activists say is an epidemic of female-focused abuse and government inaction.
    Romania, 2019: a protest against gender-based violence is held in Bucharest. Activists hold banners bearing the slogan ‘sexism kills’ following news that a 15-year-old girl has been killed in what activists say is an epidemic of female-focused abuse and government inaction.