George Lakoff and the Curious Absence of Material Conditions

Given the years (more than I care to count) that I have engaged in abortion debates, I agree with Frank Furedi’s assessment: The most important underlying value of abortion advocacy is self-determination. In Africa, that constitutes an immediate problem. Gender activism is based upon antidiscrimination values and equality. Self-determination on the other hand is not a widely known, let alone appreciated concept in Africa. The poorer people are the less they seem to be able to develop ambitions to determine their own life and to break loose of traditional structures and expectations. On the contrary, they hang on to the extended family structure and their role within it to save their skin. One does not have to be a Marxist to attribute just a little bit more importance to material conditions than Lakoff does.

So where does all this leave advocacy for safe and accessible abortion services in Africa? In dire straits, I would say. In most African countries, medical doctors are the ones who explain to the public the costs (in human life and money) of unsafe abortions and advocate law reform. This circumstance is compounded by the fact that providers of safe abortions are often convinced that advocacy for and provision of safe abortions do not and should not go together—the result being that they do not and will not speak on the issue, regardless of how urgent the need.

With Lakoff, I do see the effect of repetition. While the doctors feed the parliamentarians with arguments for law reform and reasons to decriminalize abortions (and do so successfully), pastors openly and loudly warn the same politicians that even perceived support for legal and safe abortion services will cost them their constituency. This scenario has played out in many African countries over the last 10 years with minor variations and with different results, few of them providing any real improvement.

In attempting to strengthen abortion advocacy, I propose we should go back to the source: women having unsafe (or safe, for that matter) abortions. We should hear their stories and their voices, their reasoning (yes, I do think women are capable of reasoning) and build a new rationale for safe and accessible abortion services from there.

JOKE VAN KAMPEN
Journalist and specialist in
communication for development
Malawi

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