The Problem Is Not Abortion

Women carrying large signs and a banner protest in 1970s Italy
Lux Reprints a Manifesto for Living Freely

By Movimento di Lotta Femminile di Padova

Translated by Arlen Austin

In 1971, the Italian group Movimento di Lotta Femminile di Padova — the Women’s Struggle Movement of Padua — produced “Maternità e Aborto,” or “Pregnancy and Abortion,” a manifesto condemning a society that “has forbidden abortion while at the same time forcing abortions,” when the conditions of life and work “destroy the prospects of even wanted pregnancies.” The Italian feminist movement of the 1970s is best remembered for launching an international movement demanding wages for housework. Their call for remuneration for the invisible household labor that sustains capitalism still resonates when so much care work goes unseen and underpaid (if paid at all.) The language of “Pregnancy and Abortion” likewise feels all too contemporary for U.S. readers, as a child has become a luxury item today, given the cost of birth, child care, and housing, and the total lack of state support. The piece opens with “a mass denunciation of the bosses who have forced us to have abortions,” and goes on to protest mass sterilization and population control campaigns, the isolation of motherhood and child rearing, the shameful state of research into women’s health and contraception, and restrictions on abortion. The document calls out the state that forces people to be mothers then “shakes off all responsibility” and offers little to help them raise their children. The conclusion, translated here, also connects the right to have children or not with the right to have good sex — in “comfortable, warm, and beautiful surroundings.” It’s a vision of abundance and freedom that goes far beyond abortion. 

This and other documents from the archive of pioneering Italian feminist Mariarosa Dalla Costa will be made available online in spring 2021 by Brown University and the Biblioteca Civica di Padova.

Like all women today, we too find ourselves with a need — urgent for everyone — to organize the fight for abortion, given that the level of medical research does not allow us to simply demand the free mass circulation of contraception. We are certainly not satisfied with the pill, the injection, or the other chemical and mechanical systems, as we are perfectly aware of all the dangers they still pose, nor are we satisfied with the development of gynecology, which has been, unsurprisingly, extremely low compared to other branches of medicine, and which has done little to resolve the dangers associated with contraception. And so we are forced, as an immediate minimum objective, to organize ourselves for abortion, meaning that we organize not for “therapeutic” abortion, which would only reinscribe and aggravate existing class hierarchies, but for legal and free abortion (with anesthesia) accessible to all. 

A woman at an Italian feminist demonstration in the 1970s carries a sign reading, “Dirty laundry stays in the family. You can have an abortion but only in secret.”
A woman at an Italian feminist demonstration in the 1970s carries a sign reading, “Dirty laundry stays in the family. You can have an abortion but only in secret.”

At the same time, we denounce the fact that until now the very illegality of abortion has worked as a major pillar of an enterprise built on human flesh — to the extent that it has been a method of delaying or even discouraging the search for contraceptives that do not ruin the biological and psychological health of women. The illegality of abortion has been the basis on which this enterprise has been built and articulated, through the decisions made as to where to concentrate forced abortions and how to organize the division of illegality/legality to the benefit of the novice doctor or the university baron who procures clients for private clinics. 

Because we have fully understood all this, our struggle is first of all a struggle against all the social and power structures that have allowed this violence and which want our bodies subject to it. And so let’s say straight from the start that we are changing the sign of this struggle:   

The problem is not abortion. 

The problem is having the possibility to become mothers as often as we want to become mothers. Only when we want to, but whenever we want to.    

The proletarian women of the south now have 15 children and middle-class women somehow manage to have only two or three. But it is not the miserable privilege of not having children that is our ultimate goal. 

After all, they have already begun to give us these poorly made pills, these injections that do not work, and they will eventually give us something better, and even allow us abortions. 

The fact is that all this means (and cannot mean anything other than): “Regulate yourself a little. If you earn 100,000 lire, you can have a child; if you earn 150,000, you can even have two.” Our prompt response is that we are not party to this program. 

We refuse this logic right now, immediately. This accounting, which takes for granted that our earnings or those of a husband should be the basis for planning how many children we have, is badly flawed and must be entirely redone.

Demonstration for abortion in Florence January 12th, 1975.

Certain literature has begun to circulate inviting mothers, European mothers in particular, to participate in family planning as a matter of “social responsibility.” We reply that the type of “social responsibility” we feel is not at all that of adapting to our wage level, but of destroying every wage level, every wage mechanism, so we can have all the children we want and only when we want them. We measure our “social responsibility” by our capacity to fight to fully implement and propagate the right of each and every person to place a child on the face of the Earth as often as they want. 

This is a right that still often has to pass through the conquest of a room for two, because if the pre-capitalist communities where parents made love in front of their children are now a “paradise lost,” then now, after the original sin separating Adam, Eve, and their children, a room for two is a minimal achievement — in Turin as in Reggio Calabria. Crowded promiscuity is not the utopian community we want to achieve. 

Making love as often as one wants, having children as often as one wants, in comfortable, warm, and beautiful surroundings.

That means not paying for motherhood either at the price of wages or at the price of social exclusion

Only by measuring how much we enjoy this right can we measure the social wealth we enjoy.

Translated by Arlen Austin from Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’ 1972 book “Potere femminile e sovversione sociale. Con ‘Il posto della donna’ di Selma James.” Austin is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, where he studies social movements and mass media.

Photographs courtesy Archivio di Lotta Femminista per il salario al lavoro domestico. Donazione Mariarosa Dalla Costa. Biblioteca Civica di Padova.