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What's New? Continuity and Change in the Politics and Provision of Abortion in Contemporary South Africa

Monday 22 November 2021, 5.15PM

Speaker(s): Susanne Klausen (Pennsylvania)

This seminar will run as part of the 'Doing History' events series, led by AboutFace York

In South Africa today abortion is a woman’s right codified in law. The Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act (CTOP Act) permits abortion up to 20 weeks of gestation and explicitly promotes reproductive rights by ‘affording every woman the right to choose whether to have an early, safe and legal termination of pregnancy.’ Notably, consent is not required for minors (persons under 18 years of age). The law is thus highly permissive by international standards and a radical improvement on the previous, intensely restrictive abortion law enacted by the apartheid regime. The CTOP Act was passed in 1996 by the African National Congress (ANC) government just two years after South Africa’s transition to democracy and its passage was a major step towards fulfilling the ANC’s commitment to providing comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services. Implementation of the new law rapidly led to a massive reduction in abortion-related morbidity and mortality. However, many women, especially black young women and teenagers, continued procuring clandestine abortions after 1996 up to the present day, and every year tens of thousands are admitted to hospital with incomplete abortions. How do we account for the persistence of a flourishing clandestine abortion industry despite the creation of a superbly progressive legal framework? This presentation explains how the history of abortion during apartheid continues to shape the politics and provision of abortion in contemporary South Africa, and highlights the limits of enacting progressive legislation in the struggle for reproductive rights.

Susanne M. Klausen is the Brill Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Pennsylvania State University and a Senior Research Associate in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg. Klausen’s research focuses on the history of fertility politics in 20th century South Africa, nationalism and sexuality, and transnational movements for women’s reproductive rights and justice. She is the author of Race, Maternity, and the Politics of Birth Control in South Africa, 1910-1939 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Abortion Under Apartheid: Nationalism, Sexuality, and Women’s Reproductive Rights in South Africa (Oxford University Press, 2015) that won the Women’s History Prize awarded by the Canadian Committee on Women’s History and the Joel Gregory Prize awarded by the Canadian Association of African Studies. Currently Klausen is working with Jacana Press to publish the memoir of the late, pathbreaking black anti-apartheid journalist Juby Mayet, and writing a monograph on the South African Immorality (Amendment) Act that criminalized sexual contact between whites and people of colour between 1950 and 1985.

The discipline of History has changed radically over recent decades, as insights from other fields and interdisciplinary approaches have become more mainstream. Core questions remain, especially in light of Black Lives Matter, and related political and social movements that show how important and influential representations of the past can be in the present. 

AboutFace will hold a webinar featuring presentations on the broad question of ‘Doing History’, exploring methodological and epistemological questions about how we research, write and communicate History as an academic, societal and political endeavour.  This webinar has an interdisciplinary and international outlook, and the AboutFace team will invite speakers in accordance with the Department of History’s commitment to principles of equality and diversity. 

The webinar will be held online via Zoom. It is free to attend but please register here for the joining info.

Full programme:

15 February, 12:30

Julie Parle—"The bounds of compassion?":  medical mercy killings in South Africa, 1970s-1990s

Spring term, date TBC

Aleema Gray—Postgraduate Workshop

4 October, time TBC

Carla Tsampiras—"What are you historically classified as?'' Reflections of an Historian in Health Sciences in a Time of Transformation

15 November, 17:00

Susanne Klausen—What's New? Continuity and Change in the Politics and Provision of Abortion in Contemporary South Africa

Location: Zoom Webinar

Admission: Free to attend, but registration is required

Email: aboutface-project@york.ac.uk