'On the Wet Side of the Womb’: The construction of mothers in anti-abortion activism in England and Wales

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Across the UK, there has been an increase in anti-abortion activism outside abortion clinics. The activism deployed include explicitly religious activities such as ‘prayerful witnessing’ and ‘pavement-counselling’, which aim to discourage women from entering clinics. This paper stems from a wider ethnographic study of public activism over abortion to determine what claims about motherhood were being made within these debates. We present two arguments. Firstly, how women’s role as mothers is central and essentialised in anti-abortion discourses, with the body of the mother often disappearing as activists seek to erode the distinction between a foetus and a baby by constructing pregnancy as a foetal environment. Motherhood is constructed as ‘natural’ and sacred, therefore abortion must be damaging because it destroys women’s ‘natural’ position (Ginsburg, 1989). Secondly, we argue that although the activists’ arguments are always religiously framed, their activism takes place in a largely secular context, meaning that they have to find ways of appealing to secular audiences. This leads to a complex interrelationship between secular and religious discourses, where theological viewpoints sit alongside ‘scientific’ claims to buttress their views. This paper will explore how the presence and absence of mothers within their narratives is due to the tensions between their religiously-based understandings of motherhood, and their need to appeal to a secular audience.



Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Journal of Women's Studies
Early online date2 Jul 2018
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2 Jul 2018

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This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License (http://www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/) which permits non-commercial use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage).


  • abortion, activism, Catholicism, motherhood, prayer vigil


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