Uneasy allies: pro-choice physicians, feminist health activists and the struggle for abortion rights

Sociol Health Illn. 2004 Sep;26(6):775-96. doi: 10.1111/j.0141-9889.2004.00418.x.


Abortion represents a particularly interesting subject for a social movements analysis of healthcare issues because of the involvement of both feminist pro-choice activists and a segment of the medical profession. Although both groups have long shared the same general goal of legal abortion, the alliance has over time been an uneasy one, and in many ways a contradictory one. This paper traces points of convergence as well as points of contention between the two groups, specifically: highlighting the tensions between the feminist view of abortion as a women-centred service, with a limited, 'technical' role for the physicians, and the abortion-providing physicians' logic of further medicalization/professional upgrading of abortion services as a response to the longstanding marginality and stigmatisation of abortion providers. Only by noting the evolving relationships between these two crucial sets of actors can one fully understand the contemporary abortion rights movement. We conclude by speculating about similar patterns in medical/lay relationships in other health social movements where 'dissident doctors' and lay activists are similarly seeking recognition for medical services that are controversial.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Criminal / history
  • Abortion, Criminal / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Abortion, Criminal / psychology
  • Abortion, Legal / history
  • Abortion, Legal / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Abortion, Legal / psychology
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Community Participation / psychology
  • Female
  • Feminism* / history
  • Group Processes
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Reproductive Rights / history
  • Reproductive Rights / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Reproductive Rights / psychology
  • Social Change*