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Cult Health Sex. 2012;14(7):737-52. doi: 10.1080/13691058.2012.685760. Epub 2012 May 23.

Representations of the subject 'woman' and the politics of abortion: an analysis of South African newspaper articles from 1978 to 2005.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa.


A key element in cultural and gender power relations surrounding abortion is how women who undergo an abortion are represented in public talk. We analyse how women were named and positioned, and the attendant constructions of abortion, in South African newspaper articles on abortion from 1978 to 2005, a period during which there were radical political and legislative shifts. The name 'woman' was the most frequently used (70% of articles) followed by 'girl/teenager/child' (25%), 'mother' (25%), 'patient' (11%) and 'minor' (6%). The subject positionings enabled by these names were dynamic and complex and were interwoven with the localised, historical politics of abortion. The 'innocent mother' and the bifurcated 'patient' (woman/foetus) positionings were invoked in earlier epochs to promote abortion under medical conditions. The 'dangerous mother' and woman as 'patient' positionings were used more frequently under liberal abortion legislation to oppose and to advocate for abortion, respectively. The positioning of the 'girl/teenager/child' as dependent and vulnerable was used in contradictory ways, both to oppose abortion and to argue for a liberalisation of restrictive legislation, depending on the attendant construction of abortion. The neutral naming of 'woman' was, at times, linked to the liberal imaginary of 'choice'.

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