The Duck of Minerva

Women’s Bodies on the National and International Agenda

24 November 2009

David Kirkpatrick yesterday wrote in the New York Times about how the health care debate is reviving the abortion debate in US politics. I read this article right after I saw a film that several of my feminist colleagues and friends recommended, called “Not Yet Rain.” Among other things at issue in this film is the Helms Amendment to the U.S. 1973 Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibits the use of U.S. aid funds to “motivate or coerce” or “perform” abortion as a method of family planning, but has been interpreted to deny assistance to clinics that mention abortion as an option or perform it in cases of rape. The Helms Amendment has made the news a number of times recently.

Abortion is an issue my (inner) lawyer has thought a lot about, both in terms of gender equality and in terms of the constitutional justification for its legality in the United States. I’ve written about the importance of abortion rights for gender equality, and the shakiness of privacy as a legal grounds to justify it. I’ve worked up an argument about abortion as a 13th Amendment right in the United States, arguing that the instances in which we deny the right to abortion are among the very few times that the United States government can compel someone to do labor (we do still call it that, right?) against their will.

But the simultaneous presence of abortion rights on the national and international agenda is more than an issue for the U.S. constitution, and more than a two-level games question. While some work has been done on the embodiment of the state, and some work has been done on individuals in international relations, the question of the role of the (actual) body in global politics is an important one that needs more attention in IR.

Katherine Moon, in Sex Among Allies,
examined how the bodies of women prostitutes in South Korea were crucial to the U.S./South Korea security negotiations in the 1970s. Fundamentally, the abortion/aid debate is about the foreign policy of/about women’s bodies. These are times when the embodiment of IR/foreign policy is, in some sense, obvious, though the role and meaning of the body in these debates requires exploration. Study of the body in IR, though, could go even further, to study the essence of embodiment and physicality in global politics, considering that the body is a fundamental part of political economy, security and war, and everyday political interactions.

While I don’t have a whole lot deep to say about it right now, it seems to be like there is an important research program to be had in the global politics of the body and the body in global politics, building on (feminist and other) work that has addressed physical/sexual exploitation, civilian immunity, and other phenomena and exploring new questions about how physicality impacts politics not only at the individual level, but across levels of analysis (like the abortion debate), and specifically at the state and international levels.