Women on Waves and unintended polarisation

Recently, I have been giving some thought on what might constitute polarisation of attitudes. Especially, I’m interested in whether or not the debate on induced abortion in American society has become more polarised. The recent news on the presence and activities of Women on Waves in Valencia, Spain, has spurred some more thought on this.

A lot has been written about this, as well as on what exactly should be interpreted as polarisation. Methodologically inclined literature seems to be debating this to some extent, but at least agree that it has to do with an increasingly broad distribution of attitudes or opinions. In less technical terms, this means that the opinions of large number of people in society differ in increasing amounts. so, we’re talking about polarisation of the general public, instead of the polarised activities of either pro-life, or pro-choice organisations.

What, then, has this to do with Women on Waves in Valencia? Women of Waves is a “Dutch non-profit organisation concerned with women’s human rights. Its mission is to prevent unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortions throughout the world.” (Quoted from their web-site.) The use boats to go to countries in which abortion is restricted of prohibited by law, allow women who want to have an abortion aboard, sail to international waters, let the women have an induced abortion, and then sail back to the national waters of the country they started. Since national legislature is not in effect in international waters, the national abortion bans are neither. What the Women on Waves do, it seems, is perfectly legal. But, it also raises controversy.

There is a lot to say about Women on Waves, both in favour in against, but I will remain neutral on this one. However, the news coverage on their recent arrival in Valencia, Spain, made clear to me another effect their actions has. As a sociologist, I’m interested in the unintended consequences of peoples’ actions, and I think that the presence of Women on Waves in a country or city might have a polarising consequence. Both pro-choice organisations (who invited Women on Waves), and pro-life organisations rallied in the Spanish harbour. They both use all the energy they have to bring their views to the attention of the larger public.

Sure, none of these organisations will have changed their positions. However, I think that the presence of both types of organisations, their rallying, and the coverage in the news of these events, might have forced people in Valencia, Spain, and perhaps even abroad, to form their opinions on induced abortion. This can either be in favour, or against, but the increased visibility of the abortion-debate must have decreased the number of people who aren’t really aware of the issue, or have never given much thought about it.

It is not the goal of Women on Waves to change peoples’ attitudes, but to allow women to have an abortion. Nevertheless, I think it might have had an unintented consequence of (slightly) polarising the abortion debate. Again, an interesting phenomenon for sociological study, and again it is just there to be found in the news. I love my job!

2 comment on “Women on Waves and unintended polarisation

  • why unintended, or slightly polarising? I bet that they are very well aware of he resulting (not small) polarisation… wouldn’t you?

  • Dear Inti, as always, thanks for your insightful comments!

    I totally agree with you assuming that the Women on Waves are fully aware of what they are doing and what consequences of that will be.

    However, I think that being aware of something is different from actually intending of doing. I wrote that I think the Women on Waves primarily want to help women dealing with unwanted pregnacies, and I think they would agree when asked whether or not they intend to get the debate on abortion going in countries that currently prohibit induced abortions.

    With polarisation, however, I mean the process in which opposin positions / parties / groups are driven away from each other, which in genral I think, has a negative connotation. I don’t think that this is what Women on Waves intend to achieve.

    (perhaps it is just something that sociologists try to make difficult, just to be proud to distinguish it :-) )

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