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Abortion and reproductive rights in the firing line as right-wing populism grows

Issues relating to abortion, sex education and anti-genderism have become cornerstones that unite ultraconservatives around the globe. A new book, Anti-gender Politics in the Populist Moment, describes how the anti-gender movement is having an increasing influence on political discourse and the relationship between political movements and growing populism.

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“Our studies show how the populist movement and the ultraconservative right are increasingly embracing the same anti-gender rhetoric. We also see how the conflict surrounding gender issues has created one of our time’s greatest political divides. However, there is also the perception that this does not relate to actual politics, although it actually involves the core issues such as defining democracy, human rights and citizenship,” says Elzbieta Korolczuk, associate professor of sociology at Södertörn University.

International perspectives

The book Anti-gender Politics in the Populist Moment External link., written by sociology researcher Elzbieta Korolczuk and literary scholar Agnieszka Graff, is about this movement why it is expanding. The book is largely based upon material from Poland, also internationally, and the authors highlight examples from places such as Italy, the US, Sweden and Spain. They also describe the financial links between the players.

“For the anti-gender movement, the concept of gender has become a keyword in a culture war that is putting minority rights, gender equality and reproductive rights in the firing line. These groups claim that they want to protect children from sexualisation and defend women from what they regard as the discriminating ideal of successful women. What we do in the book is describe the synergy, which we call opportunistic synergy, between ultraconservative and often religious groups and right-wing populism, how they collaborate ideologically and organisationally,” she says

Seeking synergies

"Opportunistic synergy is a dynamic cooperation between religious fundamentalists and right-wing populist parties, where both sides benefit. Even if there is a clear relationship between the two in terms of their ideas, their ideological investments and political interests are not necessarily the same,” says Korolczuk.

“Right wing populists use anti-genderism to increase their moral legitimacy in traditional voters’ eyes and to moralise the conflict between the elite and the people. At the same time, ultraconservative organisations are looking for openings in the political structure. They treat right-wing parties as powerful allies where they can access financing, push through legislative changes and participate in decision-making processes. Both forces come together in an attempt to promote elite change in all areas of political, societal and cultural life, by replacing liberal players and institutions with those that only answer to the ruling party. At the core of this undoing of democracy is a tendency for previously autonomous units to be controlled by a small group of people, the new elite. Ideology is often used as a tool in this process,” she continues.

The threat to rights and freedoms

Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe vs Wade which, in 1973, established that free access to abortion is protected under the US Constitution.

“Limiting access to abortion in the US testifies to the developments we are witnessing and the strength of ultraconservative players in a democratic context. Reproductive rights and minority rights have become key issues in the contemporary political struggle,” says Korolczuk.

Restrictions on abortion access, the introduction of so-called LGBTQ-free zones, prohibitions on registered partnerships and same-sex marriage, reduced sex education in schools; all these are examples of how the anti-gender movement’s opinions and values have affected legislation and people’s lives. The issue of freedom of conscience arose in Sweden when a midwife refused to perform abortions. We have also seen how politicians and voices in public debate are demanding increased control of higher education and research, where gender studies and critical race theory are particularly targeted as unscientific and dangerous elements in the education system.

Fills a vacuum

Korolczuk believes that these issues are currently gaining support among politicians and voters because of a vacuum that established politicians are unable to fill, regardless of whether they are conservative or liberal; some citizens feel that they have no influence on politics, that the state does not provide them with a sense of security and belonging. Meanwhile, societal changes due to migration, economic inequality and political instability create fears that are stoked by populists. She also highlights the emergence of neoliberalism as contributing factor, as well as the way many governments dealt with the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent sense of instability, which affected many people.

“In neoliberalism, there is the idea that we must be productive and efficient, and this permeates all aspects of our lives. Our value as a person comes from what we can generate in monetary terms, something that becomes extremely alienating. The ultraconservative movement presents this as a response to that trend. They say that we live in a world where we are lonely and vulnerable, so we should return to traditional values and celebrate institutions such as family and the nation,” she says.

Structural change is necessary

To prevent the anti-gender movement’s campaigns from gaining more ground and limiting people’s rights and freedoms, it is necessary for these issues to be regarded integral to democracy.

“Major structural changes have to happen, but these don’t just concern money or political strategies. This is about imagination and emotions, such as fear or feeling threatened, but also pride, a feeling of community and solidarity. The ultraconservative and populist movements have understood this, but not the liberal left. You could say that they have traded places - that the ultraconservatives have a vision of the past, but have succeeded in making it seem like a vision of the future,” says Elzbieta Korolczuk.


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