Written by Florence Oppen, Workers’ Voice
Despite the gains of the “#Me Too” movement, and the impressive Women’s March demonstrations in 2017 and 2018, a new assault on women’s reproductive rights is very much on its way. As I discuss in this article, religious conservative groups and the Republican Party have devised a tricky legal strategy to overturn Roe V. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that guarantees women’s access to abortion.
Unfortunately, in many states women’s reproductive rights have already been vastly eroded by the religious right and state legislatures. While candidates running in the Democratic Party primaries have attempted to channel this issue into an electoral strategy, the history of the women’s movement in the US and the recent mobilization of women and popular sectors in Latin America for women’s rights have shown that only an insurrection from below, led by working class women and women of color, can stop and reverse the ongoing regression. We need to follow the lead of our sisters in Argentina, Spain, Brazil, Chile, and Poland and bring this new wave of women’s rights and feminist struggles to the United States. We need to organize a massive mobilization in the streets and our workplaces, and build our own class power to uphold women’s and LGBTQ rights.
An Historic Set-Back is Brewing
The Trump administration has amplified and enabled the ongoing assault on women’s reproductive rights. On the one hand, he has nominated two conservative judges to the Supreme Court (Kavanaugh and Gorsuch) which has enabled the ongoing attempt to overthrow Roe v. Wade. On the other hand he is trying to implement a new policy that will deny federal funding to any healthcare provider that even mentions or redirect pregnant women to an abortion provider (the Hyde Amendment already prohibits to use federal money to fund most abortion procedures). Trump’s new policy would affect the federal Title X family program which provides a range of reproductive health services to four million people each year, and would violate the ACA, which requires giving patients a full range of options. Even though this measure is unlikely to pass at this time, it is still another step backward in the federal support for women’s reproductive healthcare.
The greatest danger for women’s abortion rights today is the legal strategy that the Christian Evangelical right and the Republican Party have devised. According to the Guttmacher Institute that monitors legislation on women’s reproductive rights, “state legislatures across the South, Midwest and the Plains enacted 58 abortion restrictions, 26 of which would ban all, most or some abortions.” This in itself is not an innovation: state abortion bans have been on the rise in half of the country since 2001. Over the last two decades, the right has adopted “incremental abortion restrictions with the cumulative impact of denying care to patients and forcing clinics to close.” And they have been successful because today 53 percent of women live in a county where there is no abortion clinic, making the right to abortion to a mere abstraction for these women.
The current assault is the next step of this reactionary strategy: the filing of abortion bans that directly challenge Roe v. Wade with the aim to eventually overthrow it in the Supreme Court. Recent anti-abortion bills in Alabama and Georgia made national headlines because of their new degree of harshness. In Alabama we are looking at a nearly all-out ban on abortion that will criminalize doctors who perform abortions with penalties of up to 99 years in prison. Meanwhile, Georgia is attempting to ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.
This is, however, just the tip of the iceberg of a larger strategy. According to the Washington Post, “in the pipeline are at least 20 lawsuits, in various stages of judicial review, that have the potential to be decided in ways that could significantly change the rights laid out in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.”
Currently the Supreme Court is set to review two abortion bills involving an Indiana measure signed into law three years ago, and more cases are yet to come. These laws against women’s reproductive healthcare has a twisted strategy: filing aggressive anti-abortion state bills knowing they will be overturned by lower courts because they go against Roe v Wade, with the larger aim of initiating a series of appeals that would eventually reach the Supreme Court with its reactionary majority… State Rep. Terri Collins (R-Alabama) stated this goal openly: “the entire bill was designed to overturn [Roe v. Wade] and allow states to decide what is best for them.”
Abortion on Demand to a Tiny Minority: The Gains and Limits of Roe v. Wade
Roe v. Wade was a huge step forward, and it was the result of mass mobilization. Yet, the fact that women gained the right to abortion through a legal ruling and not through a law voted in Congress has also framed its fate and shaped its limitations. Indeed, the second key ruling on abortion Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, argued that states could place restrictions on abortion as long as they do not create an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to abortion, and the queston of “undue burden” became another question of interpretation. This new ruling weakened the practical meaning of Roe v. Wade and opened the way for more than a thousand bans and restrictions filed at the state level since then.
Since the late 90s, abortion rights on paper have corresponded to very different realities. As a result of the right’s war of attrition since then:
- 45 states allow individual health care providers to refuse to participate in an abortion
- 42 states allow institutions to refuse to perform abortions
- 18 states mandate that women be given counseling before an abortion,
- 27 states require a woman seeking an abortion to wait a specified period of time, usually 24 hours, between when she receives counseling and the procedure is performed
- 14 of these states have laws that effectively require the woman make two separate trips to the clinic to obtain the procedure)
These are just a few examples. Such restrictions have led to the closing of many abortion clinics, and as of 2014, 90 percent of US counties do not have an abortion clinic. The right to have a free and safe abortion on demand is only available to a tiny minority of women.
The Democrats and Abortion Rights
The last debate of the Democratic Party primaries saw a resurgence of discussion of abortion and women’s rights. Most candidates attempted to appear as the new and best defenders of women’s rights including abortion. It is clear that this drift to the left in the DP is the direct result of the pressure from below, and the fact that the Women’s March of January 2017 was the largest demonstration of US history. It is important, however, to remind ourselves of the Democratic Party’s historical failure to counteract the attacks of the reactionary right against oppressed sectors.
The Democratic Party has in no way been a party that has consistently and effectively defended women’s rights. It has defended women’s and other oppressed people’s rights only when these became popular, in other words, when social movements had already done the groundwork to change, through mass action, both public opinion and relations of forces. In 1976, for example, both the Republican president Gerald Ford and the Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, openly opposed abortion. To this day, the DP has never challenged the Hyde Amendment or openly combatted the right’s erosion of abortion rights in half of the country.
The first important legislative victory of the right against abortion was the Hyde Amendment. Passed by a Republican dominated House in 1976 (and later modified in 1981). It prohibits the use of federal public funds to finance abortion with one exception, when the life of the mother is at stake. The Hyde Amendment, today still in effect and attached to every federal budget, was a huge step back: it put an end to more than 300,000 yearly abortions financed with federal public funds via Medicaid. It signaled the disinvestment of the Federal government in women’s reproductive health. Yet when Democrats took back Congress and won the presidential election in 1992, they failed to repeal it! Instead, Clinton reformed the Hyde Amendment to include two more “exceptions” (rape and incest), while maintaining the new reactionary standard that still excludes the vast majority of abortions. When Obama came to power in 2008 and again in 2012, he refused to touch it, even though the Democrats controlled Congress during his first two years in office.
By contrast, in the recent primary debate, on June 27, most candidates openly defended abortion rights. In addition, for the first time, Democratic leaders, such Elizabeth Warren, proposed to codify Roe v. Wade in federal statutes to be approved by Congress, so abortion rights would no longer depend on Supreme Court rulings. Despite these TV performances, however, the hesitations and vacillations on this matter have nonetheless not gone away. Joe Biden, a devout Roman Catholic, and the candidate of the DP establishment, has in the past personally and consistently opposed abortion. The year after the Roe v. Wade ruling, he asserted that a woman should not have “the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” Biden only began to support women’s right to choose in 2012, and only now, and only in order to win the primary, he is paying lip service to the demands articulated by women.
Even Bernie Sanders, the most left-wing DP candidate, had to be corrected on this matter. In 2017, he was criticized for backing an Omaha mayor who had supported anti-abortion legislation. At the time, he told NPR, “we have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda…but I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.” Since then, he too has corrected his position, and in June 2019, he reversed for the first time his previous support for the Hyde Amendment and now defends its repeal.
The latest proof of the DP’s inconsistency is that two weeks before their main leaders defended on national TV the repeal of the Hyde Amendment; they squashed it in the House. Representative Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts and other progressive Democrats offered an amendment to repeal it, but it was eliminated by Majority leader Pelosi from the list of amendments that could be voted on the House floor.
The Socialist and Liberal Appraisals of Reproductive Rights
The problem with liberals on women’s rights is not only one of historical record, and their failure to join the struggle for liberation when needed. There are also key differences between the Liberal and Socialist program of why and how to expand women’s reproductive rights. Liberalism has reduced women’s right to abortion to a question of individual choice (“my body, my choice” being one of their main slogans), and actually the legal constitutional base for Roe v. Wade has to do with associating the right to abortion with the right to individual privacy.
Socialists of course support the right of women to decide, and we defend the right of women to bodily autonomy, but we do it for different reasons. For us, it is not a matter of asserting the rights of the individual vis-a-vis the State (or other individuals) – it is about achieving the collective emancipation of women from the patriarchal rule of the father or the husband which today benefits class society and the One Percent, and it is also about refusing the commodification of women’s bodies (and by extension, all bodies).
Capitalism transformed and reappropriated previous patriarchal relations into class relations of property ownership, and used women’s oppression to extract more labor (unpaid household labor, the wage gender gap etc.) that benefits the tiny minority that owns all means of production and land. In our bourgeois societies, women’s bodies have become commodified and devalued: they can belong to someone else, they can be bought and sold, they can be used to advertise, they can be rented, they can be beaten, raped, and even killed. The fight for free abortion on demand is also a political fight against this process of domination and commodification of women’s bodies. It is not the fight to “own” our bodies as private property, it is the fight to extract our bodies and our social relations from those relations of exchange and property that dehumanize us.
Socialists see the fight for free abortion on demand as a two-fold struggle: it is both about the political affirmation of women as independent or autonomous political subjects who can and should decide on their own whether or not to have a baby; and it is also a fight to organize the social care (and not exchange) of their bodies. This is why for socialists the right to abortion is deeply linked to the fight for socialized healthcare.
Sanders is the only DP candidate who has clearly linked the question of abortion to the campaign for Medicare-for-all, recently stating that “abortion rights are part of what Medicare-for-all is.” In reality, abortion has never been a full and equal right for women, because most women, in particular women of color and working class women, never had real access to abortion because of the lack of free and accessible clinics. As socialists we argue that full reproductive rights and freedom for women and LGBTQI people are only possible with a publicly funded universal health care system, or what we could call socialized medicine. It is either delusional or hypocritical (or both) to argue, as Liberals tend to do, that we have a right only because a law was passed, without providing the material means to make such a right a reality.
Liberals and socialists have visions of freedom. Freedom for Liberals is the freedom from political constraint, the freedom to do what you want without asking any questions (as long as it – theoretically – does no harm to others), the freedom to own, to buy, to sell. Freedom is equated with the absence of material constraints to do things. For socialists freedom is more than that, it is not only the absence of constraints, but the consciousness of already existing material limitations, obstacles, and constraints that need to be overcome. Therefore it is a necessary collective and social project. Instead of setting aside or minimizing what makes us unequal, the socialist project goes to the material and social root of inequality to reach the fullest and most democratic experience of freedom.
Social freedom for women is public healthcare, it is socialized reproductive labor, it is the enforcement of equal pay and living wages for all, it is universal paternity and maternity leave, it is the end of gender violence.
Back to the Streets and Mass Action!
We do not think that working class women and our class as a whole can win that kind of freedom by simply relying on the Democratic Party to pass some watered down reforms. The only way to win is to take it to the streets, not only women and LGBTQI people, but working people as a whole. Women’s reproductive rights are also the rights of working class families to planned parenthood, healthcare, and education. This fight needs to be taken up by all labor and community organizations and youth groups, and it needs to link up with other existing struggles, integrating an openly anti-racist and ecological perspective.
Women have marched in big numbers in the last few years. In Spain and Argentina they organized and led last year two of the largest strikes in history, uniting waged and unwaged workers, working people of all genders, and pressuring unions from below to stop work for political demands of equality and freedom. The new wave of women’s strike and class struggle is showing us the way to defend our rights. Now it is time to follow the lead of our sisters in Latin America and Europe, and to move beyond marches, organizing mass strikes for women’s rights. Only then will we have the power to win!