The ongoing struggle for abortion rights

June 2019 Pro-choice (Molly Riley-Reut)By HEATHER BRADFORD

On May 15, 2019, the most restrictive abortion law in the United States was signed into law in Alabama by Governor Kay Ivey. The Alabama Human Life Protection Act, which passed the Alabama Senate 25-6, threatened to make abortion illegal at all stages of pregnancy and made no exception for rape or incest. The bill sought to make abortion illegal in Alabama in all cases except when there is a threat to the health of the mother, fatal fetal anomalies, and ectopic pregnancies. Under the law, abortion providers could have faced up to 99 years in prison.

The law was set to go into effect on Nov. 15, but was temporarily blocked on Oct. 29 by a federal judge. Many other restrictions remain in place, such as a 48-hour waiting period, mandatory counseling, and parental consent for minors. The draconian Human Life Protection Act was part of a wave of anti-abortion legislation across the United States aimed at overturning Roe v. Wade.

In 2019, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri (eight weeks), and Mississippi passed “heartbeat bills,” which sought to outlaw abortion at six weeks. Federal judges have since temporarily blocked each of these bills. At the same time, Ohio’s senate recently passed “born alive” and “abortion reversal bills,” which require abortion providers to care for a fetus born alive and provide innacurate and potentially harmful information that patients can reverse a medical abortion. In Oklahoma and North Dakota, similar abortion reversal bills were blocked by federal judges this fall.

Failure to implement extreme restrictions has not prevented their proliferation. Pennsylvania lawmakers introduced a heartbeat bill on Oct. 21, and Tennessee and South Carolina legislators are also looking to advance heartbeat bills. Many abortion seekers may not be aware that they are pregnant at six weeks and would have little time to make an appointment or raise the funds to obtain an abortion. In this sense, heartbeat bills functionally outlaw abortion.

“Heartbeat” itself is a misnomer as at this stage of development, an embryo has not developed a cardiovascular system. Rather, a group of cells generates rhythmic electrical pulses that is more technically known as fetal pole cardiac activity. Of course, a tactic of the anti-choice movement has long been to warp fetal development to infanticize embryos and fetuses.

Attacks on abortion access are nothing new, but this year’s aggressive abortion restrictions are bolder and represent a concerted effort to use the court system to overturn or at least chip away Roe v. Wade. Since 1973, over 1900 abortion restrictions have been passed. About ⅓ of these have been passed since 2011. These restrictions have included mandatory waiting periods, restrictions on state funding, no requirement for insurance to cover abortion, state mandated counseling, parental consent laws, gestational limits, and hospital requirements.

The barrage of laws against abortion access has been accompanied by the proliferation of crisis pregnancy centers that pose as health clinics and are designed to confuse and outright lie to abortion seekers by providing false information and pro-life propaganda. There are 2300-3,500 crisis pregnancy centers spread across the United States, but only 1800 abortion clinics.

In 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the right of these fake clinics to provide false information and false advertising when it ruled that California’s Freedom, Accountability, Care and Transparency Act (FACT) violated the First Amendment. This year, Planned Parenthood was forced to refuse Title X funds, federal funding that has enabled low-income patients to obtain contraceptives and other reproductive health services since the 1970s.

The decades of attacks on abortion access was heralded by the Hyde Amendment, which was passed in 1976 with bipartisan support and barred the use of federal funds for abortion services. The truth of the matter is that the pro-choice movement has been fighting a losing battle for over 40 years.

Boycott Alabama?

There have been a number of responses in reaction to the renewed assault on abortion rights. After restrictive laws were passed, some activists called for an economic boycott the state of Alabama and other states with strict abortion restrictions. A disturbing sentiment that sometimes accompanied the call for a boycott was that the people of Alabama are backwards, uneducated, and even incestuous.

While boycotting can be an effective tactic, it is important to remember that many people in Alabama are not supportive of the new abortion law. In a 2018 survey of likely Alabama voters, Planned Parenthood found that although 35% of respondents wanted abortion to be illegal in all cases, 65% of respondents felt that abortion should be legal in the case of incest and rape. The law did not represent the sentiments of many Alabama voters, even those who are pro-life. Marches against the bill were held in Montgomery, Birmingham, Muscle Shoals, and Huntsville.

Rather than boycotting the state of Alabama or denigrating the state as backwards, the efforts of pro-choice organizers should be recognized and the potential for conservative populace of the state to be brought around to the issue acknowledged. A quarter of the children in Alabama live in poverty, the state has the second highest infant mortality rate in the country, and is the sixth poorest state in the country. It is ranked 50th in education, 46th in health care, and 45th in crime and corrections.

The people of Alabama need solidarity, not shame. Rather than boycott the state, which already lacks in infrastructure and is marked by racism and poverty, it would be more useful to boycott corporations that actively support or donate to the pro-life movement, such as My Pillow, Hobby Lobby, Curves, Gold’s Gym, and Electric Mirror.

Another reaction to the restrictions was to wait for the courts to overturn the restrictions. In some cases, federal judges have indeed stalled the implementation of the harshest laws. This tactic assures activists that abortion remains legal, all three of Alabama’s abortion clinics remain open, and that new laws are often tied up in litigation before they are enacted. The narrative goes that the Supreme Court is not eager to overturn Roe v. Wade outright and that other restrictive abortion laws have been struck down elsewhere. For instance, a 2013 heartbeat bill in North Dakota was struck down as unconstitutional.

There are a number of flaws with this perspective. First, it is disempowering and difficult to build a movement around waiting for court decisions. Second, this perspective grants legitimacy to the court system.The presidential nomination of and lifetime tenure of Supreme Court justices and federal judges is fundamentally undemocratic. The feudal nature of these courts should be questioned and challenged.

This has lent itself to a cultish following of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is viewed as a liberatory figure who must never retire or die, lest abortion rights be overturned once and for all. The centrist justice is celebrated for her support of women’s rights, but her critique of Kaepernick’s taking a knee (which she apologized for), ruling against paying overtime to Amazon workers, support of warrantless searches in Samson v. California, and failure to condemn solitary confinement within the prison system in Davis v. Ayala mar her record.

Finally, it is important to remember that Roe v. Wade was passed on the premise that abortion is a matter of privacy. The courts have never framed abortion rights as fundamental to ending the oppression of women or gender minorities. Abortion legality has always had a shaky foundation.

Democratic Party: a dead end

Some activists look to the Democratic Party to protect abortion rights, framing this as a matter of electing more Democrats into office. Already, potential presidential nominees have issued statements about abortion, ranging from Kamala Harris’ remarks in a February 2019 interview that abortion should be a decision between a woman, physician, priest, and spouse or Bernie Sander’s statement that abortion is health care and would be covered by his plan for Medicare for All.

Yet, the track record of Democrats on the issue of abortion is part of the reason why we find ourselves with so many restrictions today. Of the 24 candidates vying for the presidency last summer, only 11 mentioned prioritizing reproductive rights on their websites. It was Bill Clinton who said that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare in 1992, which was echoed by Hillary Clinton who used “rare” in her 2008 election campaign.

Abortion has become “rare” as access has been curtailed in a legislative death by 1000 cuts. Joe Biden voted in favor of partial birth abortion bans in 1999 and 2003 and against federal funding for abortion. Like “heartbeat” bans, partial-birth abortion is an anti-choice construction, as the medical term is intact dilation and extraction.

In 2017, Bernie Sanders unapologetically campaigned for Heath Mello, an Omaha Nebraska mayoral candidate and anti-choice Democrat. Some Democrats, such as Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards are anti-choice. Bob Casey Jr., Joe Donnelly, and Joe Manchin are pro-life Democrat senators who voted for abortion bans at 20 weeks.

While abortion has become increasingly partisan since the late 1980s, voting for Democrats is no guarantee of abortion access. Between 2007 and 2009, Democrats controlled the House and Senate and in 1993-1995 controlled the House, Senate, and presidency. These instances of liberal power have done nothing to roll back anti-abortion laws or overturn the Hyde Amendment. Democrats have consistently supported the Hyde Amendment.

Even Barack Obama stated in a 2009 health reform debate that although he is pro-choice, he did not feel that financing abortions should be part of government funded health care. In the Machiavellian shell game between the two parties of capitalism, electability trumps values and it is ultimately the power of social movements and organized workers that sways the opinions of politicians. Recently, some Democratic candidates have vowed to repeal the Hyde Amendment or defend abortion rights, but this is a function of the success of social movements rather than a sign of courage or conviction.

Worldwide mass struggles

Boycotting anti-abortion states, depending upon courts, or voting for Democrats will not secure abortion rights. The way forward for the abortion rights movement is to take cues from mass movements elsewhere in the world:

In October 2016, thousands of women in over 140 cities in Poland protested against legislation that would have punished anyone who terminates a pregnancy with five years in prison and investigate women who had miscarried. In March 2017, Polish women protested wearing black, boycotted classes, and went on strike against the proposed new law and the restrictive abortion laws passed in 1993. This mass mobilization shifted abortion discourse in Poland and forced politicians to quickly retreat from new restrictions. In March 2018, thousands of demonstrators marched against a renewed effort to pass more restrictive abortion laws.

Ireland’s movement, Repeal the 8th, likewise mobilized against Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion. Inspired by Poland’s Black Protests, activists in Ireland marched and went on strike on March 8, 2017, in cities across Ireland; 66.4% of Irish voters voted to legalize abortion in a referendum held on May 25, 2018. Abortion is now legal and free in Ireland due to a movement that catalyzed by the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died in 2012 because she was denied an abortion while experiencing a miscarriage. The vote to legalize abortion was shocking to some, as Ireland had been a bastion of conservatism regarding abortion and like Poland, had strict anti-abortion laws.

Social attitudes can change quickly, which should offer some hope to those who dismiss the southern United States as impossibly reactionary. Despite the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of participants in the Ni Una Menos movement, which has sought to legalize abortion and end gender-based violence, a bill to legalize abortion in Argentina failed by two senate votes in August 2018. Even in the face of defeat, the protests and strikes continue as well as efforts to build a feminist international. Recently, activists involved in the movement for abortion rights in Argentina protested on the red carpet at the Cannes Film festival at the premiere of “Let it be Law,” a film about their struggle.

A glimpse of the capacity to build such a movement in the United States happened on May 2 with a day of protest actions called Stop the Bans. Thousands mobilized in a day of action that consisted of over 400 protests spread across all 50 states. The feminist movement must build upon the successful mobilization for the Stop the Bans day of action and continue to show up in mass to put pressure on politicians to support abortion rights.

Based upon recent feminist organizing that culminated in the International Women’s Strike, a framework for building a global feminist movement was put forth by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser in “Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto.” Key ideas from the manifesto include tactics such as mass action and strikes against the conditions of paid and unpaid labor. The feminist movement must abandon liberal feminist vision of equality under the law and instead fight capitalism head on, including fights against imperialism, mass incarceration, environmental destruction, and austerity.

Social reproduction theory

Social reproduction theory grounds the tasks of building a global anti-capitalist feminist movement. Understanding social reproduction theory (SRT) is vital to combating anti-abortion laws in the context of capitalism. SRT posits that capitalism does not reproduce the labor power required to perpetuate itself. In other words, capitalism produces goods and services, but doesn’t in itself produce workers and due to profit motive (wherein profit is derived from surplus value of labor), capitalism does little to provide for the upkeep of workers. Thus, women are tasked with supporting the continuation of capitalism through biological reproduction, the care of non-laborers such as children, elderly, or people with illnesses, and unpaid household labor such as cooking and cleaning.

When women can control their biological reproduction through birth control or abortion, they are denying capitalism the reproduction of a future labor force. Lack of bodily autonomy enforces the traditional family and gender roles, thereby further enforcing social reproduction. At the same time, the drive for profit always works to erode or deny social provisioning such as paid maternity leave, free day care, socialized health care, or other social benefits that the United States lacks, but encourages or supports reproduction. This creates a contradiction wherein birth is mandated but not supported.

It is little wonder that the war against abortion access has intensified in the last decade, following the world economic crisis that erupted in 2008. Abortion became legal in the United States in the same era as our waning hegemony and the accompanying age of neoliberalism that promotes austerity and the movement of industrial production to the low wage “developing” world. Women’s bodies are punished into ameliorating the crisis of capitalism.

The United States was founded upon the subjugation and destruction of bodies through slavery and genocide. Reproduction is controlled in the name of national interests, which is itself a guise for the overarching interest of amassing wealth for an elite few. At times, this has meant the forced sterilization of Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Blacks, low income women, and women with disabilities. In the interest of population control, birth control was first tested on women with mental illness without their consent and later Puerto Rican women. Today, the rhetoric of walls and criminal immigrants is used to control some populations while the limits on abortion access are used to control another.

A part of this continuum of control is violence and oppression of trans and non-binary people, whose existence challenges the gender binary and traditional family structures that have so long been the cornerstone of social reproduction. Trans and non-binary people are denied reproductive rights along with women, as not all abortion seekers are women. The struggle for abortion access, as part of the larger movement for a feminism for the 99% must also be a struggle against racism, transphobia, ableism, and for the liberation of all bodies long subjugated by capitalism.

Photo: Molly Rider / Reuters






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