By FLORENCE OPPEN
The author is a member of Workers’ Voice.
In the U.S., abortion rights and women’s reproductive rights more largely are in danger; they have been progressively eroded for the last 30 years. In many states women’s reproductive rights have already been vastly restricted by the religious right and state legislatures. The Supreme Court has a series of cases coming up, promoted by religious conservative groups and the Republican Party, that could undermine or even overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that guarantees women’s access to abortion, since the Court today has a conservative super-majority.
The Biden administration has promised to secure women’s rights that are under attack. However, if the neoliberal period has taught us anything, it is that the social and democratic rights we thought were won and “secured” via mass struggle can, in the absence of struggle, be easily emptied or taken away. There has been no durable and real progress in securing and expanding access to reproductive rights in the U.S., including abortion rights, without the independent mass action of women, and in particular working-class, Black, and immigrant women.
As we learned in the United States in the 1970s and again in Argentina in 2020, mass independent action is the only way to win rights, to have a say on how laws are crafted, and to make sure they don’t remain empty words. Mass independent action includes continuing the mobilization after winning rights so that material resources are provided to guarantee them and that access is unrestricted.
Women’s reproductive rights in the U.S. today
The greatest danger for women’s abortion rights today is the legal strategy that the Christian Evangelical right and the Republican Party have devised. Since 1973, over 1900 abortion restrictions have been passed. About a third of these have been passed since 2011. This in itself is not an innovation: state abortion bans or TRAP laws (Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers) have been on the rise in half of the country since 2001.
Roe v. Wade in 1973 was a huge step forward. It was the result of mass mobilization, although it was expressed indirectly via a court decision and not through a law in Congress, as it would be in most democratic countries. This means, concretely, that neither of the two parties had to actually ever campaign over or even commit to defending abortion and reproductive rights, leaving this key matter in the hands of one of the least democratic institutions of the country. This has framed the fate of abortion rights and shaped its limitations, in that the liberal leadership of the women’s movement has focused almost exclusively on the pursuit of amicable Supreme Court nominees and members of Congress, as opposed to organizing an independent movement in the streets.
Indeed, 20 years later, when the mass movement had receded, a second key ruling of the highest court, 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, making the question of “undue burden” another matter 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 1990s, abortion rights on paper have corresponded to very different material realities—for many women this has amounted to no reality at all. The 1992 ruling initiated a long and slow war of attrition with the goal of putting multiple obstacles to abortion access. 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 to make two separate trips to the clinic to obtain the procedure
Such restrictions have led to the closing of many abortion clinics, and as of 2014, 90 percent of U.S. counties do not have an abortion clinic. (1) While there are 2300-3500 crisis pregnancy centers spread across the United States, there are only 1800 abortion clinics. (2)
These developments have been successful in restricting abortion rights: Today 53 percent of women live in a county where there is no abortion clinic, making the right to abortion into a mere abstraction for the majority. This, however, is 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.” (3)
How to secure our reproductive rights?
Many women voted for Biden hoping he would protect their reproductive rights as he promised to do—despite the fact that Biden is a devout Catholic and has opposed abortion most of his career. Let’s recall his role in the Anita Hill case in 1991, when Hill accused judge Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment (just as Cavanaugh was accused), and Biden, who was then a senator, refused to believe her and take those accusations seriously: Thomas was confirmed on the Court. Let’s also recall Biden’s strong support for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal money to pay for abortions through Medicaid except in very few cases (incest and rape), a measure he defended until 2019, when he decided to run for the 2020 presidential election. In the 2020 campaign, he claimed he saw the light and that he had changed his position on these things and that now he was an ally of women’s reproductive rights.
For us it is not a matter of whether we “believe” Biden or not: Marxists do not rely on faith but on evidence. We look both at his record and at what the Democratic Party has done even in the recent years in relation to women’s rights—demobilization and cooptation. We all remember the impressive, big, historic Women’s March of Jan. 20, 2017, after the election of Trump. Yet this march did not result in the beginning of an independent women’s movement like those in Argentina, Chile, or Spain. It was very quickly coopted by Democratic Party officials and their non-profit and corporate allies.
First, they made sure to keep the march an “annual celebration” instead of turning it into a movement; they refused to mobilize for March 8 (International Working Women’s Day), as many rank-and-file sectors demanded; and they did not set further meetings to organize participants and discuss strategy and demands. Second, they channeled all the subsequent demonstrations, which were increasingly smaller, to the ballot box: in 2018, their slogan was “Today we march, tomorrow we vote!” Their goal was to turn an urgent struggle against a reactionary president and what already was two decades of attacks on abortion rights into an opportunist cooptation for electoral aims.
The Democratic Party produced the illusion that working-class, Black, and immigrant women’s aspirations, many reflected in the Women’s March, would be fulfilled by the Biden administration without the need to continue and escalate mass action. And indeed, Biden has promised to propose a “public option to the Affordable Care Act” that would cover access to preventive care, contraceptives, and abortion, to repeal the Hyde Amendment, and finally to codify Roe v. Wade through a law passed in Congress in order to stop/annul the TRAP laws. So far, he has not done any of this.
Legislative ping pong vs. class struggle
Biden’s plan sounds great, with the small caveat that we have heard this all before and it never happens, much like the promise of a new labor law to make collective bargaining the rule of all workplaces and expand union power, or the promise to give a path to full citizenship to all immigrants. It will not pass because you need to pass all of these reforms through both houses, and you always have some Democrats who side with Republicans to block it.
The Democrats know this: so why do they present unpassable bills in the first place? To woo and retain their base of support among the working class and the oppressed, to prevent splits to the left as people realize the priorities of the party lie with big capital, to be able to maintain their liberal credentials while shifting the blame for failure on the Republicans. The Democrats are unwilling to do what it truly takes to pass and make effective any of these rights—convoke mass mobilizations and strikes.
As in Argentina, where the supposedly “left” Peronist deputies blocked the abortion rights law in the Senate, and like the PRO Act, we know this thing will not be passed in the U.S. Senate. In Argentina, the Senate had to concede to the law because of tremendous public pressure. Tens of thousands of women were literally camping outside the Senate house during the many hours that lasted the full debate and vote, after having organized huge strikes in the country. They would have likely stormed Congress if the vote had failed.
In the U.S., unless we mount equivalent pressure we will not secure and make abortion rights free and on demand for every woman regardless of their income, race, nationality or other factors. Obama was in power for eight years and he did nothing against the erosion of reproductive rights; he claimed like many others that his hands were tied and that he lacked “bipartisan support” to do anything about it. Democrats in right-wing states have actually been complicit in the TRAP laws, and the Democratic Party tolerates inside its ranks a caucus that organizes against abortion, the Democrats for Life of America. This caucus includes Congress members such as Dan Lipinski in the House and Joe Donnelly, Joe Manchin, and Bob Casey in the Senate. Today the Supreme Court has an open anti-abortion majority, meaning that any hypothetical new law passed by Congress could be repealed by the Supreme Court or restricted at state level.
In other words, securing effective abortion, labor, citizenship and other rights cannot depend on electing more “progressive” Democrats to Congress or the White House, or hoping for amenable Supreme Court judges; the history of the U.S. shows us that the entire regime, not just specific politicians, is deeply committed first and foremost to unchallenged capitalist rule. This is why, as in 1973, any legal “victory” under Biden would remain again a formal right, a right on paper, only for the minority of women who are rich, bourgeois, and upper middle class. Only through a real mass mobilization, with millions of women in the streets, like in Argentina, joined by the unions and other class organizations, can the working class make our rights a material reality—free, on demand abortion and full reproductive rights, linked to single-payer health care.
Women’s reproductive rights and the fight for socialism
Capitalism transformed and re-appropriated previous patriarchal relations and the family itself into class relations of property ownership, and used women’s oppression to extract more labor (through unpaid household labor or the wage gender gap, for example) 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 dehumanizes us.
Yet the fight for full reproductive rights, including abortion and socialized health care, touches upon an even bigger issue of the capitalist political economy: the reproduction of labor power—that is, the reproduction of the working class. Capitalism needs workers to produce all kinds of commodities and make profits, and it has socialized most human labor to the wage system to make sure it is exploited accordingly. However, it has only socialized very partially the vast amount of labor needed to reproduce the workforce. In order to reproduce the workforce, it relies on the institution of the family, on gender roles, and above all on the unpaid labor of all working-class women: the labor of biological reproduction and of social reproduction used in the care of children, the ill, and elders, and of household labor such as provisioning, cooking, and cleaning. The abortion fight is in fact a class fight over who controls the reproductive power of the working class: the ruling class and the state, or working-class women and their families—our class. The capitalist system wants to have it both ways—it wants women to have children to reproduce the labor force (so it heavily regulates reproductive rights) but it does not want to pay fully for the cost of social reproduction of labor power! As our comrades from Socialist Resurgence state, the capitalist “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.”(4)
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 and autonomous political subjects who can and should decide on their own whether or not to have a baby, but it is also a fight for the working class, for working-class families (and there are many models of the family our class has developed) need socialized reproductive care free of exploitation. The fight for reproductive rights is connected to the fight for socialized medicine and socialized social care. It can only be resolved in a new economy that will reorganize both productive and reproductive labor, free of exploitation and oppression, a socialist economy with workers’ democracy and equal participation and rights for men, women, and non-binary people.
We do not think that working-class women and our class as a whole can win this kind of freedom, which is a higher material and political 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, health care, 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 openly anti-racist and ecological demands.
Women have marched in big numbers in the last few years. Last year in Spain and Argentina, they organized and led 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. In Argentina, a historic victory was won, although the mobilization must continue to secure its implementation and defense. The new wave of women’s strikes 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!
Photo: Women’s rights protest at Minnesota State Capitol in May 2019. (Christine T. Nguyen / MPR News)