By DOLORES UNDERWOOD
The right to an abortion and bodily autonomy are under attack. The Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade in June 2022, which would place abortion legislation completely in the hands of states. We’ve already gotten a taste of what this might look like: Texas passed SB8, a bounty system for “citizen” lawsuits against anyone aiding a surgical or medical abortion. This has already led to murder charges against 26-year-old Lizelle Herrera, who was turned over to law enforcement by the same medical professionals she sought care from. (Following protests from around the country, the murder charges were dropped on April 11.) In Oklahoma, lawmakers have voted to make abortion a felony, and performing one is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Roe v. Wade was won in the streets. However, without the independent mass action of women, both parties have allowed for over 1900 abortion restrictions since in 1973. About 90 percent of U.S. counties do not have abortion clinics. Based on the documented impact of the anti-abortion measures, working-class and oppressed women are hit the hardest, making it next to impossible for anyone without savings or the ability to take time off from work to travel to places to seek care. Immigrant women, with and without papers, fear attempting to travel to another state for any kind of abortion, as “inland ICE checkpoints” monitor traffic out of the Rio Grande Valley.
The Democratic Party produced the illusion that working-class, Black, and immigrant women’s aspirations—many reflected in the Women’s March in 2017—would be fulfilled by the Biden administration without the need to continue and escalate mass action. The march was quickly co-opted by Democratic officials and their non-profit and corporate allies. An urgent struggle against a reactionary U.S. president and two decades of attacks on abortion rights was transformed into an opportunist cooptation for electoral aims. As a result, the 2017 Women’s March did not result in the beginning of an independent women’s movement like those in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, or Spain.
The lack of continued mobilizations has led to startling developments: In the first year of Biden’s presidency, 23 states passed extreme abortion bans and restrictions. Fifteen states enacted bans or near-bans on medical abortion, and 30 states enacted bans prior to fetal “viability,” in many cases legislated at six weeks. Only 11 states passed proactive abortion rights legislation.
Because Roe v. Wade was ultimately expressed indirectly via a court decision and not through a law in Congress, neither of the two major bourgeois parties has ever had to campaign over or even commit to defending the right to an abortion, leaving this key matter in the hands of one of the least democratic institutions in the country. This has framed the fate of abortion rights and shaped its limitations: 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.
It is important that the unions defend the right of working people to reproductive justice. This would be a key step toward strengthening a broad movement to demand that reproductive health care be made accessible to all working-class people, not just those who can afford it, to communities of color, and to the LGBTQI communities. For example, in the 1980s, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union facilitated national meetings of female members on how the union should defend abortion rights and maternal health. A base in unions or other working-class organizations can anchor an independent class intervention to build a mass action-based movement.
Furthermore, our program must foreground the demands and leadership of those fighting for the most oppressed, like the organizations devoted to Black and Latina women’s health. Pro-Democratic Party non-profits that replaced the once-independent masses have been unwilling or unable to respond forcefully to the divisive and racist Hyde Amendment, which left legal abortion inaccessible to many women of color.
For Black women, the denial of reproductive autonomy has deep roots. Slavery was built on forced childbearing, and the refusal of bodily autonomy has been a constant for Black women since then. In the 1960s the “Mississippi appendectomy” resulted in the forced sterilization of perhaps 60% of that state’s Black female population. Black women have a maternal mortality rate three times higher than white women.
Attacks on reproductive justice, including the deliberate absence of decent maternal health care, have the ultimate impact of reinforcing the most reactionary aspects of family life under capitalism and increasing the use of child-bearing people as a reserve army of labor to drive down wages and benefits further. 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 for the cost of social reproduction of labor power.
The abortion fight and the maternal health fights are, in fact, class fights 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 demand of free abortion on demand is also a political fight against this process of domination and commodification of women’s bodies.
Free, safe, and accessible abortions now! ¡Que sea ley! Make it the law! For an independent, working-class women’s movement!