Build an independent mass movement to win reproductive rights


Below is the opening presentation by Dolores Underwood, a member of Workers’ Voice, to the Aug. 10 on-line forum “Lessons from the Abortion Legalization Victory in Colombia.” The other speakers at the event were socialist reproductive activist Kim Gasper-Rabuck and Maria Paula Houghton Martinez, founder of the Medical Group for the Right to Decide in Colombia. Underwood’s remarks have been edited slightly for this print version.

In the less than two months since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, eight states have banned abortions in almost all cases, and another four states now ban abortion at six weeks of pregnancy. This takes place, of course, before most people know they are even pregnant.

The immediate response to this decision has been heartening. On June 24, we saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets, in many cases from independent reproductive health or socialist organizations. It’s noteworthy, however, that the liberal leadership of the women’s movement was largely absent from these initial mobilizations. Revolutionary socialists have a real opening to influence the course of what will happen in a post-Roe United States.

The Supreme Court ruling on Roe, while a critical gain for the movement in the 1960s and ’70s, was never enough. Argued around the right to privacy, the right to an abortion has never given the absolute right to terminate a pregnancy. Limited to a legal interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, just four years after the 1972 decision, Roe was already significantly watered down. The Hyde Amendment took away federal Medicaid coverage of abortion from people enrolled in the program, affecting the most oppressed and working-class sectors of the population. By the time Roe fell, in June 2022, 90% of counties in the U.S. were without a single abortion provider and thousands of laws further restricted the right to an abortion. When you hear people, with rightful anger in their voices, ask, “Where have you been?” this is what they are referring to. For most people, abortion and reproductive health care has been inaccessible in the U.S. for decades.

How did we get here? Because the Supreme Court decision atomized the movement that had won this first step, and because the leadership of the movement was co-opted by reformists and opportunists, the solution to the Hyde Amendment was not to reactivate the mass mobilizations that had won initial gains but to leave it to the courts. This resulted in atomization, and those communities abandoned by the mass movement were left to organize on their own, in many cases through mutual-aid-type organizations. For these communities, that support was critical, particularly to the most marginalized in the U.S. from overwhelmingly Black, immigrant, Latina, and Indigenous sectors of the population. Today, Black and Indigenous women in the U.S. are around three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women.

This is why we have to be conscientious that what we are fighting for goes beyond just the right to an abortion. The fight for reproductive autonomy and access to health care is what undergirds this struggle. For Black women in the 1960s, the “Mississippi appendectomy” resulted in the forced sterilization of perhaps 60% of that state’s Black female population. In a post-Roe world, we are seeing a spike in the policing of women’s and child-bearing peoples’ bodies. In just the last five to 10 years, the number of people arrested and prosecuted for crimes related to stillbirths, miscarriages, and alleged drug and alcohol use during pregnancy has increased dramatically. It should not surprise us that Black, Indigenous, Latina, and immigrant people, already over-policed, are disproportionately the targets.

We have to take stock of this history because it explains why, at this moment, the overwhelming reaction to the end of Roe has been to double-down on abortion funds. Whether this is for travel, a procedure, or medication abortion, people are looking for an immediate solution that responds to the urgency of the situation. In a context where the mass movement has historically abandoned the most oppressed, this response is understandable, but it won’t be enough. To win this fight, we can’t give up on forming an independent, democratic mass movement that shows up in the streets.

Bourgeois news outlets are pushing to frame the fight as a legal one—over whether you’ll be able to order abortion pills through the mail. This is no mistake, as it follows logically for them to then claim we must vote for the Democrats again to save any last hope for the right to an abortion. They argue that so long as Biden (or another Democrat) is in office, the federal government won’t crack down on the mailing of abortion pills from one state to another.

The ruling class, both Democrats and Republicans, want us to think that this fight isn’t one we can participate in; it should be left to the legal stage rather than the streets and, according to them, so long as we have a Democrat in power, we should be fine. The link to electoralism, the mid-terms, and the 2024 election already is palpable. However, we need to be unequivocal about the role that the Republicans AND Democrats have played in ending the right to abortion.

The language and politics of the Democratic Party has been consistent: In the words of Hillary Clinton, the party’s line has been for abortion to be “rare.” While he was simultaneously selling out to insurance companies on health care, Obama also preserved and strengthened the Hyde Amendment. The Biden administration can barely even utter the word “abortion.” There is absolutely no reason to believe that the Democrats are invested in protecting our right to one.

This is because the control over bodily autonomy has to do with the fight over who controls social reproduction. Historically, birthing people and oppressed groups have been the last reserve in the surplus of workers—invited into the workplace or forced back into the domestic sphere depending on the needs of the capitalist class. The cost of taking a break from the workforce to care for a child (or the elderly) is supposed to be squeezed out of our wages, ones that continue to stagnate for the benefit of the capitalist class. We are expected to shoulder the costs of raising our children, caring for our families without extracting any wealth from the capitalist class—without their having to pay a dime towards contributing to the reproduction of the very workers they will later exploit.

The Supreme Court decision on June 24 to overturn Roe v. Wade needs to be understood within the wider context of a brewing crisis of capitalism, one that is squeezing everyday workers to get the last drops of profit. We are witnessing the capitalist class in the U.S. pauperize millions through their manipulation of the economy, creating inflation that makes our purchasing power less and less. These efforts increase the reserve army of labor, making the working class more desperate and making it easier to trade out one worker for another.

In this context, we must be categorical that our enemies are the capitalist class and the only way to win reproductive rights is by building an independent mass movement. This has to start locally. It is the work of people like Kim and others here who are building coalitions on the ground and stating that we are united, we are not going to repeat the mistakes of the past and let the most oppressed sectors of the population fall through the cracks, and we are going to win on-demand and free abortions. Our comrades in Colombia have just won this fight, and I’m incredibly excited to learn from Maria Paula who will be talking about their recent triumphs.

The video of the Aug. 10 online forum can be viewed at:

Photo: July 8 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. (Tyrone Turner / WAMU / NPR)

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