Reflecting on 50 years after the passage of Roe v. Wade


Jan. 22, 2023, was to have marked the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. Instead, reproductive rights activists mobilized across the country to demand bodily autonomy for all after the landmark case had been overturned last June. A national march in Madison, Wis., organized by the Madison Abortion and Reproductive Rights Coalition for Healthcare (MARRCH), the Rape Crisis Center, Chicago for Abortion Rights, the Chicago Red Rabbits, the SEIU and other unions, and the Women’s March galvanized nearly 2000 in the streets to demand the immediate reinstatement of reproductive care.

Their demands included: (1) Overturn the 1849 anti-abortion legislation; (2) Divert tax surplus of $6 billion to finance care for pregnant people seeking abortion care in neighboring states; (3) Teach medically sound sex education for all, including non-binary and transgender youth; (4) Repeal the Hyde Amendment; and (5) Reopen Wisconsin clinics now. (You can help support the costs to organize the mobilization here). Wisconsin is one of 14 states with a near total ban or where abortion care is unavailable since the passage of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

At a time when a third of people no longer have access to abortions in their home state, it is difficult to see any sort of silver lining. The more mainstream admission is that Roe v. Wade was never enough. Even before the end of Roe, conservative states had already closed many abortion-providing clinics, making access impossible for most. If we are going to win reproductive care for all, there are some hard truths and critical lessons from the past half century that we need to learn, and quickly.

Lesson 1: The Democrats have never been and never will be the champions of abortion

For anyone paying a modicum of attention last November, this statement is directly opposed to the messaging that we were inundated with for months leading up to the mid-term elections. The Women’s March, which did very little to call for large-scale mobilizations across the country, did use the occasion to push for a “women’s wave.” In fact, many pundits explain the failure of a red wave to sweep the House and Senate last November as due to the issue of abortion. And it is possible that this election strategy did move people to vote, and to vote Democrat.

While the Democrats will certainly try to sell themselves as the champions of reproductive rights and our saviors who will restore abortion nationally, it doesn’t take much probing of the past to show the inaccuracy of this characterization. While the Democrats and Republicans may today be playing to the culture of their bases, both parties serve the interests of the bourgeoisie, and ultimately, abortion is about who controls birth rates: the ruling classes or the people.

As Jenny Brown explains in Without Apology, in the 1970s when Roe v. Wade was passed, the U.S. population was experiencing a huge boom in birth rates. Many who are considered to be conservatives were pro-abortion. This does not negate the fact that Roe was won thanks to the massive mobilizations across the country. But with a continually growing workforce, the issue was not as critical. Today, with birth rates in decline, abortion is an issue that impedes on the needs of the capitalist class.

In the decades after the passage of Roe, both Democrats and Republicans governed during the expansion of legal limitations on abortions, including the Hyde Amendment, TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws, and government restrictions on abortion (Planned Parenthood v. Casey). Despite the contemporary Democratic Party’s rhetoric, they will never legislate to give full bodily autonomy to the people because controlling social reproduction is critical to the capitalist class, and the Democrats, as the Republicans, govern for this class.

Lesson 2: Build an independent mass movement, and leave behind the tactic of electoralism

Precisely because the right to bodily autonomy is one that conflicts with the needs of the capitalist class, we cannot rely on legal wins to secure control over reproduction. Over the past year, a lot of mobilizing energy was placed towards securing the right to an abortion through elections and legal means—for example, within state constitutions (like Kentucky Constitutional Amendment 2), or towards electing officials who are pro-abortion.

It is a mistake to limit ourselves to the tactic of electoralism in order to win back the right to abortion nationally. In the same breath that Democrats purport to be the defenders of abortion, they support anti-abortion, conservative politicians for seats in power. Just this past year, Nancy Pelosi backed Texas anti-abortion representative Henry Cuellar over his pro-abortion primary opponent, Jessica Cisneros. A month after her re-election, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, whose campaign last fall also took on the mantle of abortion rights, nominated Hector LaSalle, an anti-abortion, anti-labor conservative to be the next chief judge of the Court of Appeals.

We need an independent, working-class and oppressed-led movement that uses the streets to make demands, not just the ballot box. This is a lesson we can take from people in Poland, Ireland, Argentina, Colombia, and other countries across the world who have recently fought and won the right to an abortion. In all these cases, their struggle shows that our demands are met when we are organized and mobilized independently of the major political parties.

Furthermore, as we learned with the passage of Roe, and as we can see now in the case of Argentina, the legal win of the right to an abortion is not the end of the fight. As our comrades from the PSTU-Argentina (Partido Socialista de los Trabajadores Unificado, Unified Socialist Workers’ Party of Argentina) are currently experiencing, their legal win last year was immediately contested with an abundance of loopholes. Doctors can refuse to perform abortions through “conscientious objection.” Furthermore, the passage of a bill making abortion legal is worthless if it doesn’t have the resources to implement the law. The universal right to an abortion in Argentina, a semi-colonial country, requires the state to choose funding social programs over implementing debt restructuring, making the funding of abortion an issue in conflict with the interests of the imperialist class.

Lesson 3: We need to move beyond direct action and mutual aid tactics

One of the responses to the Dobbs ruling last June was to increase direct action and mutual aid to those who required immediate abortion access. Considering that most women and people who can get pregnant living in conservative states have not had access to abortion for years, the groundwork was already in place to expand mutual aid, offer transport to states with abortion access, and to expand the phenomenon of “pill fairies” who deliver abortion pills (a combination of mifepristone and misoprostol) to those in need.

However, the current reliance on “sanctuary states” and secret abortion pill deliveries is unsustainable. The transport of those seeking abortion to states where it is legal is overloading health-care providers, and patients are facing long wait times for appointments. The current issue is a systemic one, and while the short-term solution alleviates the problem for some, we need a long-term strategy to regain the fundamental right to an abortion.

Furthermore, in the small chance that the abortion pill requires follow-up by a physician, the person who took the pill is the one who will face criminal charges. Even before the fall of Roe, we saw an increase in the criminalization of mothers who experience a stillbirth or a miscarriage. This disproportionately affected Black, Brown, Indigenous, undocumented, and poor women. Brittney Poolaw, a 21-year-old Native American woman from Oklahoma, was sentenced to four years in prison after having a miscarriage, convicted of first-degree manslaughter. Adora Perez spent over three years in a California jail after experiencing a stillbirth while testing positive for illicit drugs.

As Michele Goodwin traces in her book Policing the Womb, over the last decades pregnant people experienced increased surveillance and potential jail time over their ability to carry a child to term, overwhelmingly impacting poor women. Fetal protection laws, fetal drug laws, and maternal conduct laws criminalize choices made during pregnancies.

Lesson 4: The movement for reproductive health care is inseparable from the struggle for universal health care

While access to free and on-demand abortion is certainly a critical democratic right, the fight for reproductive health goes beyond just the fight to terminate a pregnancy. We need universal and paid maternity leave, socialized child care, expansive and free prenatal and postnatal care, sex education, free and accessible gender-affirming care, and the end to surveillance of pregnant people and so-called “fetal protection laws.”

These demands require nothing less than the end of our current private and for-profit health system, and for the nationalization of universal health care. The mobilizations immediately following the end of Roe v. Wade on June 24 of last year showed that people are angry, and they want change. If we are going to win our democratic right to an abortion, we need an independent and working-class-led movement that does not stop with legal victories and maintains the struggle past initial wins.

We need to bring these issues of bodily autonomy to our workplaces, to our unions, and to our community events, and to challenge the notion that the electoral route will win us our rights with all the examples mentioned above. We need to break with the NGOs, not-for-profits, and the Democratic Party, who have watched as our reproductive rights have been whittled down to the bare minimum for decades without any meaningful action. We may have to start from scratch, organizing speak-outs and finding those who are willing to fight beyond the ballot box. But it is only with a movement independent from the major political parties that we are going to mobilize millions of people to the streets like we saw in the green waves across Latin America.

Photo: Jan. 22 abortion rights protest in Madison. (Kim Gasper-Rabuck)

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