By INTERNATIONAL WORKERS LEAGUE – FOURTH INTERNATIONAL
Sept. 28 marked a global day of action for safe and legal abortion. It was established by the Fifth Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Meeting and has since spread around the world. The origin of this day of struggle dates back to Sept. 28, 1871, when the “freedom of the womb” was proclaimed in Brazil, which gave freedom to the children of enslaved women. This historical precedent is very powerful because it vindicates women’s autonomy in decisions not only to abort but also to give birth, and it commemorates the struggle of Black women for freedom in the semi-colonial world.
This day, which was initially commemorated by activists, and has been celebrated and discussed in the academy and feminist groups, has begun to gain traction in the streets. For some years now, Sept. 28 has ceased to exist namely in forums and articles, and has been transformed into a day of struggle. There are more and more countries where women don their green scarves and take to the streets to demand their rights on this day.
Abortion around the world
The most recent victory in this area of the women’s struggle was obtained a few weeks ago in Mexico, where the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion at the federal level (it had already been decriminalized in the Federal District and in the state of Coahuila). In Colombia in 2022, abortion was completely decriminalized up to 24 weeks and partially decriminalized until the end of pregnancy (there already existed legal grounds to do so). As a result, these two countries have become some of the most advanced in the world in abortion rights, on par with the United Kingdom, Canada, and Cuba, which have had liberal legislation on abortion for several years.
But 2022 also marked the fall of Roe v. Wade in the United States, perhaps the greatest setback in abortion rights since the loss of access to legal abortion in the former USSR. The latter was a result of the Stalinist counterrevolution after the right to abortion had been granted by the Bolshevik government in 1920, when it was the first country in the world to take this step. While the former, a great historical reversal of abortion rights, occurred in the heart of imperialism and bourgeois democracy. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a more than 50-year sentence, thus showing with a crude example that under capitalism all rights are partial and threatened no matter how firm they may seem, especially those of women. This ruling changed the landscape of reproductive rights at the continental level, seriously affecting thousands of women, especially girls, Black women, and migrant women.
In other countries, as in the case of Argentina and Uruguay, partial legalization of abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy has been obtained because of huge mobilizations.
Yet, a worrying situation persists in countries such as the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Central America in general, as well as in most African countries, where legislation prohibits abortion completely, or allows it only in cases where a woman’s life is at imminent risk.
This remains the case although it has been scientifically proven that the prohibition of abortion does not reduce its practice. Rather, it condemns the poorest women to clandestine and unsafe abortions, with severe health consequences and even death as a result. Unsafe abortions were one of the leading causes of worldwide maternal death during the pandemic.
The physical, emotional, and legal consequences of clandestine and unsafe abortions show that this is fundamentally not only a problem of gender and class, but also of race. Women who have the purchasing power can travel to have a legal abortion in another country or region, or they can pay for a clandestine but safe abortion. These restrictive laws disproportionately affect girls, Black, Indigenous, peasant, refugee, and migrant women, as well as transgender men and non-binary people with the capacity to bear children. These groups not only account for the majority of deaths while undergoing the procedure, but are also criminalized to a greater extent in countries that engage in active prosecution of those who seek to have an abortion.
A right under constant threat
There is constant pressure from anti-abortion organizations that act in organized networks around the world. They are associated with and work to pressure the political agendas of far-right groups around the world, acting not only through parties such as Vox in Spain, but also through organizations that pose as philanthropic, and religious organizations, especially the Pentecostal, Evangelical, and Catholic churches. In semi-colonial countries, these groups receive subsidies from their counterparts in imperialist countries.
This is the case of the “40 Days for Life campaign” run by the non-profit of the same name, which is present in more than 65 countries and has a million volunteers. These are generally people recruited in their places of prayer, who are easily indoctrinated and carry out actions not only of advocacy but also of direct harassment against women who have abortions and health personnel. They do so with false arguments such as that of alleged “fetal pain” during gestation, which is scientifically impossible, or the so-called “post-abortion syndrome” that has been dismissed by psychology and psychiatry. But not all groups act through prayer and harassment; some of these types of organizations have committed terrorist acts against abortion health centers, especially in the United States.
In reality, what we observe even in most countries where the right to full or partial abortion exists is that, as with other sexual and reproductive rights, women face innumerable barriers to access, and the right to abortion is susceptible to enormous setbacks. This is because under capitalism all our rights are partial and constantly threatened, as long as the working class remains subordinated to its power.
Not infrequently, abortion rights are used as an electoral bargaining chip. Parties either promise free and legal access to their most liberal campaigners, or stigmatize abortion and assure that those rights will be rolled back in right-wing campaigns. When “progressive” governments come to power, the first thing they negotiate to guarantee the ability to govern is the right to abortion; when the right comes to power, the first thing they do is eliminate abortion rights, or at least try to prevent or restrict its access.
But the right to abortion is also deeply impacted by a problem that threatens all working-class and poor people, and that affects women most: the defunding and privatization of health systems. During the pandemic, the limits of the world’s health systems were brought to light, as well as the differences between privatized systems and those that still maintain levels of public assistance.
One example is Spain, where, despite the recent reform to abortion law, which has been in force since March, there is no guarantee of exercising this right in the public health system as provided for in the reform. According to official data, 84.3% of abortions in 2021 were performed in private hospitals and clinics. Currently, all terminations of pregnancy are still performed in private clinics and hospitals in five autonomous communities, and thousands of women are forced to leave their province in order to have an abortion.
Maternity, contraception, and abortion services were cut in most of the world to divert resources to COVID-19 care. That is why the struggle for legal and safe abortion is intertwined with the struggle for the right to health care for the entire working class.
Even in countries with the most progressive legislation, some health practitioners are still allowed to exercise so-called conscientious objection, which is an obstacle to prevent pregnant people from exercising our right to have an abortion.
Conscientious objection should guarantee access to the service by another provider, and should never be used to obstruct abortion access. But what happens is the opposite, conscientious objection is used in different countries around the world as a real barrier and as an excuse to prevent abortion. There have even been cases where women and girls have been kidnapped by the hospital to force them to continue the pregnancy. And there are countries where institutional or collective conscientious objection is allowed, which is totally contrary to the principles that govern this right.
In addition, reliable and free contraception, measures which would avoid the need to access abortion, are not universally guaranteed in the public health system. And there is even less affective-sexual education in all stages of the school system in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies, although some laws contemplate the above measures on paper. This is due to the church’s social influence throughout the world, a lack of political will, as well as cuts to education.
The struggle must be class-based, unified, and internationalist.
Based on the above, it is clear the struggle for the right to abortion is linked to the general struggle against sexist oppression and racism, and the rights of the working class to decent health care. It is also connected to the rights of health workers, and the fight against privatization and adjustment plans, as well as the struggle for socialism itself.
Denying access to legal, safe, and free abortion, and decent maternal health care, reinforces the most reactionary aspects of family life under capitalism. This capitalist system under crisis needs to regulate and control our reproductive rights to ensure the reproduction of the labor force. But at the same time, it attempts to do this at the lowest possible cost to the bourgeoisie and the governments at its service.
That is why we, the IWL, do not believe that the fight for legal, safe, and free abortion belongs only to women; we believe the struggle belongs to the entire working class. It is an expression of the class struggle over the reproduction of the labor force, and more specifically over who controls, and with what criteria, the reproductive power of the working class: the ruling class and the State, or working-class women and LGBTI communities and their families—which is to say, our class. That is why we call on all working-class and youth organizations to fight for women’s full access to abortion and full reproductive rights, including full maternity and paternity leave, public child care, and universal access to contraception and sex education, among other things.
This demand must be put into relation with other aspects of the class struggle and cannot happen only within national borders. Rather, it must be articulated at the international level. The date of Sept. 28 is very important because it gives us the opportunity to manifest this unity, and to carry out actions at a global level. We are in solidarity with and are following the struggle in Brazil, where decriminalization is being debated right now. We join these actions, and we call on our class to join the mobilizations, events, and other activities organized on this day all over the world.