Public Meetings, US Politics, Women's Liberation

The fight for Abortion Rights

In December, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a Mississippi law that is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, setting the stage for what could be the most consequential abortion rights ruling in decades. The Mississippi law makes most abortions illegal after 15 weeks of pregnancy, about two months earlier than Roe and later decisions allow. Most experts estimate fetal viability to be about 24 weeks.

“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” wrote Justice Alito in a draft opinion leaked to Politico and signed by a conservative majority of the court, claiming it was “egregiously wrong from the start.” Within hours of that leak, people in the United States were protesting. Last Saturday more than a million demonstrators came together at 450 events across the country, and we know many more across the globe including in Canada, were organized. The immediate, spontaneous, response was a good sign, as was the larger turnout on Saturday when Planned Parenthood and other mainstream groups mobilized. But this needs to be a launching point for a range of more activities around Roe, not a culmination or rally for elections in November. There still has not been the numbers on the street we saw with the Women’s Marches under Trump. 

These protests happened three days after the Senate failed to advance a Democratic-led bill that would have preserved broad protections for legal abortion nationwide. t – Instead of seeking to mobilize masses of people, president Biden suggests the anger at the Supreme Court be turned into votes for Democrats in the midterm elections this November. This an echo of Obama’s response to wildcat strikes by black basketball players during the movement for Black Lives, turning the basketball courts into voting booths rather than spaces for real dissent.

The ineffectualness of the Democrats and politicians in protecting our basic rights, signals yet again how we need to build mass movements to maintain, protect and struggle for our rights and freedoms. In fact, it is the neoliberal politics of the Democrats that allows for women to be pushed into poverty with an inability to access abortion and reproductive care. The corporate party absorbs, neuters and deradicalizes movements in an effort to build a larger voting base – not to create the change we need to see. 

Over 60 percent of people in the US support abortion rights. 

A Right Wing Offensive 

With the overturning of Roe v Wade, of course the racist right will celebrate.  In more than two dozen states, U.S. lawmakers have prepared bills that would outlaw or severely restrict abortion if the court overturns this 1973 ruling, clearing the way for those bills to quickly become law. In 13 states, “trigger laws” would be activated that would ban all abortions in less than 30 days the moment Roe is overturned.

This has been a concerted, methodical plan by the right.

The right has gradually undermined ­existing abortion rights by removing care ­available, such as shutting down ­clinics.

They use “culture war” strategy around issues like abortion, trans rights and racism. 

Donald Trump expanded a “gag rule” that stripped federal funds from international organisations offering abortion services and attacked Planned Parenthood.

In Texas last year a law went through that effectively bans abortion after six weeks—before many women and girls are even aware that they’re pregnant. The law bans abortions once cardiac activity can be detected in the embryo. There is no heart at this stage of development, only electrical activity in developing cells.

The Texas law also forbids the state to enforce it. Instead, citizens are incentivized with suing anyone who performs abortions, or “aids and abets” them.

This unique formulation makes the law very hard to challenge in court because there is no single entity responsible for enforcement. Effectively, nearly all abortions in the state have been banned since the law went into effect. [Since then Oklahoma has passed a similar privately enforced near total ban, and legislators have introduced one in Ohio, anticipating the reversal of Roe]. 

About 700 women die every year of pregnancy-related complications, and it is estimated that 3 in 5 of those deaths are preventable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Legal experts have already warned that overturning Roe could result in some birth control bans. Other experts are also raising the alarm over the negative consequences this could have on miscarriage care. Moreover, we are seeing cases of women charged and convicted of manslaughter and imprisoned – for suffering miscarriages.

In his draft opinion, Alito dismissed the applicability of the 14th amendment and privacy rights to abortion, and wrote that “the Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision.” That same argument could be applied to the Obergefell decision (the ruling on gay marriage, disparaged by Justice Clarence Thomas), the Lawrence decision decriminalizing gay sex, or even legal contraception (which Republican candidates for Michigan Attorney General have recently suggested should also be left to individual States). The reasoning could be extended to erode Miranda rights (which require law enforcement to inform a criminal suspect of their right to remain silent). One far-right commentator even said “school segregation next.” 

Learning From A History of Struggle

As we rise up in fury over these moves by the right and the feebleness of elected Democrats, it is important to recall how abortion rights were won here in the first place – blooming from a broader political movement for women’s rights. 

Access to abortion rights was one of the central demands of the US and other countries’ women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s. Activists provided both practical support alongside demands for legislative change.

This meant helping women with places to stay during their abortions and financing travel and medical care. Three years before Roe v Wade, the National Organization for Women organized 50,000 people in the streets of New York in a Women’s Strike for Equality.

The demands of the marchers included equal work opportunities, childcare and free abortion upon demand. 

And we can see that the Women’s Marches of today can still mobilize large numbers of people to demonstrate against sexism and misogyny. Five million people marched against Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, and defending reproductive rights was a central theme. 

Our reproductive rights were created from a groundswell of fury, and that is what we must build upon today to beat back these attacks. 

Unsurprisingly, as we trace our movements’ histories, abortion became a partisan issue during the ­backlash against the gains of Civil Rights Movement and other forms of resistance during the 1960s.

Before the 1970s, many Republicans supported the ­legalization of abortion. For them, giving women choices suited their belief in individual rights and limited state intervention.

They preferred abortion rights to public money being used to support poor women and their children.

But when Nixon needed extra support in his re-election bid and the Republicans needed more Catholic voters, they began to embrace the anti-abortion position.

Democratic Party Presidents Bill Clinton and Joe Biden have only served to muddy the waters, contributing to stigma over abortions. Bill Clinton ran on an abortion policy of “safe, legal, and rare,” adding “pro-choice is very different from being pro-abortion.” Hillary Clinton repeated the phrase, adding “by rare, I mean rare.”

Joe Biden was opposed to Roe at the time, only switching when public opinion made it necessary for his campaign. Even then he supported the first major roll back of abortion rights after Roe, the Hyde Amendment which banned Medicaid payments for abortions, devastating the rights of poor women. Until the recent leak from the Supreme Court, he never even uttered the word “abortion” as President. 

Abortion rights have never simply been granted by politicians. A movement has always had to force them to act.

International Struggles

The experience in Ireland shows what a post-Roe America could look like, and gives an example of the activism that won abortion rights. Abortion in Ireland was first legally prohibited there in 1861. In 1983 anti-abortion Catholic organizations pushed through a constitutional amendment positing a right to life of the unborn equal to the right to life of the pregnant woman, similar to statements in many US states. Over a hundred thousand women with the time and means had to travel to England for abortions (a trip that could cost almost £900), and in later years illegally bought abortion pills online (risking a possible 14 year prison sentence), and many were forced to bear unwanted children, or died. A 35 year campaign for abortion rights intensified after the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. Savita underwent a difficult miscarriage in hospital, but doctors said they could not abort the fetus to save her, and over many days a massive infection spread from her uterus. Some 20,000 people marched in protest after her death. A renewed wave of grass roots activism, with people taking off work for massive demonstrations and blocking bridges, helped create the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act the next year, and by 2018 a referendum on the anti-abortion amendment. The repeal passed by 66% to 34% and abortions are now legal during the first trimester, with costs covered by the public health service. By 2019 abortion was also decriminalized in Northern Ireland. But a fight continues on both sides of the border for broader access to abortion, and against renewed attacks by the right.

In 2000 the lively and uncompromising Marea Verde, or Green Wave, protests won legalized abortion until 14 weeks of pregnancy in Argentina. The Marea Verde included feminists, LGBTQ+ groups, the radical left, and labor organizations, and focused on complete access and bodily autonomy. Inspired by that movement militant demonstrations in Mexico pushed its Supreme Court to rule that state laws criminalizing abortions were unconstitutional, and in Columbia the Court legalized abortion up to 24 weeks across the country. 

Abortion Rights as a Class Issue

The ruling class is torn between needing women for free childcare—raising the next generation of workers—and needing their uninterrupted labor in the workforce.

The right wants to include abortion as part of a fabricated culture war—the attack on abortion rights is part of a larger shoring up of traditional gender roles. And this is also a class issue. Attacks on abortion are part of the class war. Abortion rights are workers’ rights.

As Labor reporter Kim Kelly recently wrote:

“Abortion rights are a labor issue… The right to control our bodies is part and parcel of our centuries-old battle to control our labor, and they cannot be separated from one another. It matters that so many workers are not only at risk of unwanted pregnancy themselves, but are also expected to engage in reproductive labor—the so-called “women’s work” that is so often undervalued and underpaid (or wholly unpaid).”

Indeed, one study found that, globally, women’s unpaid labor contributed $10.9 trillion annually to capitalism. If American women earned just minimum wage for the unpaid work they do around the house and caring for relatives, they would have brought home $1.5 trillion in 2019 alone.

On the job, Kelly notes, “pregnant workers face discrimination as well as physical and medical hazards [and] far too many don’t have access to quality healthcare or paid parental leave.” This is all part of workers and reproductive rights, and now “forced birth forced birth is the only option on offer from the most powerful court in the land.”

For the poor and working class the United States is already a brutal place to be pregnant, a merciless one in which to raise a child, and one full of cruel barriers to accessing abortions. The cancelling of abortion rights for those faced with unwanted pregnancies is a special disaster, and will hit the low income and workers of color the hardest. 

After the most recent threat to Roe v Wade was revealed, many US union officials put out pro-choice statements linking the attack on reproductive rights to attacks on workers.

Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson stated: “The Constitutional right affirmed by the court in 1973 to safe access and the legal right to an abortion was transformational for women’s rights and our jobs. Cabin crew fought executives who exploited our sexuality and pushed gender inequality to undermine the dignity of our work and push the value of our labor into their own pockets. We organized to define our careers, keep our personal choices as our own, and lift up our role in saving lives as aviation’s first responders…”

“The right for each of us to make our own choices about our jobs, our bodies, and our futures is fundamental. That includes the right to protect safe, legal options to anyone who seeks reproductive healthcare.”   

National Nurses United Co-President Jean Ross pointed out that a rollback of a half a century of rights “would especially discriminate against low-income women of color,” and noted it “should be viewed as part of the broader far-right assault on gender-affirming health rights in this country, including the laws targeting trans youth and their families, attacks on LBGTQ individuals, and homophobic bans on the word ‘gay’ in education.”

Other statements were made by AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, and SEIU President Mary Kay Henry.

Of course, words are not sufficient. All too often these statements conclude, like SEIU President Henry’s, with “we are more determined than ever to hold leaders accountable at the ballot box in November,” as if we could wait that long and that would be enough.

It is up to us to use these positions in getting union members and branches involved in the struggle, passing resolutions that commit resources, and mobilizing. 

So this fight is about workers’ rights — including our right to make decisions about our health, body and sexual life. And the way to win the fight is to join together to resist and wrest control of our lives out of the hands of corporations, right-wing judges and politicians. We can only do this as a mass movement – and building it is the task before us. Thank you.

Virginia Rodino’s talk was the opening presentation in the May 18th meeting “Roe v. Wade: Building cross border solidarity for reproductive rights” with the International Socialists, Canada. Video of the opening talks here.