by Elisabeth Wichser
Working women in Argentina, Ireland, and Colombia have won access to abortion in the last decade, yet in some countries, like the U.S., the right wing has escalated attacks on abortion rights. In response to the leaked Supreme Court opinion draft against Roe V. Wade, protests to defend abortion rights—like the thousands that occurred on the Protest for Abortion day of action on May 14th—have swept across the United States.
The draft shows that the court will likely vote in late June or July to repeal Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that granted people in the United States legal access to abortion. This leaked ruling isn’t surprising given the court’s refusal to overturn the Texas abortion ban, which went into effect on Aug 31st, that bans abortions after 6 weeks—before most people even know they’re pregnant.
Republican Senator Mitch McConnell has even said that a total ban on abortion isn’t off the table in the near future. This would deny millions of people—including not just women but also trans men and other parts of the LGBTQ+ community—access to crucial reproductive health care.
The Roe decision was brought about by huge mass protest movements in the 1970s for women’s liberation, against the Vietnam war, for LGBTQ+ rights, and for protecting the environment. The pressure and size of these mass movements and the fear they instilled in the corporations and their politicians forced the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade.
The chief justice who ruled on Roe was appointed by the incredibly reactionary and right-wing Nixon regime. Nixon was one of the most conservative and reactionary presidents; yet despite this, the strength of the mass movements of the time forced him to pass important bills like the Clean Air Act of 1970 which created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
These mass movements were a real threat to the capitalist system because of their militancy, the number of working people they mobilized, and the willingness to protest and strike. We’ve seen from the recent leak that the constitution can be twisted to support both pro- and anti-abortion arguments. What really decides if abortion rights are protected in this country isn’t some sacred document or wise judge, but whether or not working people can mobilize enough to force the ruling class to meet our demands.
While the capitalist class is sometimes forced to concede to mass movements, the rights that we fight hard to win are constantly under threat. Threats to abortion rights have existed since Roe was decided. In the absence of the organized movements that won Roe, states have been attacking women’s rights, with each restrictive bill passed making it more and more likely that Roe would ultimately be overturned on a national level.
To appeal to the religious right, Republicans have been spearheading attacks on abortion rights and the right to gay marriage. “Heartbeat bills”, which prohibit abortion after a “heartbeat” is detected, have passed in Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Texas—despite the fact that the so-called heartbeat is actually just electrical signals sent from a cluster of cells. In 2019, Ohio considered an additional bill that would ban most birth control and require the surgical reimplantation of ectopic pregnancies, which is physically impossible. If Roe is overturned, 13 states have trigger laws that would immediately ban abortion. One such state is Louisiana, which is also considering a bill that would classify abortion as homicide.
At the same time, LGBTQ+ rights have come under attack. Florida recently passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Tennessee proposed a bill that would create a pathway to marriage only available to straight couples and at the same time would remove restrictions on child marriage. It has luckily been defeated thanks to public protests.
Little Done to Stop the Attacks on Abortion in the Last Decade
Under Republican and Democratic Party regimes alike, access to abortion clinics has drastically declined across the U.S., with a record 205 abortion restrictions passed by states during Obama’s first and second terms (between 2011 and 2013). Obama, then Biden, promised to make Roe the “law of the land,” and despite having Congressional majorities, neither delivered.
Between 2011 and 2016, over a quarter of all abortion clinics in the US closed. While abortion has been legal in the U.S. since 1973, that doesn’t mean it’s been accessible. With many states passing abortion-restricting bills, the ability to have an abortion depends on your zip code and financial resources.
In 27 states, women must attend “counseling” 24 hours before their abortion, meaning that women who must travel across their state for the procedure have to stay overnight, pay for accommodation, take time off work, etc. Working women without transportation, without insurance that covers reproductive care, and without the time or money to get an abortion effectively do not have access to abortion.
Without even the legal right to safe abortions provided by Roe v. Wade, more women will be forced to turn to “do-it-yourself” abortions, causing more deaths and an unregulated black market. None of the post-Roe presidential administrations—including Democratic administrations—made a serious attempt to counteract these trends or expand abortion rights, bringing us to the current emergency.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, we were told that voting for Biden and the Democrats was the only way to protect abortion rights. In 2017, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said that “of course” people could be anti-abortion and a Democrat. Right now Pelosi is campaigning for a “pro-life” Democrat, Henry Cuellar, in Texas!
The Democrats will not protect working people’s rights. The only way to stop the Supreme Court’s attacks on abortion rights is to build a mass movement capable of organizing a serious fightback. But the Democrats will not do this for fear that the movement could turn against them and lay the base for a truly independent working-class party that would threaten the Democrat’s position as the American “left” option.
Instead, Democrats are using the outrage over this decision as an opportunity to get people to “vote blue” in the midterm, making more empty promises about how they will defend abortion rights if only they get a few more seats in Congress. But the past and current actions of the Democratic Party have made it clear that they have no intention of acting on abortion rights, but instead intend to use the threat of abortion becoming illegal to continue to scare workers into voting for them in election after election.
The Supreme Court Can’t Decide for Us!
One of the arguments that Democrats use to convince people to vote for them is that they will appoint pro-choice judges to the Supreme Court. But regardless of who sits on it, the Supreme Court is not a democratic institution; the fact that 5 unelected justices could rescind abortion rights for hundreds of millions of people when 60% of Americans support Roe is the opposite of democracy.
The Supreme Court is a tool that the capitalist class uses to maintain control, just like how they use the Electoral College to counteract the popular vote or how the rich juggle political positions between the two corporate parties to try and make sure that nothing ever really changes. Working people have no say in who is appointed to the court and there is no way to recall a justice once they’re in power. So long as the Supreme Court exists, working people will ultimately have no control over important issues like abortion (Roe v Wade), union rights (Janus), or campaign finances (Citizens United).
Abortion Rights are Workers’ Rights
Children cost money. In fact, children cost a little less than $300,000 over 18 years, and that’s just to provide the bare minimum. Young people may want children but can’t possibly afford to have them with rising housing prices, student loan debt, and stagnant wages. For many women, couples, and families, a child would mean financial ruin or (continued) poverty. And this doesn’t even get into not wanting a child in cases of rape or incest.
Multiple studies have found that legal abortion increases women’s education, job opportunities, and income, and Black women benefit most from access to abortion. A study that tracked two groups of women—one that wanted an abortion and got one and one that wanted an abortion but didn’t get one—found that the women who didn’t get abortions sank deeper into poverty as a result.
The choice of when, how, and whether to have children is a prerequisite for women’s equality, and that’s why working people fought so hard to win that right almost 50 years ago. Access to affordable and convenient reproductive health care is an issue for the entire working class because it encompasses not just abortion, but also birth control, family planning services like in vitro fertilization (IVF), pre- and post-natal care, and STD and cancer screenings. The attacks on abortion rights are attacks on the entire working class.
Women and their partners and families must have control over what their families look like. Under capitalism, a certain family structure (the nuclear family) has been pushed as the norm.
Capitalists enforce this through the legal definitions of marriage, restricting rights like hospital visitation, custody rights, or spousal benefits through the workplace to legally recognized spouses, as well as socially through media representation and cultural pressure.
This family structure has also resulted in further exploitation and oppression of LGBTQ+ people whose relationships have been (and in many places still are) viewed as inferior to heterosexual couples. Recent increased attacks on LGBTQ+ rights, like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, are likely to continue as part of the Republicans’ culture war while Democrats refuse to mobilize a real opposition.
Women are seen as the primary caregivers for children, and this limits their ability to have jobs or social lives. Many women face workplace discrimination for having children, and without things like paid family leave many working people have to scramble to find increasingly unaffordable childcare almost immediately after their baby is born.
How to Defend and Extend Abortion Rights
Not only must we defend the right to abortion, but we must also extend our rights as workers and as women. This includes closing the wage gap (a result of paying women less for the same work as men and women-dominated industries being generally lower-paid), paid parental leave, universal health care, comprehensive sex education, and universal, high-quality, affordable, publicly-run child and eldercare.
However, the capitalist system directly profits off of paying women less, charging for health care and child care, and refusing to allow workers paid parental leave. The only way to fight for these demands is to create a mass workers’ party drawing together workers, unions, youth, oppressed communities, and activists from the women’s, environmental, anti-racist, labor, and other movements, to provide a fighting political alternative to the capitalist parties.
In 1917, the Russian Revolution was started by women workers who went on strike; women’s rights were massively expanded in the early Soviet Union. Women won the right to divorce and abortion. Same-sex marriage was decriminalized. There were moves to communalize women’s domestic responsibilities (i.e. raising children, cleaning, etc.) so women had more time to participate in education and politics.
Ultimately, the only way to truly guarantee equal rights for women is to build a socialist system where human needs are met, where families and individuals have both the rights and the resources to decide what lives to lead and what families to build, and where production and distribution is planned and run democratically by the majority of people, not a tiny minority. Without the profit motive, exploitation and oppression based on identity would have no purpose. A future of true equality and freedom can only be won through a united working-class struggle.