The US Supreme Court has overturned the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling which recognised a constitutional right to abortion. This represents the biggest attack on women’s rights in the US for the last 50 years and has been met with protests by tens of thousands across the country. CHRISTINE THOMAS writes.
This article is taken from Socialism Today -Which is the monthly magazine of the Socialist Party (England and Wales)
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The US Supreme Court has overturned the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling which recognised a constitutional right to abortion. Decisions will now be left to individual states, at least 13 of which already have ‘trigger laws’ in place ready to ban abortion. Abortion could become illegal in practice in more than half of US states – affecting as many as 36 million women, according to Planned Parenthood. And it will be working-class and ethnic minority women, who do not have the resources to travel hundreds of miles to states where an abortion is still possible, who will suffer the most. The overwhelming majority of those seeking abortion will be women, although of course other groups will be affected by attacks on abortion and reproductive rights more generally. As one spokesperson for the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute explained: “The typical abortion patient is in her 20s, doesn’t have a lot of money, and has one or more children”. Sixty-one percent of abortions are carried out on minority women.
In some states preparatory laws have been worded in such a draconian way that they would not only criminalise travelling to another state to access abortion or procuring the abortion pill, but even accessing IUD contraception. Women will be forced to go ahead with unwanted pregnancies, bringing up children they cannot afford, and putting their lives at risk. The US already ranks at 36 out of 38 OECD countries for maternal mortality: 23.8% per 100,000 live births, behind Chile and Turkey; for non-Hispanic black women the rate is double. In 2020, 861 women in the US lost their lives during or immediately after pregnancy. Criminalising abortion will make this much worse. We have already seen in Poland incidents of pregnant women dying because they have been refused an abortion that would have saved their lives. Or in El Salvador, where hundreds of women have been jailed for decades for having a spontaneous miscarriage – a dark glimpse of what could possibly face women in the US.
How was Roe won?
Understanding how the right to abortion in the US was won is important for building a movement today that can defeat this current vicious attack on women’s reproductive rights. Roe was an historic victory that transformed the lives of so many women, the product of mass movements and a society in ferment. The ground had been prepared through the courageous and determined battles that women’s organisations had waged at state and local level over many years, resulting in more liberalised abortion laws in around eleven states before the Roe ruling. Illegality had not prevented abortion from taking place, it just happened in unsafe, underground conditions, especially for poorer women who were unable to pay the doctors that wealthy women had access to. An estimated one million illegal abortions took place every year before Roe, leading to the deaths of around 5,000 women, and many more were injured and maimed for life.
Securing legal and safe access to abortion was clearly a burning health issue: a life and death issue, in fact, for thousands of women. But it was also about the right of women to have control over their own reproduction and sexuality, to make autonomous decisions about their bodies without the interference or coercion of the state, the church or male partners, and to not be limited in their life choices through unwanted pregnancies.
Women’s expectations were changing as they entered the universities and the workforce in growing numbers in the post-war period. In the aftermath of world war two, as men returned from the front, women were subjected to a propaganda bombardment extolling the virtues of motherhood and domesticity – resulting in around three million being pushed out of the workforce. But while in 1950 only 34% of women were working outside the home, by 1970 that figure had increased to 43%; and by the end of the decade more than half were at work. As they achieved greater economic independence women’s confidence grew and they began to challenge the sexism, discrimination and gender inequality that they faced in education, jobs, the family and throughout society. They began to understand that the problems they were suffering were not personal and specific to them but shared by many others, and that through collective struggle something could be done about them.
This was the background to the eruption of the women’s movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the Roe victory was achieved when that movement was at its apex. The tactics and demands of the various strands of the movement differed, with organisations like the National Organisation of Women (NOW) concentrating on legislative change to end discrimination, while others involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement promoted more radical demands. And there were clearly weaknesses, most notably the white middle-class character of their leadership. But they were able to mobilise tens of thousands through protests and direct action, and their challenging of sexism, discrimination and traditional gender roles had a lasting impact on social attitudes as well as helping to secure legal change.
Most importantly, the women’s movement emerged at a time of a heightened radicalisation throughout US society, including the civil rights movement, the mass protests against the war in Vietnam, and the most militant strike wave in the workplaces since the immediate post-war period, which involved the unionisation of women workers in the expanding public sector. These were also inspired by the revolutionary movements internationally such as that of May 1968 in France and the struggles for liberation from imperialist exploitation and oppression in the colonial world.
It was against this explosive backdrop that the US political class, representatives of capitalism all, were prepared to grant some social reforms in an attempt to head off a broader challenge to their system. So the right to abortion was secured despite a Supreme Court packed with Republican-appointed judges and a socially conservative Republican president, Richard Nixon, who was personally opposed to abortion.
Of course, with the level of social revolt at the time, much more could have been achieved. But with no mass left party in existence that could coordinate and give a lead to the social and industrial movements, and steer them in an anti-capitalist, socialist direction, the movement inevitably ebbed and its full potential was not realised. As the post-war boom gave way to a period of economic crisis and the neoliberal ‘counter-revolution’ to restore capitalist profitability at the expense of the working-class, workers and oppressed groups had no political party that could effectively fight for their interests, against those of the big corporations defended by both the Republican and the Democratic parties.
The long march back
Overturning Roe has been the ultimate aim of anti-abortionists since the ruling was first made nearly 50 years ago. But it has been about much more than the much-quoted ‘sanctity of life’ and ‘rights of the unborn child’. Abortion became the central, unifying factor that bound the Christian right and those looking to stem the shift in social attitudes that occurred in the wake of the social protest movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Social gains made by women and ‘sexual minorities’ threatened the traditional family which conservatives consider the bedrock of society. Abortion and contraception, they argued, undermine the God-given role of women as child-bearer and child-rearer. Along with easier access to divorce, the argument goes, they encourage promiscuity and increase family breakdown, leading to social instability. Therefore, everything must be done to shore up the family as a social institution and defend traditional gender roles.
It was from the 1970s that the Christian right turned to political activism, targeting the Republican party where they looked to get socially conservative, anti-abortion candidates elected at every level. The party came increasingly to rely on the votes the ‘New Right’ could mobilise at election time, and they were crucial to the election as president in 1980 of Ronald Regan, who stood on an anti-abortion platform.
Three years after Roe the first major victory of the anti-abortionists was achieved with the passing of the ‘Hyde amendment’ which banned federal funding for abortions. Signed into law by Democrat President Jimmy Carter, it effectively denied the right to abortion for the poorest women without health insurance. Joe Biden, a Delaware senator from 1973, voted in favour of the amendment.
When both Reagan and George Bush senior failed to satisfy the anti-abortionists once in the presidency, mainly through fear of the backlash that a full-frontal attack on Roe would create, in the late 1980s and 1990s the anti-abortion ‘Operation Rescue’ organisation resorted to spectacular, media-attracting ‘civil disobedience’ and direct action. This involved picketing, blockading and firebombing abortion clinics, and harassing and stalking patients and clinic staff, including the murder of doctors who carried out abortions. When it became clear that these extreme tactics were backfiring, alienating more ‘moderate’ anti-abortionists and damaging the Republicans, tactics began to focus more on implementing restrictions and obstacles at a local and state level that would make it more difficult for women to access abortions, gradually chipping away at reproductive rights. The 1992 Supreme Court ‘Casey’ ruling paved the way for this by allowing states to introduce restrictions as long as they didn’t impose an ‘undue burden’ on women seeking an abortion.
So in Mississippi, for example, the poorest state in the US, anyone wanting an abortion has had to make two separate visits to a clinic that might be hundreds of miles from their home. Other states have forced women to undergo ‘foetal heartbeat’ scans or have introduced onerous regulations that oblige clinics to make expensive and unnecessary structural adjustments, or be forced to shut down. Between 2012 and 2020 a third of all abortion clinics in the US closed. Last year, 600 abortion restrictions were proposed in state legislatures, 90 of which became law, more than in any year since Roe.
The contradictions of the era
The US has its own specific social and political features but is not the only country where abortion rights have recently come under attack. In 2021 the right-wing Polish Law and Justice (PiS) government severely tightened already restrictive limits on terminations – effectively criminalising abortion in almost all cases – provoking mass protests. Abortion rights have also been limited in Brazil and a number of other countries. It is still totally illegal in 24 countries around the globe, and in 37 it is only available if the woman’s life is in danger. Internationally, unsafe abortions kill around 47,000 women every year. Yet, at the same time, important legal victories on abortion rights have been won following social movements, with women to the fore, in Ireland and Argentina, for example, as well as in Uruguay, Colombia and Mexico.
These seemingly contradictory trends reflect global processes, especially since the 2007-08 ‘Great Recession’, which have drastically eroded confidence in capitalist institutions, ideology and the establishment political parties that uphold them. The yawning gulf between the rich elite and the poor and ‘left behind’, the uncertainty and fear for the future that the economic crisis engendered, provoked a searching for an alternative, more radical politics, with many, especially young people, looking to the left – hence the massive initial support for Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain etc. Many of the movements initiated by women internationally over the past few years – for the legalisation of abortion, against violence towards women, to protest sexual harassment and sexism generally – have flowed from this radicalised mood, with anger at economic inequality spilling over into challenging all forms of inequality and injustice.
But at the same time, in some countries right-wing populist forces have become the electoral beneficiaries of the anti-establishment wave, aided by former mass workers’ parties becoming part of the capitalist establishment, and by the new radical forces failing to translate their support into an organised political alternative that could challenge capitalism.
The ‘anti-feminism’ and misogynist rhetoric of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the US is not reflective of social attitudes generally, and their election as president unleashed mass protests in both countries by women fearful of the severe attacks on their hard-won rights to come. Nevertheless, Trump and Bolsonaro were able to mobilise religious groups, especially evangelical Christians, around a socially conservative programme that promised restrictions on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, and tapped into the fears of a minority section of society looking for a return to old certainties in a rapidly changing and uncertain world. Trump rewarded his narrow but crucial social base by appointing three anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court, resulting in the current six to three conservative majority.
Emboldened, the anti-abortionists pushed even further, testing the legal and political boundaries. When in 2021 Texas passed the infamous and draconian SB8 law which bans abortion once a ‘foetal heartbeat’ can be heard – with no exemptions for women who become pregnant through incest or rape, and which would allow ‘bounty hunters’ to take legal action against anyone illegally carrying out or assisting a termination – the Supreme Court refused to block it. It is a Mississippi law passed in 2018, banning abortion after 15 weeks, which the Supreme Court has now ruled in favour of, eviscerating Roe V Wade.
A shallow social base
Only a small minority of Americans support a total ban on abortion: around 60% believe that it should be legal in “all or most” circumstances. And the majority of the capitalist class have no interest in going against this general mood; on the contrary, they are fearful of the consequences that overturning Roe could unleash. However, the capitalist class is not a homogeneous bloc but divided into different wings, with sometimes conflicting interests which also find their reflection in capitalist institutions; and this conflict becomes sharper in periods of economic and social crisis. So while ultimately the Supreme Court upholds the capitalist system, the decision to overturn Roe could actually potentially provoke a counter-movement that threatens the overall interests of the US capitalist class. This is just one of the costs of a populist president coming to power and the crisis of political representation that the unstable economic and social crisis of capitalism has engendered.
The traditional ‘family values’ promoted by the religious right can at times play a certain ideological role, and capitalism certainly benefits enormously economically from the unpaid caring work carried out by women in the home. But although there has been a small decline in the participation of women in the workforce since Covid, their participation is still around 54.5% – compared to 65.7% for men – and there is certainly no concerted effort to push women back into the home. On the contrary, the exploitation of cheaper female workers is still an important source of capitalist profits.
The majority of the capitalist class want a stable economic, social and political environment in which to make those profits. They understand that in a situation of economic crisis, social movements can rapidly move beyond the initial ‘trigger’ issue to become a lightning rod for the growing discontent in society. This is what happened in Poland in 2020, when women protesting in their tens of thousands against the Constitutional Court’s attack on abortion rights were joined by LGBTQ+ protesters, miners, farmers and other groups angry at austerity and the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic.
Moreover, ruling against Roe will not placate the conservative and religious right but whet their appetite for reversing other social gains. The Supreme Court’s ruling has been made on the basis that because Roe rests on the Fourteenth Amendment to the US constitution, which guarantees the right to privacy, it is legally flawed. Theoretically, this could open the door to also overturning the right to contraception, same-sex marriage, inter-racial marriage and the law on consensual sex, all of which are based on the same constitutional amendment. Already US states are increasingly making their own decisions on immigration, gay rights and other social issues. Overturning Roe will give a further impetus to the growing fragmentation of the US nation state as well as further undermining confidence in capitalist state institutions like the Supreme Court.
The way forward
Abortion rights can be defended and extended in the US today. But that requires broadening out the struggle from fundraising and mutual aid – both of which are, of course, necessary – to the building of a combative mass movement, with roots in the workplaces, communities, universities, schools etc; one that makes links with other movements for social justice, especially struggles by workers in the workplaces against low pay and exploitation.
From Roe onwards it has been clear that any movement to defend abortion rights cannot confine itself to legislative change alone, which unfortunately has been the approach of NGOs like Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, etc which have placed themselves at the head of the pro-choice movement. The constitutional right to abortion has not prevented women from being denied a termination, including on the basis of cost. It has never been free in the US, and women can pay as much as $500 for a termination, excluding travel and childcare costs, and loss of wages for taking time off work. So the legal right to abortion must be combined with demands for free Medicare for all that covers the full cost of abortion and for accessible local clinics.
Choice should be extended to every aspect of women’s reproductive rights. As well as free abortion on demand, this should include easy access to contraception through adequate public funding of reproductive and women’s health clinics, and democratic public control of the pharmaceutical and other related industries to ensure that the contraceptive methods available are safe and meet women’s needs. Sex, health and relationship lessons in schools should be democratically controlled by representatives of staff and student unions to guarantee an inclusive, non-judgemental education, free from prejudice and bigotry.
‘Pro-choice’ should also mean the right to give birth to and raise children free from poverty and social constraints. So the movement for the right to abortion should be combined with campaigning for demands such as a free and flexible network of quality, publicly funded, and democratically controlled childcare; real jobs for all on at least a decent minimum wage; the right to flexible working and adequately paid maternity and parental leave; quality public housing and transport; etc.
The attack on Roe is coinciding with the biggest onslaught on working-class living standards for 40 years. With soaring inflation, the potential to strengthen the struggle to defend and extend abortion rights by linking up with the workers’ and trade union struggle for decent pay, jobs and conditions is clearly posed. In the face of a united mass movement, reforms could be won as they were in the 1970s.
However, as we are seeing with Roe, reforms gained can also be taken away again. Many pro-choice organisations have looked to the election of Democrat politicians and officials to further their cause at local, state and federal level. They are now concentrating most of their fire on getting Democrats elected in the mid-term elections in November. Yet the Democrats have consistently failed to introduce legislation that would have backed up Roe and prevented the current Supreme Court attack, including when they had control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Moreover, as a party of big business they have resisted any of the economic and social reforms necessary to make ‘choice’ a reality for working-class women in particular. So securing lasting gains for women would entail breaking with illusions in the Democratic party and fighting for the formation of an independent, third party, based on the workers’ movement, that could pull together the struggles in the workplaces and the social movements for women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, against racism, and environmental destruction etc, and provide a socialist alternative to the capitalist profit system that could allow working-class and oppressed people real choice and control over every aspect of their lives.