On January 12, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that would require people seeking medical abortions to obtain the pill in person from a medical provider. In July, a U.S. District Judge in Maryland had waived this long standing FDA rule requiring in-person pickup in order to allow by-mail distribution of the abortion pill during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pill, mifepristone, can induce miscarriage in early pregnancy and is often the only access to abortion for people who live in remote areas far from healthcare facilities.
The Trump Administration explicitly asked the Supreme Court to reinstate this horribly restrictive FDA rule. This new decision by the Court will place substantial obstacles in the path of people attempting to access abortion, and marks the first attack on abortion that the Supreme Court has taken since the appointment of Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett.
Harsh Implications at the Height of COVID-19
Placing onerous restrictions on these medications while potent opioids can be prescribed and received by mail is yet another stark example of the courts’ and political establishment’s singular focus on creating obstacles in the way of access to abortion services. This decision is a crushing blow to those seeking access to safe and effective abortions, particularly at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is reaching record destruction. On the same day that the Supreme Court imposed this heinous ruling, the U.S. reported its highest single-day number of COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic emerged.
This decision will have disproportionate consequences for people of color, particularly Black and Latina people who are already bearing the brunt of COVID-19 risks. A decision that requires them to go into a doctor’s office to pick up a medication that could easily be prescribed through a telemedicine visit, and mailed to their home, poses a direct threat to their lives.
This ruling was not made based on sound medical rationale, but is rather an example of the conservative Supreme Court placing patients and healthcare workers at risk during a global pandemic to serve their own ideological gains.
Threat Posed by Conservative Supreme Court
One of the sharpest concerns about Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh’s appointments to the Supreme Court has been the danger of overturning Roe v. Wade. The 6-3 vote on this ruling signals the imminent threat the conservative majority court will have on reproductive rights moving forward. But what this vote also shows is that direct attacks on Roe v. Wade are not the only weapon conservatives have at their disposal. In fact, there are a slew of other ways in which the political establishment and the courts can continue to place barriers in the way of women’s ability to access reproductive services. Of course these barriers are drawn on class lines, as wealthy women will always have access to safe abortions. It is working class women that will suffer the consequences of the conservative ideology.
Now, we are seeing abortion rights activists putting pressure on Biden and Harris to “right this wrong” upon entering into office. It will be low hanging fruit for Biden to walk back the FDA’s requirements and it’s likely he’ll do so. But will he be prepared to do what it takes to make reproductive care genuinely accessible to working women by immediately moving toward a Medicare For All system? Considering he said he’d veto Medicare For All if it arrived on his desk, we’re doubtful. It’s also worth mentioning that the Democrats put up virtually no opposition to Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court beyond verbal declarations of disgust.
Lessons from the Victories in Argentina and Ireland
People who are angered by the Supreme Court’s latest attack on abortion rights should not forget that hard won victories like Roe v. Wade weren’t the result of progressive, well-meaning justices; the court at the time included four conservative, two centrist, and only three liberal justices. It was won through a determined mass movement. Hundreds of local protests demanding the legalization of abortion took place between 1969 and 1973 and ultimately, through the mass pressure from the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s, the Supreme Court made the concession to legalize abortion. This is crucial to keep in mind as further attacks come down from this Court. To see the power of mass movements in winning reproductive rights victories, all we have to do is look internationally in the past several years.
On December 30, the Argentine Congress passed a bill legalizing abortion. Previously, abortions were restricted to cases where the mother was facing a life threatening medical complication, or in cases of rape. Now, people in Argentina have access to safe, legal, and free abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy. This marks a triumphant victory for a region with some of the more restrictive abortion laws in the world.
This victory did not happen overnight, it was born out of generations of feminist struggle. In 2005, women’s rights activists launched La Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal Seguro y Gratuito—the Campaign for Safe, Free and Legal Abortion. This movement has united over 500 organizations including women’s groups, unions, health professionals, educators, activists, and others. This was not simply a victory handed down by the courts, but rather a victory fought for and won through a mass movement that has shifted public perception of abortion over more than a decade, and ultimately forced the hand of politicians and the courts to act.
Argentina is not the only example to point to. 2018 saw a historic victory for reproductive rights in Ireland when a nationwide referendum on a constitutional abortion ban was repealed by a 66.4% majority vote. Working class people, young people, women’s rights activists and socialists organized around a set of demands that drew a huge base of support. The Socialist Party, Socialist Alternative’s sister section in Ireland, and their elected members of the Dáil (similar to parliament) played a crucial role in building this struggle on the streets, and unapologetically fighting for women’s reproductive rights in the halls of power. This victory can be credited to mass mobilization and radical struggle that changed public opinion and led to the sweeping vote.
But we have not seen the end of the struggle in Ireland as today, access remains an incredible barrier due to lack of doctors who are willing to perform the procedure, administrative hurdles, and the fact that it is only legal up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Today, people in Ireland are getting out into the streets again chanting the slogan “get your rosaries off our ovaries!” as they continue to fight for expanded access to reproductive services. Every reform for reproductive justice that is won under capitalism must be fought for tooth and nail and is always at risk of being pulled back.
Reproductive freedom should not be fodder for the conservative courts. We deserve access to free, safe, and effective abortions. We deserve healthcare for all, that is not tied to employment and covers preventive care like contraceptives. We deserve a livable minimum wage and free universal public child care so that families have real choice in whether or not to have children.
This is why we must learn the lessons of these courageous victories internationally. We cannot rely on the Democrats, the political establishment, or the courts to hand down incremental concessions. We must build a broad movement that includes working people, youth, unions, and women’s rights groups, organized around a set of demands to fight for every reform that we can win under capitalism. But winning genuinely lasting change requires the construction of a fundamentally new society, a socialist society, where our rights are not determined by unelected councils of the elite, but rather by workers ourselves.