The Struggle for Abortion Rights After Roe

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The below article is the new introduction to Socialist Alternative’s book “Socialist Feminism and the New Women’s Movement.” Read the full book here!

The Supreme Court’s decision to completely overturn Roe v. Wade, while not unexpected, was still deeply shocking. Even though Republican attacks substantially weakened abortion access over the last several decades, the right to an abortion was correctly seen as a cornerstone of feminist progress won by the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Millions want to fight back against the right wing, and the Biden administration and the Democratic Party leadership in D.C. face a real political crisis because of their total failure to do anything to protect abortion rights.

The immediate effects, as of this writing, are that abortion is now illegal in nine states with a population of 40 million people. This is likely to increase to half of U.S. states in the coming weeks and months. Challenges to abortion bans are working their way through state courts, but in the absence of a major mass movement, the judicial system will not provide any real relief for the millions of women, girls, trans, and non-binary people who can get pregnant who will be forced to travel or use illegal means to access abortion care, or who will not be able to access care at all. This will inevitably hit poor women and women of color the hardest.

This is a historic defeat for women and the working class as a whole. Its effects will be felt around the world and will embolden right wing and far right forces to attack the gains of women and LGBTQ people. 

Anti-abortion groups in the U.S. say they will not stop with dismantling Roe and will aim for a nationwide ban, and even a federal constitutional amendment against abortion. In the short term, these are both ruled out. However, if Republicans regain control of Congress and the White House, a nationwide ban could become a threat.

The more immediate focus for the right is to try and pass legislation in various states where abortion is banned to prevent women from traveling out of state to obtain an abortion, and also to prevent people from accessing abortion pills. Medication abortion for women in the early stages of pregnancy will be a major issue since it is very safe, does not require a medical procedure, and the pills can be sent in the mail after a consultation with a doctor, which can be done via telemedicine. Medication abortions already account for 54% of abortions in the U.S. (according to the Guttmacher Institute).

The Reactionary Offensive

There are now widespread and very legitimate fears of other rights coming under attack. The Dobbs ruling attacked the underlying constitutional argument underpinning Roe, that abortion was among the unenumerated rights (i.e. not directly listed in the Constitution) linked to the privacy clause of the 14th Amendment, which was passed in the wake of the Civil War.

The ruling says only unenumerated rights “deeply rooted” in American history can be said to be constitutionally protected. So that would mean that other rights including marriage equality and even the right to contraception could also be overturned in the future, unless they are codified in law. Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion, explicitly pointed in this direction.

It cannot be stressed enough that the Supreme Court ruling does not reflect the views of the American population. Polls show a significant margin rejecting the ruling. A CBS/You Gov poll showed Americans considered it a “step backward” by a 20 point margin. The same poll said 60% of respondents and two thirds of women disapproved of the ruling, and 58% said they would approve of a federal law making abortion legal.

This ruling, and others on guns and climate change by the same court in recent weeks, conclusively show that the Court now has a hard-right, reactionary majority which will attempt to undo a whole series of historic progressive gains. It is the culmination of a 50 year effort by the highly organized Christian Right. While the Christian Right and the various anti-abortion groups represent a definite minority in society, and even in the Republican Party, they are an essential part of the reactionary coalition that fueled the rise of several Republican presidents – from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Donald Trump. 

The fact that the Christian Right has succeeded to this degree speaks mainly to the failures of the Democratic Party, traditional women’s organizations, and the leadership of the labor movement. Not only has the Democratic Party failed to codify Roe over a 50 year period when they controlled both Houses of Congress and the Presidency on a number of occasions, they actually helped to enact the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment in 1980. This legislative provision prevented federal funds from being used to provide abortion. It was the first part of the weakening of Roe

The Failure of Liberal Feminism

There was every indication that the reactionary majority on the Supreme Court intended to dismantle federal protection for abortion rights when they originally voted to hear the Dobbs case a year ago, again when the oral arguments were heard on December 1, and certainly when Alito’s draft decision was leaked in early May. Scandalously, the biggest and most well-known women’s organizations like NOW, Planned Parenthood, and Women’s March, by doing next to nothing, essentially sabotaged the potential to develop a mass movement to defend abortion rights. These organizations, as well as the biggest socialist organization in a generation in Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), should have been in full organizing mode over the last year, launching a major campaign to alert people that Roe v Wade was in danger, and to build a movement to safeguard it. Instead, the leadership of the major women’s organizations and DSA have put no real effort into organizing a fightback. 

The longtime affiliation of the large liberal women’s organizations with the Democratic Party is at the heart of why these organizations refuse to take any serious approach to building the movement that is objectively necessary. The Democratic leadership is actually afraid of its own base. The last thing it wants is a new mass movement of young women and LGBTQ people filling the streets fighting for abortion rights, and demanding Medicare-For-All, paid parental leave, and free childcare, particularly while a Democratic president sits in the White House. 

The extreme impotence of the Biden administration and Democratic leadership has been glaringly obvious in the days since the Dobbs decision. Cynically, Democratic politicians used the moment to send out mass fundraising emails and texts. After 50 years of Democratic failure to defend Roe, it is now clear, particularly to young people, that relying on the Democrats will have catastrophic results. Roe v. Wade was not the result of a progressive Supreme Court, but an expression of the pressure that a series of mass movements, including a powerful women’s movement, put on the political establishment. What is necesary is a new movement to defend abortion rights that is independent of the Democratic Party. 

A New Movement

Socialist Alternative has been warning of the danger represented by the Dobbs case for many months. Our position is that the way to push back on the right wing offensive on women, LGTBQ people and trans youth is by organizing a mass movement of working class and young people to fight for a program of free abortion on demand paid for by a Medicare-For-All healthcare system that includes full gender-affirming care, all of which should be funded by taxing corporations and the billionaire class. A movement for reproductive justice should also raise demands like free childcare, fully paid parental leave, and fully funded public schools that would allow working class people a real choice in whether to raise a family on a stable basis. 

Such a movement, if it is going to be able to defeat the right-wing assault on bodily autonomy and the determined inaction of the Democrats, would have to be massive, and would need to use escalating tactics including protests, walkouts, occupations, and other forms of civil disobedience – and potentially even strikes – to create a political emergency in society that forces the ruling class to act.

It would need organizations of struggle where democratic debate about the way forward could take place and coordinated actions could be planned, and it would need a leadership capable of bold initiative. Given that the right will focus on criminalizing distribution of abortion pills, resistance to those attacks will be very important. Networks will be built to distribute the pills and to provide safe, illegal abortion. We support these efforts but for them to be fully effective and protected from the vigilant ire of the right, they must be linked to a mass struggle strategy that seeks to bring the issue out into the open and demonstrate the broad support in society for legal, safe abortions.

Thousands in cities across the country came to protests on June 24, which expressed a small fraction of the rage that is developing beneath the surface of society. It is undeniable that the right holds the momentum currently, but this situation will not be permanent.  The Dobbs decision, although a serious defeat, is also contributing to the deeper discrediting of the institutions of capitalism among working people. If the Republicans go on to pass laws targeting women who travel for abortion care, and/or other extremely inflammatory measures, from abortion rights to the climate, they will at some stage provoke a much deeper revolt to their reactionary overreach. From the pandemic, systemic racism, inflation, the housing shortage, a climate on fire to the epidemic of untreated mental health problems, and much more, most young people’s experience of the capitalist system is of severe overlapping crises which the political establishment has no answers for.  

Rebuilding the Labor Movement

After years where the U.S. labor movement has been marked by a protracted decline, women, young people, and LGBTQ people have been at the center of a new upsurge in labor activity. Predominantly women schoolteachers kicked off a resurrection of the strike tactic with the “Red for Ed” movement of teacher walkouts that began in West Virginia. More recently, the unionization of the logistics and service sectors has been put on the agenda primarily by young workers. At Starbucks, LGBTQ people and women are playing lead roles in winning union elections in over 100 stores, and young workers at Amazon, where women are a majority of the warehouse and call center workforce, made history by forming the first union at the e-commerce giant. 

Workers, organized collectively, have the power to stop the flow of profits to the capitalist class. Organized on a wide enough scale, workers have the power to shut down the entire economy. The social power that women, young workers, and LGBTQ people have contributed so significantly to building in reestablishing the profile of going on strike and in building new unions can be an extremely powerful element in a mass movement. A new movement to secure abortion rights will likely be combined with a movement to win a broader program of demands that represents the needs of low wage workers–who are majority women, as well as LGBTQ people and people of color.  

An International Struggle

In many countries around the world, winning or defending the right to abortion access has been a key feature of women’s movements in recent years. From the historic repeal of the constitutional ban on abortion in Ireland in 2018 to the Green Wave movement which won legal abortion last year in Argentina, millions across the world have mobilized to fight for new reproductive rights gains, and to defend abortion rights from right-wing attacks. Significant movements for abortion rights are building in Chile and the Dominican Republic, and in both Mexico and Colombia the decriminalization of abortion was recently won. These victories are part of a longer trend: since 2000, 31 countries have expanded access to abortion.

Campaigns to win abortion rights are part of a broader global women’s revolt which has exploded on every continent in recent years. Women have stepped forward to lead movements fighting for feminist demands, and and have come to play outsize roles in struggles where the primary demands are not around women’s rights, such as in the revolutionary movements in Sudan and Myanmar. In the years just prior to the pandemic, International Women’s Day was revived as a major event with mass rallies and walkouts in many countries. #MeToo was a truly international phenomenon, and the fight against sexual violence has fueled movements in the streets in countries all across the world, and spurred a wave of high school walkouts in the U.S. 

Attacks by the right wing on abortion have also been a growing feature internationally, including the current one in the United States. In some countries, right-wing parties and governments, often linked to conservative religious forces, are using the issue of abortion to moblize their bases. The 2016 Polish “Black Monday” protest saw over 100,000 workers, mainly women, walk off the job to defeat the right-wing Law and Justice party’s attempt to push through a total abortion ban. This protest, was a watershed event, inspiring activists and movements around the world to fight for women’s rights in general, and the right to abortion in particular. 

The need for the ruling class to control women’s reproductive choices continues to be a feature of capitalist society. A number of capitalist regimes today are concerned with the reproduction of the working class and maintaining the population at a level where there will be enough workers to avoid economic stagnation and crisis. In both Iran and China, the regimes are facing long-term trends towards declining population and part of their response has been to strengthen penalties for abortions in Iran, and to begin to restrict abortion access in China.

The implications of the defeat of Roe will extend beyond U.S. borders. The right and far right, particularly those where it is strongly linked to religious reactionaries as it is in a number of Latin American countries, will be emboldened by the overturn of Roe. In Guatemala, feminists and progressive activists recently succeeded in squashing a law championed by the right wing president Alejandro Giammattei, which would have imposed even more severe penalties for abortions. The right will be looking for opportunities to overturn victories like this in Guatemala, as well as the bigger victories won in Colombia and Mexico.  

Conclusion

The end of Roe marks a stunning defeat for women and working people generally, and specifically to the pro-capitalist liberal feminism which has been promoted by figures like Hillary Clinton. The fiction that, as long as Democrats are elected, U.S. society is steadily and reliably becoming more progressive and just for women has been decisively shattered. Liberal feminism, with its focus on ensuring that a tiny handful of women can climb to the same heights as men, as CEOs and world leaders, has not only ignored the needs of working class and poor women, but now has utterly failed to maintain the basic level of bodily autonomy that abortion rights provided. The capitalist system as a whole, including the corrupt political establishment that serves it, has been more and more exposed by the series of crises of recent years for its injustice, brutality, and hypocrisy. 

The right wing attack on abortion rights is a visceral reminder that women and LGBTQ people will never be liberated under capitalism, and that every gain that oppressed people win under capitalism can be taken back from us. What is needed to defeat the right is a mass movement organized around a program of demands that represents the needs of working class and poor women, is led by organizations of struggle that are independent of the capitalist system including the Democrats, and that fights back using a range of class struggle methods including protests, walkouts, direct action, and strikes. In short, what is needed is a socialist feminist approach that fights against the oppression of women and LGBTQ people as well as against the capitalist system itself, while basing itself on the power of working class people.