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How The Abortion Rights Movement Can Push Back The Far Right

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Millions of abortion rights supporters breathed a sigh of relief in late March when the US Supreme Court signaled its unwillingness to ban mifepristone, one of the two main drugs in medication abortions. Anti-abortion activists have been aggressively challenging the legality of distributing the drug by mail and argued it should be pulled from distribution entirely, which would be a massive blow to safe, early abortion access across the US. However while this one attack appears to have been rebuffed at least for the moment, the broader fight for abortion rights rages on.

Over the course of the last two years since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v Jackson decision eliminated federal protection for abortion, the far right has been passing increasingly restrictive bans in Republican-controlled states across the country. 14 states now have total abortion bans, meaning bans that cover every gestational stage of pregnancy, and seven additional states have bans that start within the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. 

The state Supreme Court in Florida just approved a law that shortens the window for a woman to get an abortion in the state to just six weeks – before many women know they’re pregnant – from where it previously stood at 15 weeks. In reality, the impacts of a six-week ban in Florida reach far beyond the state’s borders. By allowing abortion up to 15 weeks, Florida had been one of the most accessible places in the South for women to get abortions, since many Southern states passed near-total  bans as soon as Roe was overturned. Over the past two years approximately 4,000 pregnant people have traveled to Florida to access abortion services, a 40% increase from before.  

Shortly after Florida’s ban was announced, the Arizona Supreme Court then went even further, resurrecting a law from 1864 – even Republican officials have called it “archaic” – banning abortion at every gestational stage. 

But while ultra-conservative pro-life groups are celebrating these victories, many Republicans, including Donald Trump, quickly moved to distance themselves by asserting the laws go “too far” and assuring people there will be “corrected”. Why? Because they are so dramatically out-of-step with public opinion, even among Republican voters, that it’s a liability for any candidate up for election this year.  

The Right To Abortion Is Undeniably Popular 

62% of Republicans say decisions about abortion should be made by women and their doctors. 43% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Very few support extreme bans like those passed by the Florida and Arizona Supreme Courts. 

In fact, every single time the question of whether to strengthen abortion rights has been put to voters since Roe was overturned, the answer has been ‘yes’ regardless of which party tends to win elections in the state. Voters in seven states – California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, Ohio and Vermont – have all passed measures strengthening abortion rights. At the same time, measures seeking to restrict abortion rights have been voted down in a number of states. 

A grassroots abortion rights coalition has already succeeded in getting a measure, known as Amendment 4, on the November ballot in Florida which would amend the state constitution to protect abortion rights until viability, effectively undoing the Court’s six-week ban. Amendment 4 supporters collected nearly a million signatures, well over the number necessary to get on the ballot. Constitutional amendments have a 60% threshold to be approved rather than a simple majority, which means it will be important for supporters to keep up the momentum behind Amendment 4 right up until the final moment. 

A similar measure is being promoted by abortion rights activists in Arizona, who claim they have already collected the necessary signatures to get their initiative on the ballot. Enshrining abortion protections into the state constitution in Florida and Arizona, two big, conservative-leaning states, would be a huge boost for abortion rights nationally and could signal a decisive shift in the momentum the far-right has had on this issue since 2022. 

Whereas the past two years have constituted a slow-motion tidal-wave of abortion attacks by state legislators and judges, we’re now seeing a significant counter-wave of abortion rights initiatives organized by grassroots coalitions in state after state. In addition to Florida and Arizona, initiatives to strengthen or expand abortion rights are in the works in Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, and South Dakota. That’s a total of nine states where, this November, voters could see abortion rights initiatives on the ballot.

The mere fact of an abortion measure being on the ballot is likely to increase turnout among abortion rights supporters. Prior to the overturn of Roe, around two-thirds of voters who cited abortion as their #1 issue were motivated by a desire to restrict abortion access. Since then, the figures have inverted. Today, those motivated primarily by abortion are twice as likely to be supporting abortion rights as opposing them. 

Should Abortion Rights Supporters Vote For Biden?

The fact that so many abortion measures are likely to be on the ballot in so many key swing states while abortion is driving turnout of progressive voters at around twice the rate of conservatives is a nightmare for Republicans and a hail-Mary for the floundering Biden campaign, which has already pivoted to make abortion a central part of its messaging.  

It’s completely understandable that supporters of abortion rights want to deal as many defeats as possible to the Republicans who have been spearheading these attacks. But the question has to be asked, how exactly can we expect Biden and the Democrats to protect abortion rights in the future if they didn’t stop any of the attacks of the past two years? 

When the Dobbs decision was leaked, Democrats not only controlled the White House, but both houses of Congress as well. With the advanced warning offered by the leak, they could have mounted an all-out defense of Roe by codifying it into federal law and immediately launching a dramatic scaling-up of resources for abortion and comprehensive reproductive care across the country. Going on the offensive in this manner and backing it up by organizing mass protests of millions of abortion rights supporters nationwide could have completely taken the wind out of the sails of the far right and made enforcing abortion bans all but impossible. 

But instead, what did the Democrats do? They went to the protests that were spontaneously popping up all over the country and said, essentially, that the biggest threat at the time was actually more Republicans getting elected in the midterms, and that we should take all our anger and energy and channel it into campaigning for Democratic candidates. And it worked, voter turnout for Democrats exceeded all expectations, the predicted “red wave” was more of a ripple, and Democrats managed to maintain control of the Senate. 

The “elect Democrats” strategy still hasn’t paid off. If our original goal was to protect abortion rights, then the strategy of channeling the movement’s energy into Democratic election campaigns failed miserably, because what we got was two years of expanding and intensifying restrictions on abortion access leading right up to today. It’s true that most Democratic legislatures and Governors have passed laws protecting abortion rights in the states they control. But they haven’t taken up the fight in an offensive way the way the Republicans have, despite public opinion being very firmly in favor of abortion, and as a result abortion rights lost a huge amount of ground.

Making matters worse, Biden and Democratic state legislators did nothing to protect working families as inflation drove living costs through the roof. Instead they used it as an excuse to cut funding for everything from social programs to public education, right when more funding was urgently needed. This failure to address the needs of working people is directly responsible for the rise of Trump and growth in support for the far right. Polls have shown that as people’s sense of economic security has decreased under Biden, their perception of the economy under Trump’s administration has become more positive. Biden has fully supported Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza, largely continued Trump-era immigrant policies, failed to protect trans rights, accelerated fossil fuel production, and broken his promise to cancel student debt, effectively alienating many of the Democrats’ historic stronghold demographics. 

In reality, either a Trump or Biden presidency will result in the far right growing stronger and continuing to attack abortion rights. The only way to fight back is to build the strongest possible left alternative to Biden and Trump. In this election that means voting for one of the two independent left candidates, Cornel West or Jill Stein, and getting organized to build a new party that can challenge the rule of the Democrats and Republicans.

What Strategy To Win?

We can’t afford to let the Democrats run the momentum of the abortion rights movement into the ground again this election year. Supporters of Amendment 4 in Florida and the initiatives in Arizona and the 7 other states need to go all out to build the strongest possible campaigns. Rather than linking themselves to Democratic candidates who have alienated themselves from ordinary people by cutting funding to social services while spending billions on weapons for imperialist wars, these coalitions should mobilize the broadest possible layers of working people with demands for fully funded, comprehensive reproductive care, Medicare For All and free high-quality childcare paid for by taxing big corporations and the super-rich. 

Building the strongest movement possible behind these initiatives requires building independent of the Democrats, who will never support the type of demands that are most appealing to working class people and who will always put the interests of their big-business donors first. Our campaigns need to be completely different – funded by and accountable to ordinary working people and grassroots movements, not big business or billionaire donors. 

Initiative organizers should get endorsements from as many labor and community organizations as possible and organize public rallies and days of action as a show of strength and to give ordinary people a way to actively participate in the campaign. Union members should put forward resolutions in their unions calling for no endorsement of Biden or Trump and for an endorsement of any abortion rights initiatives on the ballot and mobilize their fellow union members out to campaign for them. Initiatives in different states should link up and organize a national grassroots campaign for abortion and reproductive rights, medicare for all including gender-affirming care, and free childcare for working families all paid for by taxing the rich. Such a campaign would be explosively popular and could be the basis to organize a real, effective resistance to the agenda of Trump and the far right.

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