Chapter 10: Winning the Right to Choose

Both mainstream feminist organizations and radical feminist groups were active in the fight for abortion rights. NOW became the first national organization to demand the abolition of all laws restricting abortion in 1967. NOW founder Betty Friedan was central to the establishment of National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), which led the mainstream campaign for abortion rights. NARAL often worked with the women’s liberation movement to stage provocative events, such as speak-outs where women testified about their own abortion experiences. Debates against anti-abortion activists were another favored tactic of NARAL, and the organization produced materials giving advice on how to stage and win debates and how to get maximum media coverage.

The CWLU staged a direct action at the American Medical Association’s convention, where activists infiltrated the event and presented a list of demands that included free, legal abortion. Speak-outs where women testified about their harrowing experiences undergoing illegal abortions and protests in the state legislature helped turn the tide in New York State, and abortion laws were relaxed in 1970. Similar campaigns were erupting across the country and 14 states liberalized abortion laws to varying degrees prior to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

In Washington State, a group of physicians concerned about the threat of illegal abortions to women’s health managed to get an abortion initiative onto the state ballot in 1970. Two Seattle feminist organizations reframed the issue as a question of women’s liberation and built a grassroots movement to fight for every vote. Women’s Liberation Seattle produced and sold 10,000 copies of a pamphlet entitled One in Four of Us Have Had or Will Have an Abortion. Rallies and meetings were held all over the state and activists leafleted and door-knocked to get the word out. Busloads of protesters traveled to the state capitol to pressure lawmakers to support the initiative. Five hundred women’s liberation activists came to downtown Seattle the week before the vote to drown out a small anti-abortion rally. In the end, the initiative passed with 56% voting in favor of women’s right to an abortion.

The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide was a historic victory for the women’s rights movement. In a sequence that bears similarity to the more recent struggle for marriage equality, a conservative Supreme Court bent to the pressure of a nationwide mass movement and the resulting shift in popular attitudes on abortion. The court, representing the interests of the ruling class, was forced by the movement into action if it wanted to avoid further mass radicalization.

Reproductive Rights: More than Abortion

Winning the right to an abortion across the country was life-changing for millions of women and for generations to come. As we explained earlier, the right to abortion is a crucial part of reproductive justice, which socialists argue must include real sex education, freely available contraception, and all other health services for women as part of a nationalized health care system. It must also include fighting for a society in which women are not forced by economic circumstances to have an abortion. In other words, the right of working-class and poor women to choose to have a child is part and parcel of the struggle for reproductive rights.

An issue that illustrated the need for feminists to campaign on a full program of reproductive justice was the historic crime of sterilization abuse. Women of color in the 1970s campaigned to end sterilization abuse, gaining national media attention due to a lawsuit filed by the family of Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf, black sisters from Mississippi who had been sterilized unbeknownst to themselves or their parents at the ages of 12 and 14.

Women, men, and as the Relf case illustrated, children, were sterilized without their informed consent – and often without their knowledge – in federally-funded programs that were part of racist and anti-poor eugenics laws passed in the early 20th century in over 30 states. Historically these laws targeted poor whites as well as people of color.

The experience of Puerto Rican women was particularly horrific. They were the targets of a program of sterilization beginning in the late 1930s. According to a 1965 survey of Puerto Rican residents, 30% of mothers aged 20-49 were sterilized. In the early 1970s, between 25% and 50% of Native American women were sterilized. Black women were also targeted for forced sterilization, particularly in the South, but also in other regions, and the procedure came to be referred to as the “Mississippi Appendectomy.”

Activists, led by Puerto Rican physician Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, formed the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse (CESA) and lobbied the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (DHEW), the federal agency that paid for most government-funded sterilization programs, to institute new practices to ensure informed consent before sterilizations were performed. Latina activists spearheaded a lawsuit, Madrigal v. Quilligan, against the Los Angeles county hospital and several doctors who routinely sterilized Mexican immigrant women who underwent cesarean sections there. The campaign to get justice in the Madrigal case included working with CESA and Comision Femenil, a Chicana/Latina feminist organization, to organize a protest outside the hospital.

Anti-sterilization activists argued for a waiting period for sterilization procedures to help ensure that women were not misinformed or coerced. This became a point of contention in the women’s movement. Women’s liberation organizations that were influenced by socialist feminism, such as CLWU and the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC), understood that reproductive justice for women wasn’t just about abortion, particularly for women of color, and they demanded an end to forced sterilization. CLWU in particular campaigned against sterilization abuse and supported the waiting period. However, the California chapter of NOW opposed any waiting period in the midst of the Madrigal women’s struggle for justice.

NOW’s failure to stand in solidarity with women of color reflected its orientation to white, middle-class women. In the 1970s, population control was a prominent theme in the arsenal of institutionalized racism. Women of color were portrayed as out-of-control reproducers who were over-taxing society’s resources and overwhelming the white population. Sterilizations, whether or not they were coerced, could be obtained for free, with clinics and doctors paid by the DHEW. Conversely, abortions, only legalized in 1973, were made economically unavailable to poor women with the passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1976 which banned the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. Bodily autonomy, even after Roe v. Wade, remained out of reach for poor women who were disproportionately black and brown.

The divisions around the question of fighting sterilization abuse speak to a wider problem, namely the failure of the broad mass of the women’s movement to unite around a program centered around the needs of working-class women, women of color, and LGBTQ women. Such a program would have linked abortion rights to the fight to end poverty and segregation, for universal health care and paid parental leave, and for good unionized jobs for women that would enable them to exercise real choice. It would have therefore pointed toward linking the struggle for women’s liberation to the struggle of the whole working class to end capitalism. While this would have required a struggle with the pro-capitalist wing of the movement, it would have potentially inspired millions more to join the struggle.