On 22 January 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in its historic Roe v. Wade decision. The Bible thumpers immediately launched a counteroffensive, and not long after, the federal and state governments began to chip away at abortion rights. Over the last two years, Republican-controlled state legislatures, with the support of some Democrats, have passed an unprecedented barrage of anti-abortion measures across the country. Although he lauded Roe on its last anniversary, President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2010 to “ensure” that federal funds from his signature health care plan “are not used for abortion services.”
The existing arsenal of state and federal restrictions has all but eliminated abortion as an option for many women. As a Time magazine cover article titled “What Choice?” (14 January) notes: “The number of abortion providers nationwide shrank from 2,908 in 1982 to 1,793 in 2008, the latest year for which data is available. Getting an abortion in America is, in some places, harder today than at any point since it became a constitutionally protected right 40 years ago this month.”
The wave of state anti-abortion measures, which include 92 enacted in 2011 and 43 in 2012, aims to whittle away abortion rights piecemeal by piling up delays and expenses that make the process as difficult as possible for both women and doctors. These “salami tactics” include waiting periods, parental consent requirements for minors, ultrasound tests, mandatory disinformation under the guise of “counseling,” bans on doctor-patient consults by telephone, the elimination of state funding and restrictions on private insurance coverage. Abortion clinics also are increasingly being made to expand procedure rooms and widen hallways to match ambulatory surgical centers—medically useless but hugely expensive requirements that will force many facilities to shut down. “It’s never been this frightening before,” the longtime director of a Pittsburgh abortion clinic recently commented on such requirements. “I don’t know if we’re going to make it” (Washington Post, 14 January).
A longstanding goal of the anti-abortion forces is to set up a test case to overturn Roe v. Wade. To advance this agenda, the God squad has pushed for “fetal pain” and “fetal homicide” laws that are on the books in many states. On January 11, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors can treat a fetus as an “unborn child,” upholding the convictions of two mothers on felony charges of “chemical endangerment of a child” because they had allegedly taken drugs during pregnancy. An anti-abortion bill enacted last month in Michigan originally included a ghoulish provision, ultimately removed, that would have required fetal remains to be disposed of “by means lawful for other dead bodies, including burial, cremation or interment.”
The same day as the Alabama ruling, the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi missed the state-mandated deadline for its doctors to obtain privileges to admit patients at a local hospital. This requirement was signed into law last year by the governor vowing that it would “end abortion in Mississippi,” the state with the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country. No local hospital was willing to affiliate with the clinic, and the state medical journal even refused to run the clinic’s ad seeking a doctor with the required privileges.
The legislative assault on abortion rights is backed by harassment of patients and staff at clinics and at times raw terror in the form of bombings and murders. We honor the many courageous doctors and staff whose lives have been taken by the anti-abortion zealots. Most recently, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in 2009 in Wichita, Kansas, because of the medical services he had provided women, including late-term abortions. The new wave of laws will only embolden the anti-abortion terrorists. Speaking to the fears of many abortion providers, the director of Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo, North Dakota, told Time: “Even if I’m at Target looking at clothes, I never let my guard down.”
The anti-woman bigots view abortion as a threat to the patriarchal family—the main source of women’s oppression—that along with religion is a key prop of capitalist class rule, helping to regiment the population and instill social conservatism. As Marxists, we fight for full democratic rights and social services for women, including free abortion on demand. Unrestricted access to abortion and contraception is essential for all women, including teenagers, to exercise control over whether and when they will have children. There is an urgent need for mass struggle to defend abortion rights.
Faced with attacks on their livelihoods, benefits and bodies, over two- thirds of single women who cast ballots in the 2012 election voted for Obama. It was not hard for Democrats to pose as allies of women, with Mitt Romney vowing to take steps to overturn Roe v. Wade and Tea Party troglodytes spewing on about “legitimate” rape. But although the Republicans may forthrightly prefer to keep women “barefoot and pregnant,” the Democratic Party—the other party of racist U.S. capitalism—is no alternative. Obama has pandered to religious reaction, including by reversing the FDA’s approval of over-the-counter access to the morning-after birth control pill for teens. In advancing the interests of the capitalist exploiters, both bourgeois parties espouse “family values” that serve to keep women “in their place.”
Despite their pro-choice rhetoric catering to higher income and bourgeois women who already have the means to get an abortion if needed, the Democrats have repeatedly slashed access to abortion for working women and the poor. The first major post-Roe attack on abortion rights took place under “born again” Democrat Jimmy Carter, who in 1977 sneered, “There are many things in life that are not fair,” as he signed into law the Hyde Amendment that eliminated abortion coverage from the Medicaid health plans of 23 million poor women. The Hyde Amendment has been renewed every year since, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans were in the White House.
The Democratic administration of Bill Clinton carried out a relentless campaign against poor and black women that went virtually unopposed by feminists as long as abortion remained formally legal. In 1996, as part of his campaign to “end welfare as we know it,” Clinton signed the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” which slashed benefits for women and children, leaving the most vulnerable members of society to starve and die. Already ground down by the entrenched racial and ethnic oppression and anti-woman bigotry of American capitalism, minority and poor women have been hit especially hard by the attacks on abortion rights. Over two-thirds of U.S. women who have abortions are economically disadvantaged, and black and Hispanic women are more than twice as likely as white women to experience unwanted pregnancies and to have abortions.
For decades, bourgeois feminist groups like the National Organization for Women and NARAL Pro-Choice America have campaigned to elect Democrats to “fight the right” and “save Roe v. Wade.” Last November, feminists and liberal activists celebrated the defeat of Indiana’s Republican U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who had outrageously remarked that pregnancies conceived in rape are what “God intended to happen.” But the Democrat who beat Mourdock, Joe Donnelly, has bragged that he has “consistently opposed abortion and will continue to do so in Congress.”
The war on abortion rights, a battering ram for social and political reaction, is part of the generalized and bipartisan assault on the rights and living conditions of working people—from union-busting and mass layoffs to skyrocketing medical costs and the shredding of what is left of the social safety net. It is no coincidence that last month’s Michigan anti-abortion package came out of the same “lame duck” legislative session that enacted a union-busting “right to work” law (see article in WV No. 1015, 11 January).
It is in the interest of the working class, with its hands on the wheels of production, to use its social power to fight to defend itself as well as the rights of women and all the oppressed. Such struggles must be waged independently of all the capitalist parties as part of the fight for free, quality health care for all, along with 24-hour childcare facilities at work and in the community. With untold millions of American families staggering from wage cuts, pink slips and home evictions amid the seemingly intractable economic downturn, it is clearer than ever that the capitalist rulers do not accord living children the same solicitous concern as the fetus.
The legalization of abortion 40 years ago was the product of the tumultuous struggles of the 1960s, especially the fight for black equality and the Vietnam antiwar movement, which were catalysts for the women’s rights movement of that era. In the face of class and social struggle, the capitalist class may cede some reforms. But the only way to ensure those gains are not undone is for the working class to wrest power and the wealth of society from the capitalist rulers. Women’s emancipation can be realized only with the victory of proletarian revolution, which will smash all forms of social oppression, lay the material basis to free women from age-old family servitude and reorganize society in the interests of all. The Spartacist League/U.S. is committed to fighting to build a revolutionary workers party to lead that struggle.