The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 72 (September 2004).

Reproductive Rights Under Attack

Mainstream “pro-choice” groups are betraying the fight

A March for Women’s Lives took place on August 28 in New York as part of the anti-Republican National Convention protests, attracting about 25,000 defenders of legalized abortion. Politically, the protest repeated the theme of the historically huge March for Women’s Lives last April in Washington D.C. From the podium, speaker after speaker stumped for the Democrats and said the solution was to vote Bush out. But the truth is that abortion has been under attack since it was won in 1973, and both Democratic and Republican politicians have overseen these attacks.

In brief, the dominant “pro-choice” organizations are betraying the fight. The force that won the right to legal abortion was mass action – from a conservative Supreme Court under Republican President Nixon. The legalization of abortion, codified in the Roe v. Wade decision, was a hard-won victory. It was achieved in large part as a result of the women’s liberation struggles of the 1960’s and early 70’s, itself inspired by the Black liberation explosions and the anti-Vietnam war upsurge. At the same time it was a very qualified triumph, since it left the door open to future narrowing by the courts. The ruling was generally clear about the right to abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy, but it also recognized the right of the state to restrict or prohibit abortion after fetal “viability.” It was based on an abstract concept of individual rights and not on the social needs of women as an oppressed group.

Today the only way to begin to stop attacks on legal abortion and related gains is through mass mobilization. The acts and consciousness of the working class will prove central. Experience shows as well that any gain under capitalism will be temporary and limited. Revolutionary solutions are necessary.

Electoralism vs. Mass Action

The strategy of relying on the Democrats is a terrible substitute for building the fight that is both needed and very possible. Planned Parenthood has become a main organization pushing this strategy. Mainstream sponsors of the marches, all favoring the same strategy, included the National Organization of Women (NOW), NARAL Pro-Choice America (formerly the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League), Feminist Majority, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and the Black Women’s Health Imperative. As we will demonstrate, none of these organizations represent the point of view of the working class. They even betray the interests of their base of middle-class women. And the interests of Black and Latina working-class women are particularly ignored. Under capitalism, where everything is determined along class and race lines, access to abortion is no exception.

Because they are wedded to pro-capitalist electoralism, none of the mainstream organizations fight for a militant strategy. Until April 25, 2004, there had not been one mass protest called since 1992. Yet these years have seen a number of significant legislative defeats, buttressed by violence against abortion clinics and direct threats and assaults on women and abortion providers. Just this July, an abortion clinic in Palm Beach County, Florida, was firebombed by as yet unknown arsonists. Yet in most cases there have been no been mobilizations to defend the clinics.

The legislative defeats, as well as many of the clinic attacks, could have been fought with massive mobilizations and militant tactics. Yet the first “pro-choice” rally in a dozen years took place only after these rulings were in place – to provide an election-year boost for the Democrats. The leaders recite a litany of the awful things that have happened under Bush – as if masses of women were powerless to stop him.

For example, on April 7, President Bush signed the reactionary Unborn Victims of Violence Act. This law elevates the status of a fetus to be equal to that of the mother, making it a separate crime to kill or injure a fetus during the commission of another federal crime. Although this law doesn’t overtly reclassify abortion as murder, granting legal rights to the fetus independent of the mother intentionally provides legal groundwork for the future prosecution of women who seek or have abortions, as well as of those who provide them. Yet this federal law was only the capstone of similar laws in twenty-seven states – and there had been a years-long energetic campaign by anti-abortion forces before its enactment. No actions were organized against it by the pro-choice outfits.

This legislation was cynically but effectively crafted to present itself as protecting the well-being of the fetus as well as pregnant women, which of course is a matter of genuine concern. The anti-abortion politicians conveniently show such touching concern for the welfare of fetuses and pregnant women only when it suits them, whereas their aim is actually to undermine the rights of women. These hypocrites oversee a system and advocate policies that offer miserable health protection and living conditions for the masses of human beings already on the planet – never mind for the next generation ahead.

The same scenario had occurred with the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. This law on the surface appeared to target only a rarely performed specific late-term abortion procedure. Its actual purpose will be to undermine the right to the more commonly practiced abortion procedures during the first or second trimester as well. No mass rally was organized against the ban, which had also had precedents in many state laws in prior years. Sizeable minorities of Democrats in both House and Senate voted for it.

Democratic Party: No Savior for Women

The mainstream women’s rights organizations make the argument that electing Democrats is needed to ensure that future Supreme Court justices will be “pro-choice.” However, Roe v. Wade was one of many decisions that prove that judges are not immune to the pressure of mass action. On the other hand, left to their own devices, Democratic-controlled Congresses have frequently approved nominations of judges who are notorious enemies of legal abortion rights; a notable example is Clarence Thomas.

Moreover, Democratic presidents have hardly protected women. Yes, they sometimes provided a weak defense against particularly vehement campaigns by the “pro-lifers.” But they also have caved in substantially and have led particular attacks themselves. In fact, cataclysmic decisions that chipped away significantly at real access to legalized abortion took place under Democrats as well as Republicans.

“Choice” vs. Working-Class Reality

The majority of the working class supports legal abortion, although it has never been galvanized into action. Yet feelings remain somewhat mixed because the mainstream “pro-choice” organizations do not and cannot speak convincingly to working-class people.

For most women, abortion is not only a physical burden but a painful emotional ordeal. If they had the money, time and social support, many working-class and poor women would choose to have more children. But often the decision to abort is forced on them by the weight of economic and social circumstances. Furthermore, capitalist society is permeated with the dictum that bearing and taking care of children is a woman’s main role, while the state, especially in the U.S., provides little support for women and children. In this setting, women – especially working-class women – do not have the luxury of choosing from a wide range of options in living their lives and developing a range of potentials, including raising children or not. The “choice” sloganeering exposes the middle-class bias of the women’s rights outfits, which mainly represent women who are better off and do have some choices, even though they are still oppressed as women.

Even on the most immediate practical level, abortion is not a free “choice,” since the same forces that oppose abortion also restrict the availability of contraception. For example, emergency contraception (commonly known as the “morning-after” pill) has been on the market for 25 years; it is now developed so that if taken within several days, the pills can prevent pregnancy after unprotected sexual intercourse. Yet it is still not widely available. Even though it meets the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards for safety and effectiveness, the FDA recently refused to approve it as an over-the-counter drug. Many scientists vocally objected, pointing out that with this reactionary decision, the FDA was bowing to the oppressive policies of the Bush administration on sexual matters.

Modern society is advanced enough in its scientific capacity to provide safe and effective contraception and other options to end a potential pregnancy when necessary or desirable. But the capitalist establishment is not interested in developing and providing better options. A genuine program for reproductive rights must include the fight for free, safe and reliable contraception, a public program of effective anti-repressive sex education that affirms the rights of youth and women in particular, as well as free abortion on demand so that the most oppressed women have access to the procedure when necessary.

Relentless Racism

The right to bear and raise safe and healthy children is an equally vital issue for women. In that regard, the discrimination against Black and Latina women is if anything more pronounced. The Hyde Amendment especially affected women of color, who were disproportionately barred from having access to safe and legal abortion. Moreover, the history of government-sponsored sterilization schemes has not been overcome. Such racist policies are carried out today, if less overtly than before.

In this effort, Norplant is the drug of choice for those interested in curtailing the reproductive rights of women of color. The FDA approved it for marketing in 1990, hailing it as a big breakthrough. Silicon tubes are implanted and a woman is protected from pregnancy for five years. Sounds good? In reality it is a form of sterilization that the woman herself has no control over.

From the start it was advocated as a way to reduce the “underclass,” that is, limit the rights of poor women – and most definitively women of color – to have as many children as they want. Today, state governments are enthusiastically financing Norplant schemes, and at least half the women who have used Norplant are Medicaid recipients. Numerous states pressure women on welfare to use Norplant, by tying their benefits to its use or by offering a one-time bonus.

However, not only are women already experiencing a spectrum of side effects from Norplant, but its long term effects are not fully known. And many poor women find it difficult or impossible to find a doctor to remove the implants. The women’s physical health is endangered.

If the words “reproductive rights” are to be taken seriously, they mean not only an all-out mobilized defense of legal abortion but a fight to extend the quality and access to all kinds of reproductive health care for all women. It means destroying the racist system’s control over the reproductive destinies of women of color. No one can seriously believe that the Democratic Party will deliver any of this.

Working-Class View

The middle-class leadership and much of their base is consumed by illusions in capitalism’s ability to provide equality for women. But more and more working-class people, especially youth, are more than capable of understanding the need for an all-out fight to defend legal abortion and other rights for women – but in a different way than today’s leaders envision it.

Political class consciousness will be raised the most when the working class engages in its own struggles and the role of working-class women comes to the fore. The intimate link between the more obvious class warfare and the anti-woman attacks will then be more fully understood. Sexism and racism in all forms are major weapons of the capitalists to divide and conquer the working class. Until the working class sees through these reactionary ideologies, building an effective defense against any of the attacks suffered by any given sector will be hampered.

Revolutionaries understand that the right of women to control if or when to have children is a fundamental aspect of their liberation from oppression under capitalism and at the same time is critical to workers’ struggle as a whole. The system of wage-labor exploitation finds it essential to assign working-class women the task of reproducing labor power to be exploited: not just giving birth but also raising children and maintaining the household for the wage-earning man. By getting workers to believe that this is naturally the role of individual women at home, they can more easily cut social services and scapegoat women for a whole range of problems actually caused by the society.

As well, nowadays most working-class women work outside the home. There are also many female-headed households. Nevertheless, a women’s income is often regarded as supplementary or optional, and the myth that women’s “proper” or main role is caring for the family is perpetuated to justify their getting lower wages than men. But the fact that women can often be hired more cheaply in turn drives down the wages of the working class as a whole. (See Women and the Family: The Ties That Bind in PR 34.)

The family is one of the few institutions that working people, women and men, often feel positive about, in that it can provide material and emotional support. It is understandable that some working-class women, would even oppose abortion –- because they can see it as a putdown and attack on their central role in the family. After all, they have no reason to relate to middle-class feminism which ignores their life situations, and they have yet to see any other alternative that makes sense.

It is nonetheless true that the family as developed by capitalism is essential to women’s oppression: it enforces an oppressive division of labor at home, and it strengthens the relation of exploitation between the bosses and the working class as a whole. Thus giving women greater control over reproduction undermines aspects of the subordinate role assigned to them. The rhetoric of “family values” is reactionary because it implies all sorts of restrictions on options for women. But it is pushed by Democratic politicians as well as Republicans, even those who are generally more liberal on abortion.

Revolutionary Answers

For working-class women, their oppression as women cannot so easily be separated from their exploitation. The two are tied together as one predicament. The fact that women workers remain largely in unskilled job ghettoes, the lack of day care facilities, the high infant mortality rates suffered among Blacks and Latinos, enforced “workfare” job slavery – all these are women’s “issues.” Anti-gay attacks, anti-immigrant and racist attacks, attacks on unions, economic hardship – these likewise are key “women’s issues.”

The notion that “women’s struggles,” “Black struggles,” “union struggles” and the “anti-war struggles” are fundamentally separate is just a surface appearance. None of the miseries imposed by imperialist capitalism can be tackled head-on without the development of revolutionary working-class consciousness and working-class unity. Yet this year we had the spectacle of a “March for Women’s Lives” whose message was that we must vote for a party and candidate that stand for the continuation of all these attacks, including an imperialist war that has massacred Iraqi men, women and children by the thousands.

Authentic revolutionary socialism means an end to racism and sexism and imperialist war. The working class is the only social force that can create its own leadership, a revolutionary party, to unite workers and all the oppressed, to end all oppression and exploitation. Then we can talk about real “choice,” not the pathetic crumbs of promises thrown to some women today. Unless imperialism and its political parties are overthrown, the sufferings of the masses of oppressed women in the U.S. and across the globe will only escalate.

A revolutionary workers’ state will provide jobs for all with a shorter work day and universal wage hikes. The new society will provide extensive child care as well as kitchen, laundry and other collective facilities to release women from the drudgery of individuated household labor and caretaking burdens. It will mean free transport, health care, education and housing. The essential ingredient right now is that more and more working-class women join in the struggle for revolutionary socialism.