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Workers Vanguard No. 1033

1 November 2013

As Legal Attacks Mount

Film Honors Heroic Abortion Providers

“We’ve been at war since Roe v. Wade was passed, except there’s only been one side that’s been fighting this war.” That defiant statement was made by Dr. LeRoy Carhart in the recently released documentary film After Tiller. A former lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, Dr. Carhart is one of only four doctors left in this country who openly provide late-term (third-trimester) abortions. After Tiller, by filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, introduces us as well to Drs. Warren Hern, Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella. They all knew and worked with pre-eminent abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, who was assassinated in his church on a Sunday morning in 2009. The film portrays the doctors’ compassion for their patients and steely determination to stand up to the anti-abortion bigots who hound them and threaten their lives.

Most abortions take place in the first trimester when the procedure is relatively simple and can often be achieved with medication alone. Less than 1 percent of abortions in the U.S. take place in the third trimester, when the procedure is much more complicated. But this is not the reason why so few doctors are trained or willing to perform this procedure. Third-trimester abortion is prohibited in all but nine states, and late-term abortion providers have been vilified, terrorized and murdered. Dr. Tiller faced massive legal and extralegal harassment for over 35 years for the abortion services he provided women, including late in pregnancy.

Dr. Tiller was the eighth person killed in murderous attacks on abortion providers since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling struck down anti-abortion laws. After Tiller makes it abundantly evident that Tiller’s four colleagues, who have likewise faced years of harassment and threats, are well aware that they, too, could be picked off at any moment. Carhart and his wife recall the arson attack on their property that was carried out in the early 1990s, not long after Carhart had started performing abortions in Bellevue, Nebraska. His daughter was hounded out of her home, and for years Carhart fought anti-abortionists seeking the eviction of his general surgery practice.

The Roe v. Wade ruling represented a precious gain for women’s political and social rights, but from the beginning it was limited and partial. After Tiller underlines the fact that the 1973 Supreme Court ruling specifically granted states the right to outlaw abortions in the third trimester of pregnancy—“after viability,” in the words of the court. The majority decision written by Judge Harry Blackmun upheld the states’ right to interfere in the personal decisions of women, stating that some “argue that the woman’s right is absolute and that she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses. With this we do not agree.”

To make crystal clear what the court meant, the ruling referenced the case Buck v. Bell. That 1927 decision endorsed the racist, anti-poor eugenics theories that states used to justify sterilization of men and women. Tens of thousands were sterilized across the country in the 20th century, often on the specious grounds of “imbecility.” California, which sterilized more people than any other state, has overturned its eugenics laws, like other states. Yet it has been exposed for having recently sterilized female prisoners.

The majority ruling in Roe v. Wade specified measures that could be taken by states to regulate abortions after the first trimester, among them:

“Requirements as to the qualifications of the person who is to perform the abortion; as to the licensure of that person; as to the facility in which the procedure is to be performed, that is, whether it must be a hospital or may be a clinic or some other place of less-than-hospital status; as to the licensing of the facility; and the like.”

That list has become, in the hands of the anti-abortionists, a veritable “How To” Guide for restricting women’s right to abortion.

The legislative assault on abortion rights by Republican-controlled state governments in recent years has been even more effective in rolling back abortion rights than the bombings and assassinations carried out by anti-abortion terrorists in the 1990s. Over the past three years, abortion providers have been forced to shut down at the fastest rate since the time of Roe v. Wade. According to a survey by the Huffington Post, since 2010 at least 54 clinics have closed down or stopped providing abortion services. Today, fully 97 percent of rural counties in the country have no abortion services whatsoever.

In the face of this reactionary offensive, it is not difficult for Democrats to be viewed as defenders of abortion rights. Texas state senator Wendy Davis became a nationwide sensation by mounting a filibuster that delayed passage of an omnibus anti-abortion bill. The bill contains almost every one of the attacks on abortion rights that have been adopted by various states in recent years. It bans abortion after 20 weeks due to supposed “fetal pain”; requires abortion doctors to have hospital admitting privileges; prohibits doctors from phoning prescriptions to pharmacies, thus making women visit a clinic for medication doses in early-term abortions; requires clinics to upgrade their buildings to meet the standards for ambulatory care centers (i.e., they must make medically irrelevant but expensive changes that will put some clinics out of business). On October 28, a federal judge ruled the part of the Texas law concerning admitting privileges to be unconstitutional. Part of the anti-abortionist strategy is to get a test case before the Supreme Court in hopes of overturning the Roe ruling.

While opposing such laws like the one in Texas, the Democratic Party does not even pretend to fight for anything beyond preserving Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion but did not make it generally available. Like all aspects of health care, access to abortion reflects the class divisions and racial discrimination that are inherent in U.S. capitalist society. Over two-thirds of the women who have abortions are poor, and black and Hispanic women are more than twice as likely as white women to experience unwanted pregnancies and to have abortions. What was and is needed is mass struggle to ensure that poor and working women have unrestricted access to abortion. For the rights to abortion and contraception to mean anything, the services must be free.

Bourgeois feminists have never intended to launch such a struggle because their framework is limited to seeking legal reforms through the agency of the Democrats. Despite their pro-choice rhetoric, Democrats have in fact helped restrict access to abortion for working and poor women. Soon after the Roe decision, it came under attack by Democratic president Jimmy Carter, who signed the Hyde Amendment eliminating abortion coverage under Medicaid, which all but deprived poor women of the service. The Hyde Amendment has been renewed every year since, regardless of which party sits in the White House.

We say the state has no right to interfere in the reproductive or sexual lives of women and call for free abortion on demand. The fight for abortion rights must be part of a broader struggle for free, quality health care for all. Decent health care is a burning need for all working people, with employers in recent years gutting the health plans that unionized workers had won in the struggles of earlier decades. But the fealty of the labor bureaucrats to the parties of capital, especially the Democrats, undermines this and every other necessary struggle.

Religious Bigots Target Women’s Rights

Directly after Tiller’s murder, a “fetal pain” law was crafted specifically to drive Dr. Carhart out of business and out of the state of Nebraska. Such laws are based on a cynical hoax. The idea that pain can be felt by a fetus at 20 weeks after gestation has been dismissed by every reputable medical association that has commented on the issue. The passage of that 2010 bill was a watershed victory for the anti-abortionists. Twelve more states have since passed similar legislation.

After Tiller shows the lead-up to the passage of the Nebraska bill and the travails of the Carharts as they tried to relocate afterward. They moved to Maryland, where the law allows late-term abortions under certain conditions, but the anti-abortionists there protested Dr. Carhart’s arrival. They even organized a picket of the middle school attended by the clinic landlord’s daughter.

A similar “fetal pain” measure is on a November municipal ballot in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That city has been specifically targeted in an attempt to close down the clinic where Dr. Robinson and Dr. Sella work, as seen in the film. The push for its passage has been accompanied by an increase in intimidation. On the weekend of August 10, “Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust” held a “training camp” in Albuquerque during which an abortion doctor’s house was besieged, trapping his family inside.

Another prong of the anti-abortionists’ pitchfork is the campaign for “fetal rights” laws. These have been adopted by some states as a means to persecute pregnant women for activities that are often harmless to the woman and the fetus, e.g., smoking marijuana. In recent years, hundreds of women across the country have been detained, arrested or forced to accept medical procedures in the name of “fetal protection.” The president of the anti-abortion outfit Operation Rescue has gloated: “We win every time we establish the precedent that the unborn child in the womb is a unique human individual.”

As Marxist materialists, we reject the idealist notion—ultimately derived from religion—that a fetus is a human with a “soul.” Since a fetus and the mother are biologically united during pregnancy, all attempts to endow the fetus with rights come at the expense of those of the mother.

The religious reaction and family-values bigotry that have come to dominate the general social climate in this country make it much harder, especially for teenagers, to avoid pregnancy and to obtain an abortion. Sex education is either woeful or a pack of lies. Parental notification rules for teen abortions are another hurdle. Teen access to contraception is often restricted. Two years ago, the Obama administration blocked easy access by young women under the age of 17 to the morning-after pill, subsequently reversing itself under pressure. The net result is that the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is one of the highest in the developed world, more than twice as high as that in Canada and five times that in Sweden.

After Tiller compellingly relates the stories of individual women who sought late-term abortions. Some had wanted to be pregnant until they learned of severe fetal abnormalities. Others could not find the time or money to make arrangements for abortions before the deadline in their states. One woman had to wait for her tax rebate. One teenager was terrified of telling her religious parents. An older woman had light periods and a negative pregnancy test and so did not know that she was pregnant. In the film, Dr. Robinson rejects the idea that a woman has to have a good story to justify her abortion. She notes that her only criterion is medical safety because women “are the world’s expert on their own lives.”

The Family: Key Institution of Women’s Oppression

The Roe ruling took place against the backdrop of broad social struggles in the U.S. From the civil rights movement to the anti-Vietnam war movement, wide sections of the population were demanding significant social and political changes. The capitalist rulers felt pressure to grant some reforms. The apex of the gains for women won in this period was the Roe ruling, which has been under legislative attack ever since.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan packed the Supreme Court with conservatives in order to reverse the gains of the social struggles of the 1960s and early ’70s. A 1992 court decision left Roe in place but granted extra rights to states to extend waiting periods for abortions and enforce parental consent for teenagers. In the words of the chief justice at the time, that ruling made Roe “a sort of judicial Potemkin Village.” These assaults have continued to this day under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The deep-seated oppression of women is rooted in the institution of the family, which arose with the advent of private property as a mechanism for passing property from one generation to the next—the monogamous wife ensures the paternity of the heirs. A major role of the family is to instill respect for authority and act as a conservatizing force. Together with religion, the family serves to instill a morality that proscribes anything that deviates from the ideal of one man on top of one woman for life.

The war on abortion rights, a battering ram for general social and political reaction, has gone along with a broader offensive against democratic rights and workers gains. With its hands on the wheels of production, the working class objectively has the social power to mobilize the struggle needed to defend its own interests and those of all the oppressed, including women. But given the high level of religiosity in this country, anti-abortion prejudices strongly influence much of the working class. With the dearth of social struggle today and its impact on political consciousness, it is even more difficult to win workers to the understanding that abortion must be defended not only as a “women’s issue” but also an essential democratic right, the loss of which would redound against all working people.

We seek to forge a revolutionary party that will fight for all the oppressed layers in society and render the proletariat conscious of its role as gravedigger of the capitalist system. Such a party will be modeled on the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, who led the October 1917 Revolution in Russia. Only through a victorious workers revolution can society be liberated from the profit system and private property and be reconstructed on socialist foundations. This will lay the basis for the full equality of women and the replacement of the family with socialized care of children and household duties. That is the meaning of our call: For women’s liberation through socialist revolution!


Workers Vanguard No. 1033

WV 1033

1 November 2013


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Part Two