Workers Vanguard No. 1135
1 June 2018
Iowa Law: Frontal Assault on Roe v. Wade
Fight for Free Abortion on Demand!
At the same time that he was whipping up anti-black and anti-immigrant fervor on the campaign trail, Donald Trump vowed to punish women who have abortions and the doctors who perform them. Though made to partially walk back his statement, it was no empty promise. With his evangelist vice president Mike Pence as an emissary, Trump plays to the organized religious right that is a crucial chunk of the Republican Party base. Decade after decade, these anti-abortion bigots have chipped away at a woman’s fundamental right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, with both the acquiescence and collusion of the Democrats.
The slashing of access to clinics, the imposition of boundless legal hurdles, a rise in harassment of providers and patients, and a new domestic “gag rule” aimed at Planned Parenthood are making abortion little more than a pipe dream for the vast majority of women. In Ireland, the electorate bucked the reactionary Catholic church and overwhelmingly voted to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion, opening the door to legalized abortion. Meanwhile, in the U.S., that door is closing.
In early May, Iowa Republican governor Kim Reynolds, who has vowed to “never stop fighting to protect the unborn,” signed into law the most extreme abortion restriction to date. Scheduled to take effect on July 1, the “fetal heartbeat” law would prohibit abortions once a heartbeat is detected, usually at around six weeks, i.e., before many women even suspect they are pregnant. This would force many women into a future they either didn’t anticipate or don’t desire, and compel the rest to either travel outside the state or attempt to self-induce. Though abortion rights advocates have filed a lawsuit in Iowa district court to try to block the law, the bill’s sponsors anticipated such legal challenges to its constitutionality. In fact, they viewed it as a test case to topple Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that overturned state bans on abortion nationwide. The goal of the religious zealots is as perverse as it is pernicious: to legally enshrine the myth that life begins at conception in order to ban all abortions.
The Roe decision represented a critical gain for women’s political and social rights. At the same time, it was limited and partial in this unequal, class-divided society. Access to abortion has been increasingly out of reach for poor and working-class women, who can’t afford the high cost of insurance and who lack the ability to travel long distances or take time off work. Meanwhile, the daughters, mistresses and wives of the rich (and others with means) have had no problem circumventing restrictions.
If Roe is overturned and abortion thrown back to state legislatures, it would be a devastating blow—at least 14 states already have laws on the books that would automatically ban or severely restrict abortion. The days of back-alley procedures and coat hangers would be resurrected, as even today an increasing number of women resort to do-it-yourself abortions. Countless numbers of women would be unable to continue school or jobs, and might find themselves condemned to lives of poverty. Many others would become trapped in the strictures of parenting and household drudgery they had hoped to elude.
Attacks on the right to abortion hit black, Latina and poor women especially hard. Of the roughly one million abortions in the U.S. each year, poor and low-income women account for some 75 percent and black and Latina women account for over half. The Trump administration’s proposed domestic “gag rule” is another dagger aimed at millions of them. Under the rule, providers receiving Title X family planning funding will be pressured to withhold information on abortion, forbidden from abortion referrals, and Title X clinics will have to be separated from clinics providing abortion services. The administration specifically seeks to cut federal funding to Planned Parenthood, the single largest provider of Title X services, which would have savage effects. The bulk of Planned Parenthood’s patients are impoverished, minority and working-class women, as well as young teenagers, who are in desperate need of affordable health care and who rely on the organization for basic services, like health and cancer screenings, birth control and sex education.
There is an urgent need for mass struggle to defend abortion rights and fight the attacks on Planned Parenthood. It is absurd that the government, from state legislatures up to the inherently reactionary Supreme Court, has the decisive power over people’s most intimate, private decisions. As Marxists, we fight for free abortion on demand as part of a system of quality health care for all that is free at the point of delivery. Unrestricted access to abortion and contraception—both of which open the possibility of women being able to have sex for pleasure—is essential for all women to exercise control over whether and when they will have children. Abortion should be merely a question of basic health care, but the anti-woman bigots view it as a threat to the patriarchal family, the main source of women’s oppression and a key prop of capitalist class rule. The regulation of abortion and contraception has historically been a powerful weapon in the hands of organized religion and the capitalist state to enforce conservatism and social conformity.
Though most anti-abortion bigots also oppose gay rights, attitudes toward gay marriage have more broadly shifted to being more tolerant, while views on abortion seem to be going in reverse. Gay marriage can be packaged as part of conventional family values, whereas sexual freedom cannot. Abortion challenges the deeply traditional idea that motherhood is a fixed destiny, posing the question of women’s equality and independence. The fundamentalist reactionaries think women should be baby-making vessels or, as the late social satirist George Carlin put it, “They believe a woman’s primary role is to function as a broodmare for the state.” The pious tears for the “unborn” are nothing but a cover for a program of controlling female sexuality. Lurking not far behind is a vision for an ordered society where Christian sharia is enforced and women are confined to the home. It’s no wonder The Handmaid’s Tale evokes an eerie sense of foreboding.
Democrats and Republicans: Enemies of Women’s Rights
Whenever the Republican right grabs the anti-abortion spotlight, the liberals and feminists rush to salvage the last thread of abortion rights by promoting reliance on the “lesser evil” capitalist rulers, i.e., Democrats. After the Iowa law was signed, Planned Parenthood’s outgoing president Cecile Richards argued on Democracy Now! (8 May) that “the federal court system has been sort of the place that we’re able to go, in general, to protect against laws that are unconstitutional.” Staking her claim in the anti-Trump “resistance,” she promoted dead-end “fight the right” electoralism, including to counter Trump’s appointment of conservative judges: “If women vote in November, we will change the direction of the country politically.”
The truth is that abortion rights were won in this country not through the ballot box and not through judicial benevolence. For the likes of Richards, this is an inconvenient truth, one that goes against their syphilitic chain: elect Democratic politicians who will then appoint friendly judges who will then act as a supposed firewall in defending women’s rights. But it was not the political composition of the 1973 court—the majority of whom were Republican appointees—that led to the legalization of abortion. Roe v. Wade was a concession to almost two decades of explosive mass struggle. The women’s liberation movement arose as masses of radicalized activists took to the streets to fight for black rights and against the dirty imperialist war in Vietnam.
The Roe decision, which was based narrowly on a woman’s right to privacy, struck down bans on abortion in the first trimester, but it did not prevent states from targeting women in subsequent stages of pregnancy. For decades, opponents of abortion have been driving trucks through that opening—peddling fictions about the medical dangers of abortion that echo the “masturbation will make you blind” drivel, along with religious-based pseudo-science on fetal viability. If the last 45 years have proved anything it is that the liberal, legalistic strategy of depending on the Democratic Party has helped cede the terrain to the reactionaries, and demobilized fighters for women’s rights.
Restricting women’s rights has always been a bipartisan effort. The first major attack on abortion following Roe took place under the “born again” Christian and Democrat Jimmy Carter, who in 1977 signed into law the Hyde Amendment that eliminated abortion coverage from the Medicaid health plans of 23 million poor women. Passed with substantial Democratic support, it has been renewed every year, regardless of which party controlled Congress or the White House. From the same playbook, in 2010 Obama signed an executive order ensuring that federal funds from the Affordable Care Act would not be used for abortion.
Back in 1992, Bill Clinton won the presidency with support from women for his pro-Roe stance, and then proceeded to ax welfare for mothers and preside over a barrage of restrictions on abortion rights. This went virtually unopposed by feminists as long as abortion remained formally legal. Earlier that year, the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision upheld Roe but gave states the green light to impose restrictions as long as they did not pose an “undue burden” on abortion, though what followed certainly did that: from mandatory waiting periods and parental consent rules to TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws, which have driven clinics out of business. From 2010-15, with Obama in the White House, there were more than 280 new state restrictions, including “punishment” rules requiring women to listen to a fetal heartbeat and view an ultrasound. On top of everything else, women entering clinics are forced to endure a psychological and physical onslaught of fanatics spewing vitriol and threats.
While a numerical minority, the anti-abortion forces have the wind in their sails, winning out on the legal and political terrain, as well as in rhetoric. A crop of so-called “anti-abortion feminists” promote slogans like “abortion hurts women.” The Democrats also peddle the lie that abortion is harmful and risky—even though it is a simple medical procedure (or medication) vastly safer than pregnancy or childbirth. Since the 1990s, the Democratic Party’s platform has stated that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” Her Highness Hillary Clinton emphasized the “rare” and called abortion a “sad, even tragic choice,” as she pandered to evangelical voters. Even the non-offensive slogan “choice” has been ditched for the more ambiguous “reproductive health” terminology, making the “A” in abortion the new scarlet letter.
The whittling away of abortion rights, alongside the rollback of other gains won in the 1960s and ’70s, proves that reforms benefiting the oppressed are reversible under capitalism. The right-wing evangelical movement, which became politically mainstream during the Carter administration, spearheaded this decades-long reactionary backlash, attacking poor and minority women’s access to abortion in the context of a rising tide of racist reaction against integration and social programs for the poor. In fact, the Christian fundamentalists who today are focused on the anti-abortion crusade took up that cause as a surrogate for racial segregation. In this racist and anti-woman society, the onslaught against abortion is directly linked to generalized social reaction, particularly targeting black people.
Even as they are under assault by the government, the leadership of Planned Parenthood in Colorado is appealing to Trump’s National Labor Relations Board to fight unionization efforts at its Rocky Mountain clinics. The clinic workers, who put their lives on the line daily to defend the precious remaining health services for women, must be able to bargain for higher wages and medical insurance. This union-busting is testament to the political bankruptcy of the liberal feminists, who are committed to upholding this deeply oppressive bourgeois order.
With untold millions of American families drowning in economic misery, the capitalist rulers do not bestow on living human beings the same solicitous concern as that reserved for the fetus. It is in the direct interest of the working class—men and women—to take up the fight for free abortion on demand, as part of the struggle to liberate itself from the very capitalist profit system in which exploitation, black oppression and women’s subordination are rooted. The emancipation of women and all the oppressed requires a revolutionary transformation of society, where the working class wrests the power and wealth of society from the capitalist rulers. Only after socialist revolution can women be freed from age-old family servitude and brought fully into social and political life with the support of the new social order, including through free quality health care and socialized childcare.