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Voting for Democrats has been a dead-end for abortion justice

It’s time for socialist feminism

In the wake of the leaked SCOTUS opinion that is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, thousands have mobilized in support of the right to an abortion. Stephanie Attar argues that activists should transcend bourgeois electoral politics and organize for socialist feminism instead.

In response to the leaked draft of a majority opinion that is poised to have the SCOTUS revoke the federal right to an abortion, thousands have taken to the streets to showcase their willingness to fight to protect a woman’s right to choose. I attended one of those rallies a few weeks ago in western Massachusetts, where I stood in 80+-degree weather under a blazing sun for two hours to listen to various community leaders and activists speak to the crowd of roughly 300 people that had assembled. Their messages can roughly and succinctly be summarized as: “I’m angry. Republicans are bad. Abortion is a human right, and you should vote if you care about protecting it.” A smattering of speakers also spoke to the need to donate to nonprofits that help low-income women access abortion. Sadly, the organizers did not plan a march or any sort of mass action that would have actively engaged the people who had assembled.

To recap, the only two solutions that were offered by the roughly 30 speakers to our current predicament were voting and donating. Now, I do not aim to argue that voting and donating are inconsequential– to do so would be to ignore the practical purposes that they can serve for organizers. Nevertheless, I was dismayed to see the myopic lasering in on individual-level actions to what is clearly a systemic problem. The speakers offered very little analysis of how we got to this point, let alone a systemic critique of why we live in a system in which women and birthing people’s rights to bodily autonomy are up for grabs in the first place. The rally was telling of where consciousness is right now on the question of abortion rights, and just how much of a need exists for socialist activists to organize and lead a movement that can only secure a woman’s right to choose abortion– just like all other forms of health care– by overhauling this oppressive capitalist system. This is an immensely important opportunity to raise class consciousness, and we should not squander it.

While voting as a theoretical category may not be inconsequential–indeed, it is a right that socialists should fight for to preserve and expand to other realms, like the workplace– it remains true that voting for Democrats as a whole has proven to be a dead-end when it comes to protecting a woman’s right to choose. To be sure, part of this is due to the fact that the pro-choice movement has yet to resemble anything like the organized political force that anti-choice activists represent. Abortion rights organizations, including NARAL and Planned Parenthood, cling to lukewarm tactics like fundraising or phoning legislators even when a national emergency calls for a more militant mobilizing strategy.

But the historical record indicates that there are other, more fundamental problems with the Democratic party that transcend the problems plaguing their voting base. That problem is fundamentally one of using women’s bodies for cynical political gain, coupled with an underlying current of misogyny, rather than a willingness to take a principled stance on women’s equality.

The ruling in Roe v. Wade that gave women the right to choose was issued in 1973, and in the 49 years since, there have been ten years, including 2021 and 2022, when Democrats had control of the House, Senate, and the presidency (Vice President Harris’ vote as a tie-breaker in the Senate does give Democrats control of the chamber, despite it being split 50-50). There have been an additional 16 years when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and could have used that power to pass legislation codifying Roe. Even if a Republican president would issue a veto, passing a bill through Congress would have nevertheless been an excellent symbolic commitment to protecting something that is a fundamental prerequisite for gender equality. But in the years that have followed Roe, Democrats have built up a mottled history on their commitment to protecting abortion rights, replete with broken promises, inaction, and, at times, even the active obstruction or stigmatization of abortion.

The Democrats: A Failed History on Abortion Rights

One of the first major legislative gains of anti-choice advocates following Roe v. Wade was the Hyde Amendment, which passed in 1976 and took effect in 1980. Named after its author, Republican Henry Hyde, the amendment banned the use of federal Medicaid dollars to fund abortions. Hyde specifically tied the amendment to his anti-abortion politics, stating, “I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the HEW Medicaid bill.” This amendment effectively meant that poor women who relied on Medicaid faced an enormous obstacle to obtaining an abortion if they could not readily furnish the hundreds of dollars that were needed to cover the cost of the time-sensitive procedure. It has also been supported by virtually every Democrat who has ever voted on a federal spending bill, and was enthusiastically supported by the first Democratic president after the passage of Roe v. Wade, Jimmy Carter.

When the Democratic nominee Bill Clinton campaigned for the White House in 1992, he did so with the mantra that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” a stigmatizing coinage that would continue to be taken up by Democratic politicians for decades. Hillary Clinton, for example, echoed in her 2008 campaign for president that “abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. And by rare, I mean rare.” While she would later tweak her message to only include “safe and legal” during her 2016 presidential campaign, she also went on to select Tim Kaine as her running mate, a politician with a mixed history on abortion rights and who maintained on the campaign trail that he was personally opposed to the procedure.

In Congress, Democrats have not performed any better. Mary Ziegler writes in her book After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate that “between 1973 and 1984, Democrats sponsored most of the anti-abortion legislation considered in Congress,” including then-senator Joe Biden. Before the House narrowly passed the Women’s Health Protection Act in September 2021, Democrats had only made disappointingly tepid attempts to codify Roe v. Wade via the Freedom of Choice Act. The bill was introduced in 1989 and 2004 in the Senate and in 1993, 2004, and 2007 in the House. In all cases, the bill was referred to committees without further action. It never even made it to a floor vote. These actions were ultimately perfunctory and performative, with the resulting effect of placing a woman’s right to her own body on the backburner of their political agenda.

Protesters with signs, "Justice under capitalism is a myth. Abolish the supreme court"
Photo by Dana Cloud.

Furthermore, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has gone on record saying that the Democratic Party should embrace anti-choice Democrats, especially in order to compete with the anti-choice voting base that helped elect Donald Trump. More recently, she defended the House’s lone anti-abortion Democrat, Henry Cuellar, calling him a “valued member of our caucus,” even as he faced a close primary challenge from a pro-choice, progressive candidate in Jessica Cisneros, who had the backing of several prominent elected officials, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And in the Senate, Democrats have not considered removing the filibuster needed to pass legislation, effectively paralyzing them from taking action to protect the right to an abortion.

Even President Barak Obama, the darling of liberal politics, has a tarnished record on abortion rights. During the 2008 presidential elections, Obama, trying to piece together support from anti-choice advocates, stated, “Nobody’s pro-abortion. I think it’s always a tragic situation. We should try to reduce these circumstances.” While campaigning, Obama also promised that his first act as president would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, but four months into his presidency, he walked back his commitment to the bill, stating that it was “not my highest legislative priority.” Refusing to take a principled stance on abortion, and perhaps bowing to pressure from anti-abortion activists, he said that he wanted to direct his energy toward reducing unintended pregnancies instead. He would later go on to sign an executive order affirming the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on the federal funding of abortions.

Joe Biden’s history is also problematic. After joining the Senate in 1973, he was only one of two Democratic senators who voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that would have allowed states to overturn Roe v. Wade and institute their own laws regarding abortions. In 1974, he was quoted as saying, “I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far. I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” Today, Biden’s administration has come under fire for their failure to plan in advance for the impending threat to abortion rights from the SCOTUS. During the campaign for president in 2020, Biden said during a debate that “I would send immediately to the desk of the United States Congress when I’m elected president – if I’m elected president – a codification of Roe v. Wade amended by [Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v.] Casey.” Evidently, Biden failed on this promise.

In sum, during the 49 years that have passed since Roe, Democrats have sent contradictory messages on their willingness to fight for abortion rights, have actively supported policies and policymakers that would restrict abortion access, and have failed to pass legislation that would codify Roe v. Wade, precariously placing a women’s right to choose in the hands of an ever-increasing conservative SCOTUS. The lesson taken from this history should be clear: Voting for Democrats cannot be used as a political heuristic for assessing how safe a women’s right to choose actually is. While there are undeniably individual Democrats who are willing to support and expand access to abortion, the party as a whole, and especially its leadership, cannot be a trusted ally in the struggle to dismantle the patriarchy. Activists who are concerned about abortion rights should aim higher than simply trying to vote more Democrats into office. Indeed, the belief that voting was the sole solution to protect women’s health care is what landed us into this mess in the first place: we trusted the politicians who promised to protect us, only to be betrayed and left behind.

Now, with Roe’s impending repeal, the Democratic Party is again using women’s bodies as a political football, hoping to re-energize voters ahead of the upcoming midterm elections in November. It’s imperative to remember that the Democrats, fundamentally being an oligarchic party that primarily represents the interests of economic elites, have little else to offer the majority of people who have been dissatisfied with the Democrat’s governance and as such are latching on to abortion rights in an attempt to drive voters to the polls.

But the fact is that the failure of Democrats to pass legislation codifying Roe into law is a particularly salient example of why we cannot rely on politicians on either side of the aisle with any regularity to safeguard our basic human rights so long as capitalism remains in place. Asserting that Democrats and Republicans have diametrically opposed political agendas creates an illusion of choice that masks the fact that our political system is fundamentally geared towards advancing the interests of the economic elite, rather than average citizens or those at the bottom. As Ralph Miliband explained in The State in Capitalist Society, such a mirage:

is a matter of great importance for the functioning and legitimation of the political system, since it suggests that electors, by voting for one or other of the main competing parties, are making a choice between fundamental and incompatible alternatives, and that they are therefore, as voters, deciding nothing less than the future of their county… [this masks the fact that] governments accept as beyond question the capitalist context in which they operate is of absolutely fundamental importance in shaping their attitudes, policies, and actions in regard to the specific issues and problems with which they are confronted, and to the needs and conflicts of civil society.

That is to say, in a capitalist system, politicians of all political stripes regularly bow to the altar of market imperatives and profit maximization at the expense of defending the rights and interests of the common people. As proof in point and to elaborate on that further, the Democratic party is not in lockstep in fighting for the following: high-quality, publicly funded health care, even in the middle of a pandemic, raising the federal minimum wage, which has stood at $7.25/hour since 2009, tackling climate change in any sort of meaningful way, improving our public education, cleaning our polluted air and water, providing shelter to the homeless, or tackling the endemic of police violence and murder– in short, Democrats are not fighting for the things that would actually improve our lives and that would excite voters to come to the polls in November. They are instead resorting to their time-tested fear-mongering tactic of “vote for us, otherwise, the Republicans will win, and our democracy will be over.” In the meantime, the health and lives of women are being held hostage.

The Way Forward is Through Socialist Feminism

Before us today, we have two diametrically opposed visions of feminism, and it is up to us which path we choose to follow. On the one hand, we have a world in which feminism is co-opted by capitalism, in which we are told that we should be proud that it is women ordering drone strikes, women tearing families apart at the borders, and where the financial success of elite women is used as a synecdoche to measure the progress of eliminating systemic gender oppression across society. This strain of feminism glorifies the achievements of individual women, usually upper-class white women, while refusing to address the socioeconomic constraints that make freedom and empowerment impossible for the large majority of women. A burning planet, socially destabilizing levels of income and wealth inequality, and a world in which we are habitually put on the defensive to secure the basic right to control our own bodies await us if we continue down this trajectory.

The other future is offered to us by socialist feminism–a feminism for the 99%. This feminism champions the needs of those who have been marginalized by capitalism’s unquenchable thirst for profits: working-class women, women of color, and queer, trans, and disabled women. Moreover, any person capable of giving birth and parenting, including transmen and gender-non-binary people, are affected by policies denying us control over our bodies and reproductive lives. Socialist feminism advocates the allocation of our economic resources according to the principle of what makes our lives worth living, and views the injustices perpetrated by capitalism as being interconnected, because they all stem from the same source: the elevation of profits above human life. As such, this strain of feminism joins arm-in-arm with struggles for labor justice, environmental justice, racial justice, free high-quality public education, and the end of imperialist wars.

To fight for this liberatory version of feminism, socialist activists must unabashedly proclaim at every rally and march for abortion this summer and beyond that socialist feminism is the future. Rage over the SCOTUS’ impending decision presents an opportunity for us to seize the moment by vociferously declaring our independence from the Democratic party and laying out an agenda worth fighting for. We should not be afraid to explain why capitalism is our real enemy, even amongst non-socialist crowds, and to vocally contest the theory that voting is going to save us this time around. Disillusionment with the political and economic establishment is running extremely high, and those who are taking to the streets are undoubtedly hungry to learn about solutions that transcend the same tired path that we have been endlessly trodding down.

At least they were at the aforementioned rally when it was my turn to speak. Even amongst a crowd of white liberal folks who had just listened to dozens of speakers cajole them about the need to “vote harder,” I received overwhelmingly enthusiastic cheers when I got on the mic and took a fundamentally different turn by laying out the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy, arguing that politicians cannot be trusted to save us, and called upon each of us to channel our anger towards organizing for socialist feminism instead. Many later came up to me and told me that they would love to get involved with socialist organizing, and we exchanged numbers. The desire is there–it is up to the socialist movement to channel it.

To accomplish this, we must lead the charge in organizing women and other communities that have been deserted by capitalism. Our liberation must come from the ground up, including by organizing small groups dedicated to consciousness-raising that were implemented with great success during the second-wave feminist movement. Speaking on its effectiveness, Nancy Hartsock argues in her chapter in the book Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (Zillah Eisenstein, 1978) that:

The power of the method feminists have developed grows out of the fact that it enables women to connect their everyday lives with an analysis of the social institutions that shape them. The institutions of capitalism (including its imperialist aspect), patriarchy, and white supremacy cease to be abstractions; they become lived, real aspects of daily experience and activity.

Women are being squeezed both in the workplace and at home, and this contradiction can and should be seized upon by socialists for the purpose of raising class consciousness and directing our rage towards mass social movements, rather than allowing it to become pacified in bourgeois electoral politics. In addition to that, the socialist movement should seek to fortify its footing by forging alliances with other community organizations, and gently shepherd them towards a more radical trajectory by hosting study groups and community workshops that theoretically unpack the tangled roots between capitalism and patriarchy. We should use these alliances to mobilize for inspirational mass action to make our presence and seriousness as a movement known. Ultimately, we need to earn the people’s trust by proving that we have a vision for the future that we can win. This might even require that leaders of our own movement brush up on their own theoretical understanding of socialist feminism so that we can clearly break it down for those who are interested to learn more– I know that I had to.

Pro-choice protesters in Portland, Oregon. A woman holds a sign that says "Abortion is healthcare"
Photo by Max Carey.

Regardless of the outcome of the pending SCOTUS decision, the fight for abortion rights is not going away any time soon. Even if left fully intact, an already weakened Roe all too often functionally renders marginalized groups like the poor or communities of color unable to access abortion, because it leaves us at the mercy of our for-profit health care system. As socialists, we should take this opportunity to critically assess how well our movement has grounded itself in radical feminism thus far, and to assess where we need to do better. Doing so is crucial to drawing in new crowds who have grown disillusioned with the liberal, capitalist version of feminism that only serves a small minority.

In sum, the liberation of women, non-binary folks, and all other queer folks can only be secured by ending a system that was intentionally designed to only benefit a small minority of the ruling elite and to leave the rest of us fighting for crumbs. To secure a world premised on gender equality and equitable access to health care, it’s up to us to lead the struggle for a new political and economic structure that prioritizes people over profit.

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Stephanie Attar View All

Stephanie Attar is an economics PhD student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a member of the Center for Popular Economics.