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Unleashing the fight for reproductive justice

Ashley Smith explains how, after the end of Roe v. Wade, the movement for abortion and reproductive justice should build mass opposition to the abortion ban instead of looking to the Democratic party, elections, or liberal organizations, which have not fought back against far-right efforts to eliminate the right to abortion. Smith also argues that capitalism has an historic systemic interest in the control of the bodies of ordinary people. A socialist challenge to this system is needed to win and defend our bodily autonomy in general and the rights of women and other pregnant people to control their lives.

In an outrageous act of judicial activism that disregarded both judicial precedent and popular opinion, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the constitutional protection of abortion as a national right. Their decision has unleashed the Republican Party in so-called Red States to enact trigger laws and pass new legislation that will likely criminalize abortion in half the country.

Already, the far right is planning to launch a campaign to impose a national ban. These attacks will have a devastating impact on women, trans people, people of color, and the entire working class.

In response to this full frontal assault on reproductive freedom, the Democratic Party has offered little to nothing but another plea to vote for them in the midterm elections. Many who may vote for the party know it cannot be trusted. Despite numerous opportunities in various administrations including Biden’s, it has refused to pass legislation to codify Roe as the law of the land, and it has even restricted abortion rights.

The hope amidst this horror is the mass popular opposition to the ruling; it offers activists the opportunity to galvanize a new movement to rewin abortion rights. Yet, to do that, a new generation of activists must reject the programmatic limits and failed strategy of liberal feminism that helped put us in this mess.

Over the decades, liberal feminists limited the struggle to the legal “right to choose,” excluding social reforms like public funding of abortion and Medicare for All that would expand access to abortion and reproductive healthcare in general to the multiracial working class. The liberal strategy of electoralism and legalism, of voting for the Democrats to protect abortion rights and relying on the courts, has not even saved the legal right to “choice.”

To provide an alternative, the nascent movement must adopt a more expansive program of reproductive justice and fight for it through independent, mass direct action, including sit-ins, demonstrations, and feminist strikes. It took radical action like this to win abortion rights in the US back in the 1970s, and mass insurgency has recently secured abortion rights in countries like Argentina.

A terrible defeat and more to come

We must not sugar coat the enormity of the defeat we have suffered. As Jia Tolentino argues, the overturning of Roe will not “take us back” to a time before abortion was legal, but into a new era “of widespread state surveillance and criminalization—of pregnant women, certainly, but also of doctors and pharmacists and clinic staffers and volunteers and friends and family members, of anyone who comes into meaningful contact with a pregnancy that does not end in healthy birth.”

Such state intrusions into the lives of women and people who can become pregnant will not remain isolated to so-called Red States. Republican extremists are determined to impose their agenda nationally, policing the travel of pregnant people trying to secure abortions where it remains legal, challenging the use of mail to deliver abortion pills, and even bringing national legislation to ban abortion throughout the country.

The result of all of this will be disastrous for the working class as a whole, and especially for Black and Brown people. By one estimate, the repeal of Roe will lead to a 33 percent increase in pregnancy-related death among Black women.

The court’s overturning of Roe was just the beginning of its attack on bodily autonomy as part of a whole slew of reactionary rulings. In his separate opinion, Clarence Thomas challenged the constitutionality of decisions on same sex marriage, trans rights, and even contraception. Such extremism tanked the Court’s approval rating to a historic low of 25 percent and inspired protesters to chant, “Fuck You, SCOTUS!

The rampant right and the pathetic democrats

Organized political forces have reacted to the ruling in all too predictable ways. The far-right zealots in and outside the Republican Party are jubilant and moving ahead to impose new state bans with hopes of a national ban.

Republican leaders from Ron DeSantis to Mitch McConnell are overjoyed with their victory but aware of how unpopular it is. So, they are determined to focus on issues they see as giving them an advantage over the Democrats in the midterms—the deteriorating economy as well as manufactured moral panics over crime, Critical Race Theory, Trans people’s so-called “threat” to women’s rights, and “chaos” at the border. For his part, Donald Trump, remains monomaniacally obsessed with his defeat in the 2020 election.

The Democrats proved themselves useless in the midst of the new crisis. In a pathetic stunt, Democratic House Representative staged a sing-along of “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps as the Supreme Court issued its ruling.

Nancy Pelosi followed that up with a press conference where she quoted a passage from Zionist Ehud Manor’s poem, “I Have No Other Country,” which Israeli settlers use as an anthem for their colonial seizure of Palestinian land. It reads: “My country has changed her face; I shall not give up on her. I shall remind her and sing into her ears until she opens her eyes.”

Meanwhile, Pelosi openly campaigned for abortion opponent Henry Cuellar in Texas, helping him secure victory over progressive pro-abortion candidate Jessica Cisneros. Even worse, her party poured nearly $44 million into supporting Trump-backed candidates (all of them anti-abortion extremists) in the GOP primaries in the hopes that Democrats could beat them in the general election.

This is a dangerous if not suicidal example of the lesser evil backing the greater evil in primaries to scare voters into voting for the lesser evil in the general election. So much for voting for Democrats to stop the far right!

Meanwhile, Joe Biden did express disapproval of the Court’s ruling and voiced support for an exception to the Senate’s filibuster rule to pass legislation codifying Roe as the law of the land. But the terrible twins of the Democratic Party, Joe Manchin and Kristen Sinema, will block any such attempt and Biden knows it.

So cynical is Biden that, in the midst of this crisis, he cut a deal with Mitch McConnell to nominate an anti-abortion lawyer to a lifetime federal judgeship in Kentucky in exchange for McConnell’s support for other Biden nominees. He only backed off when the other Kentucky Senator Rand Paul blew up the deal.

Under pressure from activists and progressives, Biden issued an executive order instructing his Health Department to spend a month figuring out what the federal government can now do to defend abortion rights. But no one believes this blue-ribbon committee will produce anything significant. Instead, Biden will try to leverage support for the Democrats in the midterms with his milquetoast slogan, “This Fall, Roe will be on the ballot.”

However, with the economy deteriorating amidst stagflation and Biden’s approval slumping to 39 percent, the party seems on track to lose at least the House, guaranteeing that it will be unable to do anything legislatively to protect abortion rights.

Progressives trapped in the democratic party

Liberals, progressives, and socialists in Biden’s party managed only to pass symbolic bills destined to die in the Senate. They also issued desperate appeals to impeach justices for lying their way onto the Court and to repeal the filibuster, both of which are dead in the water. To their credit, a few politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined the protests in the streets.

However, as even they admit, they have proved powerless to get any legislation past the corporate establishment that controls the party. What’s worse, despite sharp disagreements with their leadership, they share with it an electoral strategy focused on gradually winning political power in government as the means to win reforms including abortion rights.

While the left-leaning Democrats may challenge the establishment in this or that primary, the political logic of securing majorities in elected office causes them to adapt to the party establishment’s mantra “vote Blue no matter who”—even if the “Blue” candidates oppose abortion. Rightly, activists on protests raised the chant “Democrats we call your bluff–voting blue is not enough.”

The systemic limits on bodily autonomy

Activists must draw lessons from the defeat we have suffered in order to develop a winning program and strategy. The roots of the defeat lie in the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism, the profoundly undemocratic constitutional set-up of the United States, and the commitment of the two bourgeois parties to corporate interests.

Capitalism severely impinges on the bodily autonomy of working class people—both at places of work and outside them. Workers are compelled to sell their labor power to capitalists, losing control over their own bodies while at work. And women and people who can become pregnant bear the double burden of alienated labor in workplaces and state interference with control over sexuality and decisions about reproduction.

Both paid and unpaid labor entail limits on bodily autonomy. Just as much as capital needs working bodies, it needs birthing bodies, and is therefore potentially threatened by reproductive control. That’s why the ruling class turns to the state to regulate fertility and ensure the biological and social reproduction of its next generation of workers.

Much of that work is unpaid and done by women and people who can become pregnant in the family. That is the material root of all the sexism and oppressive gender norms that are characteristic of all capitalist societies.

But there is no simple deterministic relationship between capitalism and state policies on abortion. Those who claim that there is, cannot explain why so many corporations came out against the overturning of Roe and even offered to pay for their workers’ abortions. In reality, the relationship between capitalism and abortion is shaped by economic and social conditions, political parties’ policies, as well as class and social struggles from below.

In the neoliberal epoch, US capital and its two parties have maintained profitability by driving down the social wage, i.e., the social services and benefits provided by the state. They crushed unions, lowered wages and benefits, cut social welfare spending, and exploited new sources of cheap labor especially women, migrants, and workers in the newly industrialized countries.

To squeeze more profit out of labor, corporations have intensified their control over working bodies, exemplified by Amazon’s digital surveillance of workers’ every step in their warehouses. And capital and the state have, through slashing welfare state programs, placed even greater pressures on birthing bodies and the family to rear a new generation of workers.

The US state has responded to the poverty, unemployment, atomization of social life, and social dislocations of neoliberalism by turning to racialized policing, mass incarceration, and border policing. All of this has imposed further limits on bodily autonomy from the job to the home to the border and the jail.

The Republican war on reproductive freedom

Both mainstream parties in the neoliberal epoch have set limits on abortion and attacked reproductive justice. Traditionally the main party of big business, the Republican Party adopted “the Southern Strategy” in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement to appeal to white racist voters bitter about the loss of their privileges and obsessed with racial supremacist anxieties about dropping white birth rates.

The GOP combined such appeals to bigotry with neoliberalism and social conservatism. It offered people devastated by economic restructuring the false promise that a return to traditional institutions, in particular the male-dominated family with its clearly demarcated gender roles and norms, would solve the crises in people’s lives.

The Republicans used Christian fundamentalists as their electoral shock troops, adopting their obsession with overturning Roe and criminalizing abortion. Big business bankrolled the party, despite its incorporation of unpopular planks like banning abortion.

The latter did not particularly serve ruling class interests, especially given that class’s increased reliance on the employment of women in the workplace. But the Republicans needed the right-wing fundamentalists to roll back trade union and civil rights movements and to win elections.

This certainly made for odd bedfellows as boardroom types mixed with far-right Christian moralists at party conventions. Capitalists were confident that their interests, and not those of the fanatics, shaped the party’s program, while the rest was window dressing for electoral appeal.

While Mammon cohabited with Jesus, Mammon dictated policy through control of the party’s purse strings. Thus, while the anti-abortion fanatics repackaged themselves as defenders of women and their babies and postured as anti-racists eager to save Black babies, their party impoverished the multiracial working class and shredded the social safety net. As a result, the so-called Red States that have the strictest anti-abortion laws also have the highest maternal and infant mortality rates, especially for Black women and their newborns.

The Great Recession of 2008-2009 began to transform the party as the radicalized petty bourgeoisie became increasingly significant in the GOP. The economic crisis threw the small business owners and layers of professionals into crisis. This section of the traumatized new middle classes yearned for order, especially in the form of the traditional family, to be restored as a bulwark against big government, taxation, unions, people of color, women, LGBTQ, and immigrants.

Marginal sections of capital and the lumpen bourgeoisie joined with the enraged small business types to forge initiatives at odds with mainstream capitalist interests. The Koch Brothers bankrolled the Tea Party, which exploded in opposition to Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The same forces would later give rise to Donald Trump.

Exploiting an Undemocratic Constitution

But even with these foot soldiers, the GOP faced an electoral problem; it was unable to win the popular vote in national elections and lost the presidential election in the electoral college to Barack Obama twice, in 2008 and 2012. To overcome this predicament, the GOP hatched plans to exploit the undemocratic structures of the US constitutional order and impose minoritarian policies.

Remember, the so-called founding fathers—a collection of wealthy merchants, bankers, and slaveholders—designed the Constitution to block what James Madison called “the tyranny of the majority.” They restricted the franchise, created an electoral college that gave disproportionate weight to states with smaller electorates (originally the slave holding ones), subordinated the House to a Senate that was originally elected by state legislatures not voters, and established an unelected Supreme Court with lifetime appointments and the power to overturn laws passed by elected representatives.

The GOP has used these undemocratic structures to override policies backed by a clear majority. It reoriented Its focus from national elections to states contests in order to advance their agenda, especially their crusade against abortion.

Once in power in the so-called Red States, Republican leaders gerrymandered electoral districts and used voter suppression, especially of the Black electorate, to retain their elected positions. Since their victories in 2010, they have passed the vast majority of state restrictions on abortion rights and trigger laws.

Trump, the far right, and minoritarian rule

Trump galvanized this toxic brew of reaction in his presidential campaign, winning the loyalty of the fundamentalists by promising to nominate judges who would overturn Roe. Petty bourgeois fanatics became his electoral foot soldiers, while some of them cohered into fascist street fighting organizations like the Proud Boys.

Trump lost the national vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016, but won the presidency based on the undemocratic electoral college. He proceeded to pack the federal courts with right wing judges and appointed three far-right Supreme Court justices, establishing a conservative super majority whose first major act was to overturn Roe in the face of mass popular support for abortion rights.

Trump and his middle-class minions took their willingness to override majority rule to unprecedented extremes in the “beer gut putsch” of January 6, 2021. Initially shocked by Trump’s attempt to overturn his 2020 electoral defeat, the government began prosecuting and jailing the “riot-in-fur’s” central perpetrators.

But carceral solutions will not stop the continued rise of the far right, whose roots are deep in the radicalization of the petty bourgeoisie amid economic turmoil and political polarization. The right’s leaders and organizations may change, but it will continue to advance its minoritarian program, especially the criminalization of abortion rights.

The Democrats betrayal of abortion rights

While the Republicans carried out this war on reproductive freedom, the Democrats postured as the defender of abortion rights. In reality, they have imposed limits on reproductive choice and failed to stop its criminalization. Why? Like the Republicans, the Democrats are a capitalist party; the ruling class bankrolls them as their B-Team to be deployed when their A-Team, the GOP, has discredited itself.

The Democrats traditionally offer liberal reform to co-opt the Left, unions, and oppressed groups, neutralize their struggles, and prevent the emergence of a labor or socialist party. Once it incorporates the Left, it triangulates to the right, cutting deals with the Republicans in their shared class interests.

In the neoliberal epoch, the Democrats embraced neoliberalism just as much as the GOP. In the oft-repeated oxymoron, they paired “fiscal conservatism’’ with “social liberalism.” In reality, they carried out the class war on the multiracial, multigendered working class while mouthing support for unions, Black people, immigrants, women, and queer folks.

As part of the neoliberal turn, the Democrats limited the “right to choose” as strictly something purchased on the market at private expense. They repeatedly voted for the Hyde Amendment, which bans the spending of federal money on abortion, except in the case of rape or incest.

Jimmy Carter admitted that the Democrats saw abortion as a privilege, not a right, and certainly not healthcare that the state could fund for the multiracial working class. When he became the first President to sign the Hyde Amendment into law, after his Republican predecessor Gerald Ford refused to, he had the temerity to declare, “Well, as you know, there are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can’t.”

Since then, the Democrats even failed to codify “choice” as the law of the land when they had full control of the congress and presidency under Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Biden. Worse, they adapted to the Republican war on reproductive freedom, trumpeting Bill Clinton’s promise to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare,” — a phrase that suggests there is something wrong with abortion.

Instead of defending reproductive justice, the Democrats oversaw increasing restrictions on abortion. As Mary Ziegler documents in her book After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate, “Between 1973 and 1984, Democrats sponsored most of the anti-abortion legislation considered in Congress.” No one should be surprised that such a party has failed to stop the Republican holy war on reproductive freedom.

The failure of liberal feminism

Nevertheless, the Democrats successfully coopted liberal feminists and pulled them to the right. The liberals retreated from the central working class demand of the women’s movement in the 1960s—”free abortion on demand”—to embrace the Democrat’s narrow focus on “choice,” abandoning the fight to expand access for the multiracial working class.

For the majority of women and people who can become pregnant, “choice” is not enough. “The right to an abortion,” writes Susan Faludi, “is not just about choice but fundamentally about the survival of women who have no choice, who are faced with direct necessity. That is, the swathes of women segregated in low-paying pink-collar occupations, women unable to reclaim jobs lost in the pandemic that drove them out of work force at four times the rate of men, women unable to afford education or decent housing or childcare and soon, it seems, unable to get an abortion.”

The liberals not only abandoned class demands, but they also abandoned the working class strategy of mass direct action that had forced the Nixon-appointed Court to issue the landmark Roe decision. Even worse, they opposed the Left when it advocated clinic defense against the far right and Christian zealots.

In place of such militancy, they advocated a focus on electing Democrats, getting them to appoint pro-choice judges, and using the courts against the anti-abortion fanatics. They hitched all their hopes to a rightward moving Democratic Party, accepting and excusing its betrayals, such as Obama’s exclusion of abortion from the Affordable Care Act.

With their electoral strategy yielding ever diminishing returns, their legal strategy was doomed. The Democrats appointed centrist judges, while the Republicans stuffed courts (local, state, federal circuit courts, as well as the Supreme Court) with reactionaries.

Corralling the resistance to support biden

The explosions of struggle against Trump offered an enormous opportunity to break with the liberals’ narrow program and strategy. Record numbers of people joined the wave of protests and strikes, from the Women’s Marches to airport occupations in defense of migrants, to the uprising for Black Lives and the Red State Teachers Revolt. Women and LGBTQ folks often led these struggles.

But the Left was unable to forge new radical organizations to challenge the hold of liberals and their organizations. As a result, the Democrats corralled the insurgency into Joe Biden’s campaign.

Barack Obama played a decisive role in this process, especially by co-opting the Black Lives Matteruprisings. He orchestrated a meeting with basketball star Lebron James and others and convinced them to call off players’ strikes and redirect the movement behind Biden’s presidential campaign.

Bernie Sanders played the same role on the Left. After denouncing the Democrat’s neoliberal record throughout his second failed run for the nomination, he rallied many of the Democratic Socialists of America leaders and the bulk of its members to support Biden, claiming he would be the most progressive president since FDR.

Similar figures redirected the explosion of feminist struggle against Trump into Biden’s campaign. They rallied behind notorious neoliberal advocate of law and order, Kamala Harris, with the expectation that she, Biden, and a Democratic Congress would finally make Roe the law of the land.

Once in office, the Democrats could not even pass Biden’s program of liberal reform and did nothing to preserve abortion. Even worse, faced with little to no pressure from their left, the party prepared for the midterms with a right-wing program of hiking interest rates to fight inflation, imposing law and order at home, and using Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an alibi for pursuing great power rivalry with Moscow and Beijing.

In the wake of the Court’s decision, the Democrats have again pivoted to posing as the sole means for defending abortion rights. And yet again, liberal feminists are doubling down on the same old strategy of campaigning for Democrats and mounting increasingly desperate legal cases.

Tragically, some sections of the Left are tailing them, arguing for a gradualist electoral strategy inside the Democratic Party modeled on the far right in the Republican Party as the primary means to rewin abortion rights over the next couple of decades. That failed strategy will not address the immediate crisis, and it will subordinate the nascent movement to a capitalist party more committed to empire and profit than abortion rights.

Protesters at a rally for abortion justice hold signs reading “Give us back our fucking bodies,” “Keep abortion legal,” and “Liberate Abortion.”
June 24, 2022 demonstration at the U.S. Supreme Court the day of the Dobbs decision. Photo by Ted Eytan.

Time for a new program and strategy

Now is not the time for gradualism, electoralism, and legalism. Now is the time for socialists, unions that support abortion rights, and organizations like Sister Song, New York City for Abortion Rights, Chicago for Abortion Rights, Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, National Women’s Liberation, and socialists especially in DSA to promote an alternative to the liberal feminist program and strategy.

Our program must be full reproductive justice, which Sister Song defines as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” One of its central demands must be “free abortion on demand” paid for by the federal government.

These demands must not be subordinated to a supposed universalist class program. They must be prioritized and fought for in all class and social movements, especially the labor movement, where women make up nearly half of the membership. Abortion and reproductive justice are class demands and must be fought for as such.

Our strategy must be independent, mass direct action—from sit-ins, occupations, demonstrations, and feminist strikes—that won abortion rights in the US and has recently secured them in Colombia, Mexico and most dramatically in Argentina, where abortion is now legal and paid for by national health insurance. Only such mass social and class power can smash through the economic, constitutional, and political obstacles and win.

In this strategy, political Independence is of decisive importance. We can no longer afford to tailor our actions and demands to please and appease the Democratic Party, its capitalist priorities, and its electoral machinations.

We need the forces that agree on this orientation to come together and develop more concrete strategies and tactics for building what will be a long and hard struggle. We should take great confidence from the fact that the vast majority of people support abortion rights and in the fact that a radicalizing minority is already organizing and protesting.

Many have been through waves of struggle from Occupy and the Red State Teachers Revolt, to the Women’s Marches and the Black Lives Matter uprising. But, and this is the central problem, these waves of protest and organizing have only just begun to rebuild the infrastructures of dissent and resistance necessary to mounting the massive battle for reproductive justice we need.

Far too much of the resistance has been absorbed into NGOs run by professional staff, dependent on corporate donations, and co-opted into the Democratic Party. In place of such top down organizing, we must prioritize building new coalitions and organizations in cities, states, and nationally to create the basis of a new movement.

In this effort, it is essential not to counterpose the provision of mutual aid, such as helping people secure abortion services, abortion pills, and healthcare on the one hand, to activism on the other. The two must be conceived of as essential parts of the same movement. We desperately need emergency assistance to people subject to denial, criminalization, and policing as we struggle to overturn oppressive legislation and force through new laws that ensure reproductive justice for all.

We also have to be attentive to the particular circumstances in different states and develop specific demands and tactics that fit those conditions. In states like Texas, the struggle will be to defend pregnant people as well as activists, doctors, and officials defying the law, providing reproductive healthcare within their state, and helping people secure it nationally. In states like Vermont where abortion rights will likely be enshrined in the state constitution through a ballot measure this fall, activists must put focus on to expanding access by fighting for universal, public funding while providing support for those in states like Texas.

In the face of a national attack from the GOP and the anti-abortion fanatics we have to organize a new mass struggle to win free abortion on demand and reproductive justice throughout the country.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Ted Eytan; modified by Tempest.

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Ashley Smith View All

Ashley Smith is a member of the Tempest Collective in Burlington, Vermont. He has written in numerous publications including Spectre, Truthout, Jacobin, New Politics, and many other online and print publications.