You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.

Tell Bush we won't go back!
Abortion rights under attack

April 13, 2001 | Pages 4 and 5

ON APRIL 22, people from across the country will descend on Washington, D.C., to tell George W. Bush we won't go back. The Bush gang has flung down the gauntlet with a series of attacks on a woman's right to choose. But the Washington politicians are out of step. Abortion rights activists have found keen interest wherever they've gone to build for the April 22 Emergency March for Women's Lives. This demonstration will be the first show of opposition to the new commander-in-thief--and a step toward rebuilding the movement for abortion rights. Here, Socialist Worker prints excerpts from a new ISO pamphlet by Sherry Wolf, Sharon Smith and Elizabeth Schulte--called Abortion Rights: Lessons for a New Struggle.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"I will do everything in my power to restrict abortions."
-- George W. Bush

JUST 48 hours after taking the oath of office, President George W. Bush attacked some of the world's poorest and most vulnerable women. Bush used the 28th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, to impose a gag rule on discussing abortion at all international agencies receiving U.S. funding.

According to the World Health Organization, millions of women around the world are forced to risk their lives and health to end an unwanted pregnancy. Bush's global gag rule guarantees that many more deaths will result when desperate women seek unsafe and illegal abortions.

This act came swiftly on the heels of his announcement that right-winger John Ashcroft would be his choice for attorney general. As attorney general of Missouri, Ashcroft tried to impose life imprisonment on women for some types of abortion. Now Ashcroft is head of the Justice Department--the nation's most powerful lawyer in charge of safeguarding the rights of us all.

Bush also announced that he wants the Food and Drug Administration to reexamine its approval of RU-486 (mifepristone), a safe drug that terminates pregnancies of up to seven weeks' duration. And Bush has signaled his willingness to reverse the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, announcing that he will consider asking Ashcroft's Justice Department to argue for a change in the law.

Bush's strategy in the early weeks of his presidency was to launch a frontal assault. And the Democrats have rolled over. By adopting such a weak-kneed approach, they allowed the Bush administration to gain the upper hand.

Meanwhile, national pro-choice organizations--which during previous Republican administrations rallied hundreds of thousands to protect abortion rights--had all but abandoned activism during Bill Clinton's presidency. This left them ill-prepared to launch a strong fightback against Bush's attack.

As a result, Bush's presidency has brought a pervasive sense of fear and disorientation among many ordinary people who don't support his right-wing agenda. But on virtually every issue--from tax cuts to school vouchers to abortion rights--the majority of the population stands far to the left of Bush.

We can stop him by fighting back. The pro-choice movement must mobilize to defend women's abortion rights now--not by looking to Democratic Party politicians, but by taking to the streets and building a protest movement.

Lessons for a new struggle

EACH YEAR, more than 1.5 million women have abortions in the U.S. A generation of women have grown up relying on their ability to have access to a safe and legal abortion.

Whether or not abortion is a legal right, women will continue to have them--even if it means attempting self-inflicted abortions or seeking out back-alley, illegal abortionists. Estimates are that, in the years leading up to 1973, when abortion was legalized, more than 1 million women sought illegal abortions each year.

Women desperate to end a pregnancy used harsh chemicals or coat hangers to attempt self-inflicted abortion. Back-alley abortions often resulted in massive hemorrhaging and infection, as women delayed medical treatment for fear of criminal charges.

The death toll in the century when abortion was illegal in the U.S. is unknown, but the number is certainly large--some estimates range as high as 10,000 a year. These horrifying conditions explain why most women considered the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision a victory for women's rights.

Safe, legal and accessible abortion--the right to choose to end an unwanted pregnancy--is central to women's control over their own bodies and reproductive lives. No one else should have this control--not the church, state, husband, parents or boyfriend. The reason for this is simple: Women must bear the emotional and physical trauma--and ultimately the financial burden--of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term.

This is particularly important in a society like the one we live in today. Women, particularly single mothers, bear the bulk of responsibility for raising children, at wages much lower than men's.

Thus, women's right to control their own bodies is a prerequisite for women's liberation. Unless women have this control, they cannot be the equals of men.

Almost immediately after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, abortion opponents set out to destroy it. Anti-abortion Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) admitted that his forces wouldn't be able to get rid of Roe v. Wade altogether, so they decided to pass legislation state by state to chip away at a woman's right to choose.

Meanwhile, every year, Congress has approved Hyde's amendment that denies federal funding to poor women for abortions, except in cases where the woman's life is in imminent danger. During the last few years, Republicans have concentrated their efforts on passing bans on so-called "partial-birth" abortions.

Anti-abortion politicians hope that they can gain support for these bans by showing bloody photographs, calling the late-term procedures "infanticide." But the reality is that this procedure is extremely rare and is normally used in cases when a woman's life is in danger or a fetus is severely deformed--late in pregnancy when a woman must make a serious and often difficult decision.

Abortion supporters should not support a ban on any abortion procedure. Each and every restriction on legal abortion further erodes women's control over their own reproductive lives.

Unfortunately, mainstream women's groups have concentrated on campaigning to elect sympathetic politicians and lobbying efforts to win legislation. This strategy has proven disastrous for abortion rights.

After Bill Clinton took office in 1993, for instance, no feminist organization called a national demonstration to defend women's right to abortion--even in the face of the widespread passage of "partial-birth" abortion bans during his presidency. Liberal women's organizations counted on Clinton's promises to pass the federal Freedom of Choice Act and other measures to protect a woman's right to choose.

But nothing of the kind took place. And in 1998, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) made common cause with anti-choice Republicans, proposing a ban on all post-viability abortions.

Meanwhile, leaders of the pro-abortion movement conceded an enormous amount. In 1994, National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) president Kate Michelman announced, "We've spent the last 25 years leading the fight for one right--the right to choose abortion. We had to make that fight...Now we've got to begin leading the fight to make abortion less necessary."

Such retreats have not only helped pave the way for further erosion of abortion rights but have seriously confused abortion supporters. In the aftermath of Bush's election, there are real signs that the pro-choice movement is becoming reactivated--and none too soon.

NOW's Emergency March for Women's Lives can mark the beginning of a resurgence of pro-choice activism--with the potential to draw in the hundreds of thousands of pro-choice supporters angered by Bush's attacks. Such an activist movement--relying on the power of numbers rather than the politicians' empty promises--can not only stave off Bush's attacks, but restore badly needed confidence to the pro-choice movement.

What moves the Supreme Court?

IT'S NO exaggeration to describe the U.S. Supreme Court today as a bastion of reaction. Women's right to abortion may be hanging by a thread--for the second time in a decade.

In 1989, the Supreme Court considered--and came within one vote of--overturning Roe v. Wade in its Webster v. Reproductive Health Services ruling. There's no doubt that Bush would like to tilt the balance against abortion--one of the few liberal rights still supported by a majority on the Court.

But it would be wrong to think that the president determines the character of the Supreme Court. Kennedy's appointee Byron White became an anti-abortion conservative. Meanwhile, Nixon's appointee Harry Blackmun--who wrote the Roe v. Wade decision--and Eisenhower's appointee William Brennan became two of the Court's leading liberals.

The best way to influence the Court is not indirectly, at the ballot box, but directly, through large-scale protest. In 1989, hundreds of thousands of pro-choice supporters came to Washington to demonstrate for abortion rights as the Supreme Court was considering the Webster case.

Reagan appointee Sandra Day O'Connor ultimately swung the other way, saving the legal right to choose. The power of social movements is enormous and can shift the Supreme Court--no matter who sits in the White House.

How we won legal abortion

IN 1950, some 33 percent of women worked outside the home. By 1970, the figure was 44 percent, and by 1999, it had jumped to 64.5 percent.

With the need for managers and skilled professionals rising, the doors to higher education finally opened to women on a large scale. Expectations soared, particularly for middle-class women, that a university education would lead to a high-status professional career.

But most of these expectations were unfulfilled. Women college graduates entered the corporate world only to find new doors slammed in their faces.

But by the middle of the 1960s, the apex of the post-Second World War economic boom, the U.S. entered a period of social upheaval. Blacks organized in large numbers to demand an end to segregation and the right to equal economic opportunities.

Against the backdrop of an escalating U.S. presence in Vietnam, the civil rights movement peaked, followed by the more radical Black liberation movement. Inspired by the Black movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement spread to campuses across the country.

It was also in the mid-1960s that the women's movement began to emerge--as middle-class women started to look for a way to raise demands for equal opportunity. To this end, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed in 1966. By 1974, NOW's membership totaled more than 40,000 nationally.

On college campuses, a more radical version of the women's movement was thrown up, initially organized by activists from the civil rights and antiwar movements. Consciously imitating the Black movement, young women students organized around the demand for women's liberation. Women's liberation groups began meeting in 1967. By 1969, groups had been established in more than 40 cities across the U.S.

The women's movement never reached the massive size of the civil rights movement, but at times it organized protests that involved many thousands. On August 26, 1970, the women's movement called for a national day of action--a Women's Strike for Equality--which mobilized more than 50,000 protesters. These demonstrations also called for free abortion on demand.

Literally hundreds of local protests took place between 1969 and 1973 in favor of legal abortion. But more important than the actual numbers drawn into the movement, the ideas of women's liberation found a much larger audience in the population at large.

The movement raised the consciousness and expectations of millions of women workers, bringing issues of equal pay, child care and abortion rights into the national limelight. By 1976, a Harris survey reported that 63 percent of American women supported "efforts to strengthen and change women's status in society."

The movement's determination and the increasing popularity of its demands meant that the anti-abortion platform of then-President Richard Nixon could not prevent abortion's legalization in 1973. Nixon's position was similar to George W. Bush's.

In 1971, he declared that "unrestricted abortion policies, or abortion on demand, I cannot square with my personal belief in the sanctity of human life--including the life of the yet unborn." To this statement, the New York Women's Strike Coalition responded, "We will grant Mr. Nixon the freedom to take care of his uterus if he will let us take care of ours." On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court ruled on the Roe v. Wade case, which declared legal abortion constitutional.

Rebuilding our fight

"YOUNG WOMEN need to know that abortion rights and abortion access are not presents bestowed or retracted by powerful men (or women)--presidents, Supreme Court justices, legislators, lobbyists--but freedoms won, as freedom always is, by people struggling on their own behalf." So columnist Katha Pollitt wrote in the Nation magazine last year.

The strategy put forward by mainstream women's groups for the last decade, which relies mainly on the goodwill of elected officials, has failed. While the future of legal abortion is uncertain, one thing is clear--even if abortion remains legal, poor and working-class women will continue to lose ground.

We need to mobilize and build pro-choice demonstrations whenever politicians try to pass new legislation against abortion or bigots attack clinics. We need to begin to show that the pro-choice majority is not simply going to sit by while abortion rights are chiseled away.

George W. Bush's advisers have devised a very clever strategy: They are conducting a frontal assault on all things liberal--from abortion rights to environmental protection--while pushing through tax cuts for the rich, so hard and so fast that they hope to sideline the opposition. Bush's program is centered around one goal--further enriching a tiny, wealthy minority at the expense of the vast majority.

Bush may think he's got a winning strategy today, but he will win only if we let him. We have the power of numbers on our side, and on that basis, we can build a movement that will send his Republican program into the dustbin of history, where it belongs.

When you have the majority of people on your side, as we do today, we have the power to turn the tide. We can not only beat back Bush, but we can change the world.

A socialist alternative to an unjust society

WE LIVE in a society of gross inequality. Capitalism cannot exist without it. Just 225 billionaires in the world own as much wealth as half the world's population.

The oppression of the world's vast majority by a tiny ruling class has been crucial to securing this obscene inequality. And to keep this majority of ordinary working-class people divided, capitalism has created and relies upon certain divisions--racial, national and sexual divisions among them.

Women's oppression performs two important functions for the system. First, capitalism depends on women's unpaid labor in the family--housework and child care--as a cheap means of reproducing labor power for the system. And over the last century in particular, capitalism has also come to rely on women as a lower-paid section of the labor force.

Socialists believe that society does not have to be organized this way. All working-class people--regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or national origin--face a common enemy and therefore have a common struggle. Class unity is central if women are ever to live in a society free of restrictions on their bodies.

It is no coincidence that the very first time abortion was legalized in the 20th century was after the Russian Revolution in 1917, the first revolution that brought the working class to power. Even though the revolution lasted only a few years, it showed that a government run by workers in their own interest could make women's liberation a reality.

Today, the U.S. is the richest country in the world. Yet there is no accessible child care, paid maternity leave or even subsidized contraception.

The lack of services and the erosion of abortion rights don't just drive down the quality of life for women. They also make life harder for the husbands, boyfriends and fathers of these women.

The fact that women continue to earn less than men brings down the wages of their male coworkers. Far from benefiting from the oppression of women, working-class men's lives are diminished as well.

Home page | Back to the top