Women’s rights are won in the streets

August 20, 2018

As we face the prospect of further attacks on abortion rights, the pro-choice majority should organizer where our power lies, writes Michelle Sapere.

SHORTLY BEFORE I joined the International Socialist Organization, I attended a counterprotest to defend Planned Parenthood from anti-abortion bigots that gathered in front of the clinic. Our side was bigger, stronger, there first and there longer.

There was a woman from the anti-choice side who stood on our side, holding a sign that simply had “PP” for Planned Parenthood in a circle with a line through it. She told me that the thing she opposed the most was federal funding going to support abortions.

The Religious Right aren’t worth engaging at these protests, and one of the counterprotesters standing with me said simply, “It’s not about dialogue, it’s about winning.” At the time, I was torn about this statement, thinking that maybe dialogue could help, but the truth is that this woman was trying to engage me in a debate about why federal funding shouldn’t go toward “murder.”

So let’s unpack that.

Activists march in defense of women's reproductive rights
Activists march in defense of women's reproductive rights

The truth is that much federal funding does go toward actual murder — funding of the military, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the police. Our government has no issue devoting federal funding to detaining pregnant immigrant mothers or causing miscarriages for women who had chosen to remain pregnant. In the past, it has had no problems with the forced sterilizations of women and men.

The federal funding the anti-abortion protester was speaking about goes toward medical health services for women (never mind the fact that Planned Parenthood also serves men, but I won’t go into that here). The funding goes toward ensuring that low-income women in particular, can obtain reproductive health care.

She argued that the “other stuff” Planned Parenthood does is fine, but performing abortions is not. But abortions are a part of reproductive health, I tried to argue back. As the conversation spiraled into her claiming she would take in all the babies that the mothers didn’t want and other claims, it became clear...it’s not about dialogue, it’s about winning.

Winning the freedom of body autonomy from outsiders, winning full reproductive health services, winning a world where women of all races, countries of origin and economic status don’t have to constantly fight for control over their bodies and their lives. I didn’t have to convince this woman to win this fight. None of us do.

Arguing morals and religion will exhaust our effort, not help it. I wasn’t going to convince this anti-choicer in 2016 any more than I could’ve convinced Norma McCorvey, a woman, who in 1995 declared her opposition to abortion after having undergone two religious conversions — even though Norma McCorvey had once fought for abortion rights under the alias of “Jane Roe” in the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade.


THE POINT of this anecdote is to illustrate that the anti-abortion protester, Norma McCorvey and any single person on the planet has zero right to tell women what they do with their bodies. The world will go on with all different opinions on the issue, but what kind of world is it when women are still treated as second-class citizens who aren’t trusted to plan their own lives?

The same politicians who want to dictate what women do with their bodies for “moral” reasons also support locking immigrants in cages in detention centers; they turn a blind eye when young Black kids are shot and killed by police and when women and children are tortured and killed by our military.

Simply put, abortion isn’t a moral issue, because if it was about life and death, then the same government that claims a moral high ground when it comes to cells in a woman’s womb would never allow the violent atrocities that happen on a daily basis as a direct result of their decisions.

In addition, it wouldn’t allow the babies they are so vocally in support of being born be raised in poverty, with parents unable to afford child care, with women penalized for working too much or not enough, along with our almost non-existent maternity leave.

Anti-choice forces claim to care if a woman has her baby, but look away when that baby grows up in extreme poverty, can’t concentrate in school because of lead poisoning or is murdered by gun violence. They don’t care about the baby, and even less about the woman.

We all know that restricting abortion doesn’t mean abortions won’t happen; it means that those who can’t afford private physicians will face life-threatening procedures and/or jail time.

Our country has a long history of eugenics and racism. It’s the home of “Mississippi appendectomies” — unnecessary and nonconsensual hysterectomies performed on women of color in Southern teaching hospitals beginning in the 1920s that got that name because they were as common as appendectomies.

North Carolina’s eugenics program, which continued after the Second World War, carried out the forced sterilization of women that the state deemed “delinquent” or “unwholesome” — a third of them under the age of 18 and some as young as 9 years old.

This past year, a 28-year-old woman held in an ICE detention center was thrown around and pushed to the ground, even after she told guards she was pregnant. When she miscarried, they finally allowed her to see a doctor, who confirmed that the conditions she was living under most likely caused the lost pregnancy.

When she told the doctor she wasn’t well, he said, “That’s not my fault, that’s your fault.”


THE 1960s and 1970s saw a huge wave of women’s rights organizing coinciding with the civil rights era, and the pressure was on for the Supreme Court to overturn its illegal stance on abortion and to see women as equal citizens who deserved personal autonomy in society.

It ended up mattering little that the president at the time was Richard Nixon or that the Supreme Court was stacked with predominantly conservative judges. What mattered was who was on the streets and how movement helped shift what the general population thought about women’s equality, including reproductive rights.

After that, however, came a backlash against the gains of movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, with the presidency of Ronald Reagan and neoliberalism coming to define our current society. In the absence of a sustained movement for women’s rights to counter the right’s attacks, we’ve seen an erosion in our rights.

At a time when we have a rapist as president and a Supreme Court stacked with conservative judges, one may think that we have to focus more than anything else on electing pro-choice Democrats. But the problem with this is that the steady decline of women’s rights over the past 40-plus years has grown through both Republican and Democratic leadership and control of the Supreme Court.

As Sharon Smith wrote in Socialist Worker in 1992 about soon-to-be-president Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton:

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, at this point the Democratic frontrunner, calls himself pro-choice, but supports parental notification for teenagers and opposes funding abortions for poor women.

In fact, the state of Arkansas, which has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation, only funds abortion if a pregnant woman’s life is threatened. And Clinton himself signed a parental notification bill in 1989. Similarly, despite the Democratic Party’s reputation as pro-choice, Democratic politicians haven’t fought to prevent Congress from denying poor women federal abortion funding. Each autumn since 1977, both houses of Congress have upheld the Hyde Amendment, which cut off federal Medicaid funding for poor women’s abortions.

In 2010, Democratic President Barack Obama issued an executive order ensuring that current restrictions that bar federal funds being used for abortions stayed in place under the Affordable Care Act.

In Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People, Danny Katch points out how even the most progressive candidate play politics with women’s right to choose:

Bernie Sanders has become the country’s most popular politician because of his reputation for putting progressive values ahead of political opportunism. But that’s exactly what he didn’t do when he campaigned for Heath Mello, an antiabortion candidate in Nebraska. Sanders defended himself with the kind of Democratic double-talk that he’s often so good at exposing.


FOR TOO long, we’ve been told that the future of women’s rights lies in whether we get Democrats or Republicans in office. For example, women’s rights organizations that focus on electing Democrats are using the nomination of conservative, choice opponent Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court as the number one reason to get Democrats elected in November.

But we need to oppose Kavanaugh now and show the strength of our side — in protest. In the process, we are also helping to build the kind of opposition that fights for reproductive justice, no matter which party is sitting in power.

Polls show that a majority of this country still in favor of legal abortion. And the #MeToo movement and the Women’s Marches have shown the potential for our side to come together and build this kind of resistance.

What’s at stake is women’s equality. In 2003, the World Health Organization estimated that 78,000 women around the world die from unsafe abortions every year. With one in three women in the U.S. needing to have an abortion in their lifetime and with that rate rising as the economy worsens and inequality grows, the most affected are young and low-income.

Legal abortion is an urgent issue affecting millions of women. Control over a woman’s body, and ultimately over her entire existence, is just another way that capitalism feeds on oppression to keep the working class defeated and divided.

We can clearly see what happens when we ignore the far right and bigots — their confidence and power grow and the deterioration of our hard-fought-for rights. It’s time to once again take to the streets and have our voices heard. Our bodies, our choice, our movement to win.

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