Fight the Assault on Abortion Rights!
by Marcus Otono
The US state of Alabama recently made news and possibly history, by enacting the harshest abortion law in the US in this year of harsh abortion laws. Following on the heels of laws to restrict abortion, enacted or introduced in 28 states since January of this year, the Alabama law makes abortion in the state into a Class A felony, equivalent to murder, rape, and armed robbery. The Alabama statute not only makes abortion a crime punishable by imprisonment for up to 99 years for providers, but it allows no exceptions for victims of rape or incest. With this law, it’s probable that a brutal rape that results in pregnancy, will receive a lighter punishment than the doctor who terminates the pregnancy.
The only permissible reasons for an abortion that remain under the Alabama law are for “severe health risks for the mother”- and only physical health risks for the most part with mental health risks having extra hoops to jump through- or “lethal fetal abnormality”. And, although supporters claim that they didn’t intend to criminalize the women who have the abortion and do have specific language against criminal penalties for the woman, it would be easy to imagine an overzealous prosecutor attempting to browbeat a woman into testifying against her doctor under the threat of some sort of “abetting” penalty or charge. Prosecutors are notorious for these types of pressure tactics when they’re looking to score a bigger target of successful prosecutions.
The Alabama law is the first that has been enacted that actually makes abortion illegal in most cases and at any stage of a pregnancy, rather than just attempting to make it inaccessible.
There’s also a provision in the law that makes attempting to self induce an abortion into a Class C felony with penalties up to 10 years in prison.
This law, along with all of the recent “fetal heartbeat” restrictions, aren’t meant to be enforced immediately. Even with the law passed and signed by the governor, rights guaranteed by the 1973 decision in the famous Roe vs Wade case, abortions are still legal in the state of Alabama, and indeed throughout the US. At least this remains so until the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the law(s). Alabama’s law is merely the most restrictive and, as such, will probably be addressed first by the Supreme Court.
And that’s the point. As the sponsor of the bill, Representative Terri Collins said that this law was introduced and enacted to “…confront a decision that was made by the courts in 1973”.
The election of Donald Trump and the seating of two new Supreme Courts justices during his administration has provided impetus to this new spate of laws attempting to limit the right of women to make decisions about their own bodies. Opponents of abortion are seizing the opportunity to overturn RvW and send the rights of US women back to the deadly days of botched back alley abortions and death from sepsis or a perforated uterus.
The so-called “pro-life” reactionaries can see this is their best chance so far to overturn RvW, but their success is not guaranteed. The Trump appointees – Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – will probably vote to overturn Roe vWade, as will Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, but Chief Justice John Roberts has sent mixed signals in his past SC rulings. He seems more reluctant to overturn established precedent than the more hard core jurists and he could disrupt the anti-abortion offensive by voting with the more liberal justices to uphold the principle of Roe vs Wade. That said, he will most assuredly allow the harsher restrictions to availability that have passed in other states which will have almost the same effect as Alabama’s draconian statute but are more “constitutional” and less divisive.
Although most of the other laws that restrict abortion rights during the first trimester of a pregnancy don’t go as far as the Alabama law, at least eight other states have passed “fetal heartbeat” laws that ban abortion within the first six to eight weeks of pregnancy or when a heartbeat is detected. This is so early that many women don’t even realize they’re pregnant and further limits the window of opportunity to terminate an unwanted pregnancy in its earliest and medically safest stage. And at a time that a fetus isn’t in any way viable outside of the womb.
Another important factor is the fact that individual states can make abortions very difficult to obtain by limiting facilities and access to healthcare insurance. in Alabama in 2014, 59% of women lived in counties without a clinic, compared with 39% in the rest of the United States, Several states, including Alabama, impose restrictions on private insurance coverage of abortion and plans sold on the marketplace under the Affordable Care Act.
Thus whichever way the SC ruling goes, whether it’s a complete overturn or allowing the further limiting of access, it seems highly likely that at least some of the state laws restricting abortion rights will be allowed by the Supreme Court. And the mounting of obstacles to the right to free and legal termination of unwanted pregnancies will continue.
The Legal Campaign to Restrict Abortion Rights
Since the initial ruling in 1973, there has been a hard core of opponents that have been working constantly to overturn the verdict rendered. These opponents have been a mix of the religious, who insist that “life begins at conception” and that abortion is “murder” and states rights advocates who think that this is an issue for the states to decide without federal court intervention. The religious opposition includes both the Catholic Church and right-wing Evangelical fundamentalists, who are often on opposite sides of other social issues, but are united on this one. And of course, there are the political opportunists who have attempted to mix the two opposition groups for personal gain and political power.
This last group, the opportunists, have featured mostly the Republican Party, at least since the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the days of Rev. Jerry Falwell and the “Moral Majority” but also many Democrats, especially in the southern states where the religious right maintains a lot of influence over daily life, including politics.
Through the decades, this unholy alliance of Christian Dominionists, who believe the state must be run by extreme conservative Christians and are rightly compared to Islamic fundamentalists, has steadily gained influence with the politicians, even though their beliefs are unrepresentative of the mainstream of the country. When the Democratic Party conceded and acceded to the demands of this religious bigotry and begun compromising on the issue of the bodily sovereignty of women in the early 1990s, the die was cast and this day was fated.
The Democratic Party mantra of “legal, safe, and rare” with the “rare” playing to the forces that looked at abortion as a morally bad thing rather than as a personal medical decision, in effect, ceded the moral issue to the opponents of Roe v Wade. This change has led to the slow chipping away of the rights of a woman to bodily sovereignty. The restrictions were affirmed by two post-Roe rulings in 1992 and in 2007 which allowed the individual states to interfere in this personal medical decision that, since 1973, had been left to a woman and her doctor, and especially in the first and second trimesters of a pregnancy.
Republican Opposition to the Alabama Law
In spite of the fact that most Republicans support restrictions on a woman’s right to control over her own body, the Alabama law goes too far even for many of them including (apparently) Donald Trump. Because it doesn’t have any exceptions in cases of rape or incest, Trump has tweeted his dissatisfaction with the Alabama law, while urging the anti-abortion forces to stay “united”. Even the head of the Republican National Committee is opposed to this law as it’s written.
In fact, recent polling (Pew Research Center) has shown that a third of Republicans think that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. And among Republican women the issue is even more clear, A 2018 poll from the Perry Uderm, a non-partisan public research firm, showed that over half of Republican women believed that Roe versus Wade should not be overturned. So even among Republicans, a sizable minority of men and a majority of women, are pro-choice with very few restrictions.
Among the general public the support for keeping RvW as the law of the land is even stronger with a WSJ/NBC News poll in July of 2018 showing that 71% of Americans think that the law should not be overturned. Added to this, the above mentioned Uderm poll showed that almost 90% of the people would support the decision of a woman they personally knew to have an abortion if that was her choice. The debate creates much heat in the body politic and especially in the political class, but the polls show that the US population isn’t nearly as divided on the issue as it would seem from reading the mainstream media. The support for the ’73 ruling is strong and deep.
This provides the Republican Party and the Trump administration with a conundrum of sizable proportions. The majority of the party believes in restricting abortion rights. But the public doesn’t and this is especially true of women, the group that will be affected by any change in abortion rights.
It’s a tightrope that Republican legislators and Donald Trump have to walk in order to win elections, especially in suburban districts. The divide between their reactionary base that supports the severest restrictions on abortion rights and the general public who will vote, or more properly not vote, for them over abortion restrictions is a very delicate dance. Do they support the base in order to win the primary and pay the price in the general election? Or do they risk losing the primary by supporting RvW in hopes of making it through to the general? Or do they just lie in both cases depending on their audiences?
If the polls show that most Americans support abortion rights, why is this right so contested by parts of the ruling class?
Patriarchy, Religion, and Social Control
Despite being the richest country in the world, welfare and healthcare provision in the States is far below that of other wealthy countries. Elsewhere, workers and women’s struggles have secured a greater commitment from the state to provide a minimum standard of living and support the health and welfare of citizens. With these advances came greater commitments to maternity leave and state financial support for families, moving some of the burden of responsibility for children from individual parents to society.
However, even in those countries with the best welfare provision, the responsibility for raising the next generation of workers is ultimately borne by women. For the state to instead provide free cheches, launderettes, meals and cleaning services to truly free women to fully participate in society would require taxation levels for the rich that would decimate the profits. The socialisation of “women’s work” would require the socialisation of society’s wealth.
Greater participation of women in the workforce as has been seen over the past few decades brings to the fore a key contradiction for capitalist society – that women are both expected to both work full time and to mother full time. They are expected to fulfil their role in capitalist production and in reproduction. This contradiction forces women to seek greater control over their fertility, to demand maternity pay, affordable childcare and financial support for their children. Women with greater financial independence are more likely to leave abusive relationships and demand more from family life, and greater numbers of women are raising children alone. They are forced by their circumstances to demand that society take more responsibility for the raising of the next generation.
Those Republicans, Democrats and religious extremists attempting to overturn RvW are attempting to resolve that contradiction of a woman’s role in production and reproduction by reversing the advances in women’s rights. By forcing her to have children she doesn’t want. To stay with a partner she doesn’t want. With its emphasis on “family values” the Christian extremism in the US is the ideology of this movement to roll back women’s hard-won rights.
Actions to Stop the Violence
To stop this state sanctioned violence against women we need militant resistance. The state, with the support of the religious establishment, will railroad it though without consideration for the majority view unless the majority becomes ungovernable.
The demonstrations that have already happened in many cities must grow and focus on directly challenging the executives, legislatures, and the courts of the capitalist power structure. This resistance needs to spread into the workplace with political strikes and boycotts of companies that support limiting choice – taking inspiration from pro-choice women’s strike in Poland 2016. Women are just over 45% of union members and at least half, if not more, of the workforce in general.
Because some states will still allow abortion even if Roe is overturned, an “underground railroad” of a sort needs to be set up to get women that need abortion services to the providers in these states. This will be critical because most women who need abortions today are at the poverty level and don’t have the resources to travel for a safe abortion. Wealthy women, mostly white and privileged, have always been able to get safe abortion services. Roe somewhat equalized this for poor women, so we will all need to pick up the slack.
We need to work in a united front with civil society organisations that support abortion rights to set up defense funds for women and providers who are targeted by the various state laws that restrict abortion. And the people who might be targeted for helping a woman get an abortion.
These are just a few of the steps that will be needed in order to avert the coming catastrophe of the overturn of Roe vs Wade and another defeat for the forces of progress. And most of these steps will either be illegal or skirt the line of illegality, so we should prepare for that eventuality.
To permanently secure a woman’s right to choose we need to create a society that doesn’t treat women as incubators for the next generation of workers. We need a society that takes collective responsibility for its future and respects the bodily autonomy of women to choose whether to have children. A key part of the fight for that society is the fight against misogyny and for women’s liberation so there’s only one place the socialist left should be: on the side of women.