The war on women’s rights in the US has taken centre stage in this year’s Republican presidential primary race.
Each candidate has attempted to outdo his opponents in attacking access to abortion and even to birth control.
These attacks on women’s abortion rights are nothing new, of course.
Ever since abortion was first legalised in the US by the 1973 Roe v Wade decision in the Supreme Court, the right wing has fought back viciously.
They have pushed through so many legal restrictions on abortion that in many areas of the country access has become a “right” in name only.
The flood of legislation restricting abortion rights has dramatically escalated in recent years.
Despite the fact that one third of women will have an abortion in their lifetime, some 87 percent of all US counties have lacked an abortion provider since 2008.
The Guttmacher Institute monitors sexual and reproductive health. It estimates that legislators brought in “more than 1,100 reproductive health and rights related provisions” last year, as compared to 950 introduced in 2010.
These laws include prohibitions against private insurance cover for abortions, mandatory ultrasound tests and mandatory waiting periods.
Such laws hit working class and poor women the hardest. They have made abortion prohibitively expensive for many.
Some of the ultrasound tests require doctors to also “describe” the foetus—regardless of whether the pregnancy is a result of rape or if a termination is sought because of severe foetal abnormalities.
Then there are the actions of groups such as Operation Rescue and 40 Days For Life.
These groups claim to want to “protect” women from the evil of abortion. They do this by waiting outside clinics with doctored pictures of foetuses, blocking entrances and begging women not to “kill your baby”.
In many US cities abortion clinics are forced to provide volunteer escorts to help women enter the clinic and get past the anti-choice protests.
US clinics have been subjected to hundreds of incidents of arson, bomb and anthrax threats, acid attacks and violence.
Several abortion providers have even been murdered—most recently, Kansas doctor George Tiller who was gunned down in church in 2009.
The majority of people in the US favour keeping abortion legal. But far right anti-choice “social conservatives” get a hearing in the mainstream because they play a useful role for the Republican Party.
They are the attack dogs that whip up the party’s right wing base in election year, urging them to go to the polls and “protect” conservative values.
But the other reason why these anti-women fanatics get a hearing is because the response from their opponents is so timid.
Mainstream pro-choice groups have adopted a strategy of lobbying pro-choice Democrats to safeguard abortion rights—rather than building the kind of grassroots activism that helped win abortion rights in the 1970s.
Yet the Democratic Party as a whole has shifted far to the right on the issue of abortion in the past decades.
Instead of seeing abortion as a right to be defended, they restrict themselves to claiming that it should be safe, legal—and most of all—rare.
Yet come election time, Democrats and their supporters will tell people that they must vote for them in order to protect the right to choose.
There are, however, some inspiring signs that show a fightback to defend abortion rights may be about to get off the ground.
Hundreds of abortion rights supporters in Oklahoma and Virginia joined a grassroots protest movement against recent anti-choice legislation in the two states.
In Virginia, hundreds of women and men turned out for several protests against a mandatory ultrasound law. They surrounded the state Capitol, chanting and at one point being dragged away from the steps by heavily armed riot police.
Although a modified version of the law ultimately was passed in Virginia, such protests are a welcome sight. More of them are needed if we are to rebuild the fight for abortion rights.
This election year, we’ll be told many times that we have to vote for Barack Obama and the Democrats to keep abortion legal against the threat of a President Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum.
But we should look to the protesters in Virginia for the real lesson in how to stand up for our rights.
Nicole Colson writes on abortion rights for socialistworker.org