Socialist Worker

Why the US right attack abortion

Abortion rights have been hard fought for in the US. Now some of these rights are under ferocious assault. Isabel Ringrose explores a history of resistance and shows why the right’s view on abortion is complicated

Issue No. 2772

Protests for abortion rights in the US in 2016

Protests for abortion rights in the US in 2016 (Pic: Flickr @JordanUhl)


In the United States, a battle is currently raging—and women’s bodies are the ­battlegrounds. American women are in the midst of one of the most significant assaults on their reproductive rights.

In Texas last week a law went through that effectively bans abortion after six weeks—before many women are even aware that they’re pregnant.

Next month Mississippi’s attempt to ban abortion before 15 weeks will reach the federal Supreme Court with a Republican majority.

The 1973 case that ­provides abortion access, Roe v Wade, could be rolled back.

The landmark judicial ruling found that a Texas statute forbidding abortion except when necessary to save the mother’s life was unconstitutional.

In the time before Texas introduced its bill, 30 states prohibited abortion ­without exception and 16 banned abortions except in certain circumstances.

More recently, Alabama in 2019 attempted to ban abortions outright. And other states such as Missouri, Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky, and Ohio put “heartbeat bills” in place. But these remain blocked at the judicial level.

The future of these cases and women’s legal access to abortions will be considered in the coming months by the Supreme Court.

Right wing bigots have fought and chipped at Roe v Wade since the bill’s introduction, but they are divided.

Some of them demand that ­reproductive rights are ripped up.

Legal 

But they face a problem—many people in the US believe that abortion should be legal.

So other right wingers think a better strategy is to gradually undermine ­existing abortion rights by removing care ­available, such as shutting down ­clinics.

Right wing politicians use a “culture war” strategy around issues like abortion, trans rights and racism. They want to cut across class and corral ­working class people behind their agenda.

Donald Trump expanded a “gag rule” that stripped federal funds from international organisations offering abortion services and attacked the Planned Parenthood non-profit health group.

And after his first year in office, when his approval rating was the lowest on record, Trump spoke at an anti-abortion rally to rile up his loyal base.

It’s easy to think that the US right has always attacked ­abortion rights to gain votes.

But abortion only became a partisan issue during the ­backlash against the gains of Civil Rights Movement and other forms of resistance during the 1960s.

Before the 1970s, many Republicans supported the ­legalisation of abortion. For them, giving women choices suited their belief in individual rights and limited state intervention.

They preferred abortion rights to public money being used to support poor women and their children.

 Abortion only became a partisan issue during the ­backlash against the gains of Civil Rights Movement and other forms of resistance during the 1960s.

The 1972 election saw the first significant shift in how the two main parties viewed abortion.

Republican president Richard Nixon stood for election again and looked to win over a new group of right wing Catholics and social conservatives. He also wanted to win over seats in the South that Democrats had traditionally held. To do this, he ran on a platform opposed to abortion. His plan worked.

Nixon won 36 percent of the Democratic vote—twice more than the percentage of voters who typically defect from their party in presidential elections.

He also became the first Republican presidential candidate to win the majority of Catholic voters.

Fury as Texas bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy
Fury as Texas bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy
  Read More

Three years after the Supreme Court had ruled on Roe v Wade, the Republican party backed an anti-abortion constitutional amendment.

This was again an attempt to win Catholic voters, for both the presidential and Congressional elections.

Four years after Roe v Wade, the Hyde Amendment to ban federal funding for most ­abortions was voted on.

As the Republicans marched on with their anti-abortion attacks, the Democratic Party affirmed its support for legal abortions. But only because of mounting pressure from below.

The party began to take up more issues around women’s reproductive rights, such as access to contraception and health care.

But for Catholic Democrats like former president Bill Clinton and president Joe Biden, the lines on abortion have not been as clear.Clinton’s 1992 campaign ran the slogan “Safe, legal and rare” to describe his abortion policy—a position supported by Hillary Clinton in her 2008 election campaign.

However because of the waves of pro-choice and anti‑Trump sentiment that Hilary Clinton knew might propel her to the White House she supported the repeal of Hyde to win support.

Abortion rights have never simply been granted by politicians. A movement has always had to force them to act.

The abortion movement took off in the 1960s after Gerri Santoro from Connecticut died trying to obtain an illegal abortion.

At this time the anti-Vietnam war movement, Civil Rights movement and Stonewall riots had created a mood for change.

Pro-choice movements of the 1960s and 70s won changes to the law and political backing for the abortion movement.

Even right wing governments since then knew they had to give in to avoid risking further uprisings.

The rights currently being rolled back by reactionaries were won through years of fighting on the streets and ­workplaces, showing it’s possible to wrestle back control of women’s bodies.

Women developed their own organisations to provide abortions to women who could not obtain them elsewhere.

Pro-Choice America was formed in 1969 to oppose restrictions on abortion and expand access, and in 1973 became the National Abortion Rights Action League.

The rights currently being rolled back by reactionaries were won through years of fighting on the streets and ­workplaces, showing it’s possible to wrestle back control of women’s bodies.

The movement staged ­political events like “abortion speak-outs”, which featured women giving first-hand accounts of illegal abortions.

Other feminist groups such as the National Organisation for Women fought within the system to help move 17 states to legalise abortion under certain conditions before Roe v Wade.

Both mainstream parties have used abortion to gain more votes.

Alternative 

The Democrats present ­themselves as the progressive alternative on the back of the movement from below.

But the neoliberal politics of the Democrats are part of the reason why the system pushes women into poverty with an inability to access abortion and reproductive care. The party swallowed radical movements to make them more palatable and give them a bigger voting pool.

For the right, abortion will always be a polarising issue that switches between the bosses’ needs and gaining popular support from sections of society.

The ruling class is torn between needing women to take care of the next generation of workers and their labour in the workforce.

The bosses can favour ­abortion access because they would lose large sections of the workforce to childcare duties.

Some firms in the US, such as Facebook and Google, even pay for egg freezing so workers can get pregnant later in their careers and work for longer.

But this doesn’t mean that the bosses aren’t invested in the nuclear family. They still support it as it lets them off the hook for providing for the next ­generation of workers.

And the right also fall behind this idea. Conservatives see the traditional family as an institution that maintains stability and provides control.

Yet there is widespread ­popular support in the US for abortion rights.

A Gallup opinion poll in May this year showed 32 percent of people thought abortion should be legal under any circumstances.

This is the highest figure for over 25 years. And then a further 48 percent said it should be legal under some circumstances.Only 19 percent were opposed to abortion in all circumstances.

But shoring up the nuclear family today, even though it doesn’t fit with how many people live, is still vital for our rulers. The family still plays an essential economic and ­ideological role.

One study, likely to be an underestimate, found women’s unpaid labour was worth more than £2.16 trillion annually to capitalism globally before the pandemic.

And one way the right shore up these “family values” is by stamping out abortion rights.

Despite the contradictions, the ruling classes don’t want women to control their lives and bodies fully. And they’re certainly not pro‑life in any real sense.

They don’t care about ­working class women who die from dangerous abortions or migrant children trying to reach a better life but who die trying.

Capitalism will always try to find a way to roll back any gains made to suit its needs.

While capitalism’s economic and political needs shape our ideas about abortion, ideas have also been shaped by ordinary people’s struggles.

The only way to win true liberation for women, with free access to abortion for good, is to fight back against a system built on exploitation and oppression.

Abortions Rights has called a #DefendAbortion Solidarity with Texas rally outside the US Embassy at 33 Nine Elms Lane, London SW11 7US on 2 October at 1.30pm

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