By Sarah Bates
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2084

Abortion rights under threat in the US—the battle over our bodies

A massive fightback is needed to defend abortion rights as Roe v Wade comes under attack
Issue 2084
Abortion protests resistance

Protests to defend abortion rights are planned across the US

Abortion rights in the United States are teetering on a knife edge. If the Roe v Wade judgement is effectively overturned by the courts, which could be as early as this summer, it will be a devastating blow.

Such a move would both make getting abortions more difficult, and it will play a wider role in emboldening all reactionaries who want to see women return to the home. Leaks last week showed the conservative majority on the Supreme Court is moving towards stopping the federal ruling and allowing each state to make its own decision. 

It would be immediately disastrous for women. Some 13 states have ­“trigger bans” in place, ready to spring into action the moment Roe is overturned. On the Supreme Court steps last week, abortion activists repeated the chant, “Democrats do something.”

That’s a cry of frustrated anger at the party’s failure to throw itself into defending women’s rights—and against its continuing attempts to appease ­
anti-­abortion forces. Instead of seeking to mobilise the maximum number of people, president Biden suggests the anger at the Supreme Court be turned into votes at in Novembers mid-term elections. 

“We will need more ­pro-choice senators and a pro-choice majority in the House to adopt legislation that codifies Roe,” he said after the leak. “Which I will work to pass and sign into law.”

But how is it possible to trust what Biden says when from within his party right wing Democrats stand in the way of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which gives some abortion rights? Frontline abortion care workers are furious at the level of opposition to the onslaught of attacks. Crystal, an abortion care worker in Pennsylvania, said, “The Democratic Party has not had any substantial response to the recent attacks on Roe.

“Their ­statements and brief denouncements of these egregious abortion bans and restrictions have been toothless and weak, hardly even mentioning abortion services the majority of the time.”

Yet despite Democrat inaction amid decades of attacks on Roe v Wade, top reproductive rights organisations still pour tens of millions of dollars into the party. As recently as 2008, presidential Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton was throwing around the phrase “safe, legal and rare” when describing her position on abortion. “And by rare, I mean rare”, she added for emphasis.

Although the Democrats have now dropped the “safe, legal and rare” slogan, the same uselessness on abortion rights has continued during Biden’s leadership. Until the leak last Tuesday, the president never said the word ­“abortion” while in office.

Despite the failings of those at the top to launch effective opposition to attacks, there is a clear pro-choice majority in the US. A survey by polling company Gallup in June 2021 found that 58 percent of people were opposed to overturning Roe v Wade and some 32 percent were in favour.

Biden and his regime poised themselves as the counterweight to Donald Trump’s carnival of reaction. But it’s more fruitful to look at how abortion rights were won in the first place. It’s not a coincidence that the extension of abortion rights in 1973 came from a broader political movement battling for women’s rights. 

Access to abortion rights was one of the central planks of the women’s liberation movement, which swept across the US, Britain and other countries in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Activists in the women’s liberation and labour movement provided both practical abortion support alongside campaigning for legislative change.

For some, this meant helping women with places to stay during their abortions and financing travel and medical care. Three years before Roe v Wade, one of the most significant actions for women’s rights, some 50,000 people took to the streets of New York to mark the Women’s Strike for Equality.

Organised by the National Organisation for Women, it demanded equal work opportunities, childcare and free abortion on demand. In recent history, the Woman’s Marches showed that it is still possible to mobilise large numbers of people out on the streets against sexism.Some 5 million people marched against Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, and defending reproductive rights was a central theme. The battle to defend Roe v Wade will have to be fought on many fronts. 

Socialists should support efforts to stop it legally and legislatively because whether Roe exists in law has a material impact on women’s lives. And the best way to do this is to ­mobilise the broadest possible social forces. This means more action from everyone—men and women—like the groundswell of fury that created these rights in the first place. 

Several abortion rights ­organisations have called for ­demonstrations next Saturday across the US. These protests must be as big as possible. To protect abortion rights activists must look beyond the limitations of the Democrats, who will offer women little. And ultimately, to get abortion that is genuinely on demand, we must cast away this sexist system.


Horror of back street abortions still haunts

Renee Chelian was blindfolded and taken to a dirty warehouse full of other women. At just 15 years old, Renee was unlucky enough to have an unwanted pregnancy in the years before Roe v Wade came into effect. “They gave me something to put me to sleep. “When I woke up, my father and the person who did my abortion explained to me that I was a little further along than they thought and that they couldn’t finish the abortion, that it was going to happen at home.”

“What I know now is they packed my uterus with gauze in hopes that I would go into labour and pass the pregnancy at home.” But that didn’t happen, and increasingly desperate, Renee made a second appointment in another second warehouse. “This time, I think they ruptured the membranes or amniotic sac and repacked my uterus with gauze. 

“They were certain I was going to go into labour this time. And within 24 to 48 hours, I started having contractions.” Renee’s mother closed all the windows at home in case neighbours heard screams, and her younger siblings were sent out for the day. When she finally passed the foetus into the toilet, the abortionist told the family they would be charged “a couple of hundred dollars more to come and pick up the foetus”.

It doesn’t sound like it, but Renee was one of the relatively lucky ones—she survived. There were many women like Renee, although it’s hard to know exactly how many. Research published by doctors in 1969 estimated that 200,000 to 1 million illegal abortions took place each year.  These “backstreet” abortions were horrendously dangerous for women—by 1965, they accounted for nearly a fifth of maternal deaths. For those that escaped death, they risked lifelong injury and trauma. The methods were brutal. 

At home, women internally flushed themselves with bleach. Going to a backstreet abortionist might mean a wire coat hanger was used to scrape the uterine walls. Other methods meant the contents of a woman’s uterus were sucked out through a combination of tubes and syringes.

Renee, who went on to found her own abortion clinics, said, “We’re going to have to work very hard, but I’m very very optimistic about winning. “What worries me is that women will face exactly what I faced,” she said. “There will be illegal abortion shops set up again. “While some people may feel that they’re going to be able to get pills online or through friends, it’s going to be more and more difficult.”


Resistance already preparing

To combat the expected ban, activists across the US are forming their own underground abortion networks. Some of these are already springing into action in states where restrictions make it impossible to get an abortion.  It’s already hard enough to access abortion in the US. Research by the Guttermacher Institute shows that some 89 percent of US counties don’t have a clinic that offers abortions.

And repressive restrictions make abortion impossible for poor women as it stands. It’s expensive, and the longstanding Hyde Amendment means poor women can’t access federal funds to pay for it. Some women face travelling many thousands of miles several times to get an abortion.

Angela is part of the Abortion Delivered organisation that was making a bulletproof mobile abortion van to deliver services alongside the Texas border. “They are small and inconspicuous,” she said. “Part of the appeal of it is that we can pass unnoticed and not draw attention. “We will just be driving up and down the borders,” she said. “With four fleets, we think we could cover them.” 

Texas is due to form just one part of a vast “abortion desert” over much of the Midwest and South of the US. The horrors of self-induced abortions are underlined in the depths women are forced to plunge into today. Other activists are preparing for more restrictions by scouring aquarium shops and chemistry labs. They’re looking for tubes and valves to construct a Del Em, a device that uses manual vacuum aspiration.

Designed by feminist activists Lorraine Rothman and Carol Downer, it was used for several years before Roe v Wade.  The addition of an extra valve improved earlier suction abortion techniques as it prevented air bubbles from entering the woman. Speaking in 1989, Rothman echoes what many women must be feeling today.

“If we don’t get cooperation from our society to help us and provide for what is rightfully ours, we are forced to take matters into our own hands. “Because women will continue to get pregnant when they don’t want to in our society. And we have no other choice but to protect ourselves. That’s the way it’s always been.”

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance
One-off