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US activist speaks out six months after the end of Roe v Wade

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The battle for abortion rights has intensified since the landmark abortion legislation was overturned last June. Activist Renee Bracey Sherman told Isabel Ringrose that the movement must step up the fight for this fundamental right
Issue 2836
Abortion rights activist US abortion

Renee Bracey Sherman is a fighter for abortion rights

Six months after the unelected judges on the US Supreme Court tore away abortion rights, the reality of the decision is hitting home. Around 34 million women of reproductive age now live in states that have restricted abortions or banned them completely. Now all these women and anyone who can become pregnant in the US is being denied a basic right and ­fundamental access to healthcare. 

In June, in the case known as Dobbs v Jackson, the court overturned the 1973 Roe v Wade judgement. Roe had underpinned abortion rights and provided a constitutional right to access. Since its overturning, there has been heartening resistance as supporters of women’s rights organise to maintain access to abortion.

Renee Bracey Sherman is an abortion rights activist in the US and founder of campaign group We Testify. She told Socialist Worker that Roe being ­overturned “was a moment of complete despair—our worst nightmare and fears realised”.

“We knew it was something that could and would happen,” she explained. “It was absolutely devastating. “We weren’t wrong or lying that Roe could be overturned. But people failed to take us seriously for so long.” The US already has the highest maternal mortality rate among Western countries. Restricting access to abortion will only increase deaths.

Now the Republicans control the House of Representatives. They will press for a ban on all abortions. Already they are trying to restrict the use of abortion pills. But the right had been chipping away at abortion as soon as Roe was enacted in 1971. There’s a difference between having a right and being able to use it—costs and lack of access deny women abortions even when they are legal.

Particularly in the southern states, there were too few abortion providers. And if abortions are unaffordable or logistical barriers make it too difficult to reach a provider, abortion was a right in theory only. 

Renee added, “I couldn’t stop thinking about the person who went for an abortion the morning of the Dobbs decision. They’d have travelled hundreds or thousands of miles, maybe after trying to go several times, saving money, sorting a ride and finding someone to look after the kids.

“They’d done the ridiculous waiting period and gone through all the barriers, misinformation and counselling, to then have to get off the examination table because Roe was overturned. “The decision came on Friday and Saturday for most clinics this was a huge day.

Then came the scramble as people were unsure of what they could do.” Even with Roe v Wade in place, states have pushed through 1,380 abortion restrictions between 1973 and May 2022. That included when the Democrats had ­control of the White House and Congress. Renee explained that despite manoeuvring around the destruction of access to abortions, after Dobbs, “it was ­constantly changing by the minute.

“Pregnancy centres and ­anti-abortionists were telling people that abortion was not available in certain states when it was. “I know one woman who went to Colorado because she was told abortion wasn’t available in Texas, but that was a lie.” But thanks to activists, it has still been made possible for some women to travel from states that have banned it to those where it is still available. 

The Society of Family Planning says that in the first few months following the court’s decision, the number of abortions in states with bans or significant restrictions declined by 12,500 per month. At the same time the number of abortions increased by 7,140 in states ­without significant legal restrictions.

That still means abortions fell by 5,360 per month, equal to around 6 ­percent of pre-Dobbs abortions. Some—it’s impossible to know how many—of those 5,360 missing abortions did occur through methods such as abortion pills—acquired without a prescription through the post and used at home. “But it’s not a solution for people beyond the ten to 12 week period,” Renee said. “The federal Food and Drug Administration has restrictions on who can use the pills.”

So for others, costs and distance remain a devastating barrier. “We’re seeing people who need access having to travel even further than before,” Renee said. Rosemary Westwood, an abortion activist in New Orleans, recently tweeted, “Last year the New Orleans Abortion Fund gave clients an average of $308 (£250) for procedures and less for travel.

“Now it’s giving an average $723 (£580) for procedures and $1,620 (£1,310) to cover travel, food, flights, hotels and other costs.” Round trips for women in the state are 2,000 miles on average. Renee said, “No matter how much money is available, some still can’t travel—perhaps because they’re undocumented, disabled, have children or can’t take that much time out.”

Eight percent of people in the US don’t have health insurance—that’s 27 million people. “Some people get it through their employer—if they have an employer,” she added.

“Low income folks can get Medicaid, but 38 states have banned them from covering abortion. Laws also ban private insurers from covering abortion and require you to purchase coverage through a separate provider on the off chance you might need one.

“Around 75 percent of those ­needing abortions are low income families. Taking care of these people means free healthcare for a start so they can make choices. “There are always people who need abortions, but there are also people who feel like they have to make this decision because they can’t afford the pregnancy, let alone a child.”

That’s why Renee thinks abortion bans are “a function of capitalism”. And that the system strips working class people who have no money out of making a choice. Renee also pointed out that the difficulty of accessing abortion comes amid an “ongoing rise of fascism and white supremacy in the US”.

“There have been more people ­protesting outside clinics and attacks on providers,” she said.  “The far right is becoming bolder and more violent. “They think they’ve won—and it’s the Supreme Court that’s emboldened them. On top of that there’s the lawmakers who are using this as a free-for-all to introduce whatever laws they want, even if they won’t get through.

“It’s particularly tied into anti-trans bills and laws, which gives rise to harassment and violence. It’s all connected.”

‘Legislation is a step, but the end goal is abortion liberated’ 

Despite the measures in place to help women, there can be no room for complacency.  The court has still forced thousands of women to continue with pregnancies they wanted to terminate. Yet a significant majority of Americans back the right to abortion. Currently, 61 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37 percent say it should be illegal in all or most cases.

For Renee, the US right “deeply believe only some people should be procreating”. “We provide a certain function for them—as low wage workers and for our general role in the home.  “They say, ‘Children are a gift from God,’ and if we want them, we should be parents that are not constantly struggling.”

The federal Women, Infant and Children is supposed to support pregnant and postpartum women. “It doesn’t even cover help for diapers,” Renee explained. “They don’t make it easy to have a child. “It’s so frustrating because they shame people who have children and can’t afford it. Then they shame people’s individual choices then ignore the systems that constrain their choices.

“In the 1980s Ronald Regan talked about ‘welfare queens’. He said black women had kids to spend the money they receive on luxury items. “There’s always that caricature of working people—especially black or brown women. They don’t have the same criticism of companies who can’t make it without a government bailout.”

Despite the anti-abortionists’ victories, wherever there have been votes since Roe was overturned, support for abortion has been reaffirmed.  Anti-abortionists have lost in six of six state votes on abortion in 2022. In California, Michigan, and Vermont, voters enshrined the right to abortion in their states’ constitutions. 

In Kentucky, a state that votes Republican, as well as Montana, voters rejected anti-abortion measures, repeating the results in Kansas over the summer. Abortion rights supporters are pressing for more votes, especially in states such as Ohio and Missouri, where the state legislatures are staunchly anti-abortion. 

Abortion was a big issue in the mid‑term elections, second only to soaring prices and falling wages.  And according to an ABC News exit poll, abortion was the number one issue in, for example, Michigan voters, surpassing even inflation. This helped the Democrats. But those same Democrats are no real friends of abortion rights campaigners. 

Democrats refused to mobilise against the court’s decision and let half a century go by after Roe v Wade without codifying abortion properly into law. For Renee abortion rights mean “reproductive justice”. “We have to look at the larger system that puts people in these really difficult positions. There is no real choice without access,” she said.

“It also means raising children in a safe and healthy environment—without climate change, or risk of being shot by the police.” That’s why Renee says, “We need full decriminalisation of abortion across the US and the world. Abortion liberated—that is the goal.

“That’s liberating, not legalising, because we’ve seen people still prosecuted for self-managing or outcomes of abortions even when it was legalised. And it can be taken away.

“We need to learn from mistakes of the past.  “Legislation is a step, but it cannot be the end. The first priority in that fight has to mean eradicating the stigmas and lies that come with abortion.”

Renee works with people who have abortions to share their stories “to shift the narrative”. It mean contesting racist myths and lies about why women have abortions. “We have to address why this is pervasive. It serves a larger purpose to dehumanise us and spread racism and sexism.”

The key to this is arguing that abortion isn’t just a women’s issue but a class one. And fighting for abortion rights has to mean battling a broader system that thrives on oppression.

Renee added, “Dobbs will be used as a gateway, for instance, to criminalise medication. They’ll make healthcare difficult for everyone—and they’ll want to keep us separated. “It’s why president Joe Biden and Congress are trying to stop us from coming together to strike and undermining workers fighting for sick days.

“There are challenges for unionising in the US right now, but it’s where our strength and power are. “Together, as a class and as workers, we can really shift things.”

  • Further reading A supreme injustice: the battle for abortion rights in the United States by Judith Orr. Go here

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