By Judy Cox
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Abortion rights—how socialists led the fight

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Judy Cox explores the radical tradition at the heart of the fight for abortion rights

Polish women protest against the anti-abortion laws in January 2021. (Photo: Silar)

Women’s right to control our bodies has been hard won—and socialists have been at the forefront of fighting for it. And in those struggles, socialists have also brought a distinct political approach.

The state, the church and religious teachings have clashed with women’s need to control their own fertility. Continuous pregnancies and the poverty caused by caring for ever-growing families ruined women’s health. The rise of capitalism intensified that pressure on women’s fertility, when large numbers of women began to work outside the home during the Industrial Revolution.

Working mothers left babies at home with young children or put them out to unscrupulous baby farmers. Writing in the 1840s, the revolutionary Frederick Engels described how women in Manchester’s textile factories worked with painful, swollen breasts and milk leaking through their dresses. Pregnant women would “continue to work in the factory up to the hour of delivery” through fear of losing wages and work. “Many come back to the factory after eight—and even after three to four days—to resume full work,” he noted in The Condition of the Working Class in England.

The working class family was being torn apart. Some sections of the “bourgeoisie”, the capitalist class, saw the need to strengthen the family unit in order to sustain the workforce and make more workers. Genuine concern about the welfare of children coincided with moral panics about immoral women, the collapse of the family and the erosion of social stability. This family was modelled on the Victorian “bourgeois family”, with its focus on marriage and separation of work and the home. The state pushed through a series of measures aimed at strengthening the family though increased regulation of women’s lives and sexual behaviour. Abortion was criminalised in 1861 with the Offences Against the Person Act.

These developments were challenged by radical, working class movements. In the 1830s the Owenite socialists—supporters of Robert Owen—identified marriage as the key institution in the oppression of women and supported free unions and the separation of sex and reproduction.

Radical free thinker Frances Wright and her comrade Robert Dale Owen supported birth control. In 1830 Dale Owen explained why women, not their husbands, should have control over fertility. “Her feelings, her interests should be an imperative law,” he wrote. “She it is who bears the burden, and therefore with her also should the decision rest.”

Women in the Chartist movement of the 1830s to 60s developed a class analysis. They pointed to the hypocrisy of those who demanded women stay at home while forcing down wages so that women had no choice but to work.

Support for birth control could coexist with both radical and reactionary ideas. Radical publisher Richard Carlisle, who was a speaker at the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, promoted methods of birth control. So did Mary Fildes, who was also on the platform during that early working class demonstration in Manchester.

In contrast, Thomas Malthus developed a hugely influential theory which blamed overpopulation for poverty. For the Malthusians, the solution to the misery evident in the slums of Britain’s growing cities was to limit growth of the lower classes. Those who had too many children were themselves responsible for perpetuating their own poverty and degradation. Malthus did not support birth control, but many within the working class movement who accepted his ideas did. The state did not make a distinction between radical and reactionary birth control advocates—it persecuted them for promoting immoral and unnatural practices.

Marxism took root in the British working class in the 1860s and re-emerged in the 1880s. Within Marxist organisations, women and men began to develop a unique understanding of a woman’s right to control her fertility. For Marxists, limiting family size was not primarily a religious or moral question—it was a political question. Conservatives generally championed the idea the women’s most important role was motherhood. Socialists wanted to alleviate the burden unwanted pregnancies placed on women, and to increase their role in life outside the home.

Women’s ability to control their bodies was also a class issue. While middle and upper class women could buy expensive condoms, working class women were stuck with cheap, heavily-advertised and poisonous abortifacients. These left women blind, paralysed or dead. If condoms or abortifacients failed, the wealthy could end unwanted pregnancies in discreet clinics while working class women were butchered by back-street abortionists.

Some working class activists saw abortion as an issue which could divide their movement. But many socialists fought for access to birth control and abortion alongside higher wages and better housing. They wanted to free women from a life dominated by pregnancy, childcare and household drudgery.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the wave of struggle it inspired in other countries had a huge impact on the fight for abortion rights. In Russia the new workers’ state brought in a raft of measures aimed at winning women’s equality and liberation. Revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai, the new welfare commissar, introduced reforms to improve the terrible conditions endured by many women and children. In 1920, abortion was made both legal and free.

After the First World War in Austria, a wave of strikes and factory occupations swept through the capital Vienna. Workers and residents in the city set up their own councils, forcing out the emperor. The government of the new republic, led by the Social Democratic Workers Party, oversaw a large investment in jobs and welfare. Birth control and abortion were legalised.

In contrast to Russia and Austria, Britain languished far behind. In 1923, 15 percent of all maternal deaths were due to illegal abortions. Despite campaigning by women and support from rank and file members, the Labour Party consistently refused to take a position. It claimed that abortion was a moral not a political issue. Infant mortality decreased in the early 20th century, but maternal deaths in childbirth did not decline until the 1940s.

The gains of the Russian Revolution were swept away by Joseph Stalin’s counter-revolution in the late 1920s and 1930s. The last remnants of workers’ control were abolished, as the ruling state bureaucracy built up a state capitalist regime based on the exploitation of the working class. Like Western capitalism, this new regime saw the family as crucial to sustaining the workforce and producing the next generation. The social advances around women’s and gay rights were rolled back. In 1936, the regime recriminalised abortion in order to rebuild the traditional family structure. The new attitude was typified by one Stalinist stooge, Judge Soltz, arguing that women have no right to decline “the joys of motherhood”.

Leon Trotsky, one of the Bolshevik party leaders in the Russian Revolution who led opposition to Stalin, saw the attack on abortion as a key part of the counter-revolution. The revolution, Trotsky argued, had given women the right to abortion because it was “one of her most important civil, political and cultural rights”. He condemned coercion of women from the likes of Soltz as “the philosophy of a priest endowed with the powers of a gendarme (police officer)”.

Soltz had bemoaned Russia’s lack of workers, telling women, “We have need of people.”  Trotsky dryly responded, “‘Then have the kindness to bear them yourselves’ might be the answer to the high judge from millions of toiling women, if the bureaucracy had not sealed their lips with the seal of silence.”

The Bolsheviks’ approach to abortion had been to remove the economic necessity for the procedure. They introduced reforms such as maternity leave, creches and equal pay while creating socialised alternatives to the family. In contrast, the Stalinist approach was to criminalise abortions and force men and women back into the family unit. As Trotsky wrote, Russia’s leaders were “forcing people to glue together again the shell of the broken family”. “And not only that,” he said, “but to consider it, under threat of extreme penalties, the sacred nucleus of triumphant socialism.”

In Europe and the US abortion moved centre stage when new liberation movements exploded in the 1960s. The demand for abortion rights was urgently needed to save women’s lives. In 1966 around 4,000 women died as a result of back street abortions in Britain. But the right to abortion was about women demanding more than marriage and motherhood.

When abortion was legalised in Britain in 1967, the Catholic Church, Christian Evangelicals and a range of prominent figures spearheaded a movement which aimed to overturn the 1967 Abortion Act. In 1974 Labour MP James White launched the first of many attempts to cut the time limit on legal abortions. Socialists began to fight inside the trade union movement to win support for a woman’s right to choose.

The trade unions at the time were often dominated by men, who endlessly repeated the argument that abortion was a divisive issue that would split the movement. But each attempt to limit abortion rights was met with greater resistance from the working class movement.

In 1979 the campaign against the Corrie Bill marked a turning point. Socialist women organised in the unions to demand that the TUC union federation call a demonstration against the bill. Trade union leaders tried to silence them, but they won support from working class women and men as they leafletted, lobbied and campaigned. Some feminists argued against involving the trade unions, saying that abortion was a women’s issue, not a class issue. But they were marginalised. Pressure from rank and file trade unionists propelled the TUC into calling and leading the protest. Some 50,000 trade unionists marched together, united in the fight to defend women’s right to choose. It is now policy in 30 major British trade unions.

In the post war period reactionary arguments for birth control persisted. Malthusians, eugenicists and racists have attempted to legitimise the use of fertility as a weapon to victimise oppressed people. In 1961, black US Civil Rights activist Fanny Lou Hamer went into hospital for a simple operation and was sterilised without her consent. This procedure was so common it was known as the “Mississippi Appendectomy”. It was a tactic used by the racist states of the US South to eradicate those they considered to be “undesirables”—black, Puerto-Rican, poor women.

Socialists believe that women have the right to control our own bodies. We also believe abortion is a class issue because working class women bear the brunt of any restrictions. For us, the freedom to choose means not only the legal right to abortion, access to abortion and challenging the stigma about abortion. It must also mean the right and the resources to create our families in any way we choose, free from poverty, inequality and oppression.

Judy Cox is a teacher in East London. She is studying for a PhD in women and the Chartist movement at Leeds University. She is the author of The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917 (Haymarket, 2019) and Rebellious Daughters of History (Redwords, 2020).

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