A picture of people standing in a line, holding signs in support of abortion rights, while the sun sets.

A Socialist Perspective on the Fight for Abortion Rights

by Dayna Long

Photo by Corey Alexander

On Friday, September 10, a small group of activists held an abortion rights speakout on Library Mall at the University of Wisconsin Madison to protest the barbaric new abortion ban in Texas. Roughly 150 people attended, most of them college students, with a sizable group of labor activists and union members in attendance as well. Though the demonstration was organized fast, its sizable turnout can be attributed to the way it was built, not only through social media but with in-person flyering on campus throughout the week and time spent calling allies one on one. It was a high energy event, with a number of speakers, lots of chants, and several pages worth of sign-ups for information about a planning meeting for a national day of action being called by the Women’s March on October 2

I don’t know how many abortion rights demonstrations I have attended and spoken at because it is too many to count. But I remember attending my first ten years ago at the University of Illinois. Congressional attacks on abortion rights were coming fast and furious, so some activists on campus called for a protest against what we then referred to as “the war on women.” It was a small demonstration with a march through downtown Champaign. At the end, we gathered in a circle in the parking lot of a Planned Parenthood clinic where people spoke about their experiences with abortion. Someone talked about what it was like before abortion was legal, when it was difficult and at times frightening and even dangerous to get an abortion. I can clearly remember thinking that surely we would never get close to that reality again. Surely there would be some intervention by some political leader long before that point.

Needless to say, there was no intervention. Then-President Obama had already reneged on his campaign promise to make federal legislation protecting abortion access a top priority during his first two years in office, when Democrats controlled the House and Senate. In later years, the Obama administration even fought the expansion of reproductive healthcare access when the Department of Health and Human Services attempted to block teens from accessing Plan B over the counter. Meanwhile, Republicans and the anti-choice movement changed tact, taking up an accelerated war against abortion access state by state. Their largely successful strategy has been a death by a thousand cuts for abortion access, leaving millions of people in states like Texas and Wisconsin to climb dozens of hurdles in order to access care at a shrinking number of abortion clinics. 

Activists have been resisting these policies every step of the way, of course, but resistance has been complicated by faulty strategy from NGOs who need to appease conservative donors and who are afraid of alienating partners in the Democratic Party. There is so much more I could say about what’s happened over the last ten years and it’s extremely important that we understand how we got to this point, on the cusp of Roe v. Wade being overturned and with abortion already effectively illegal for almost 15 million women, trans men, and non-binary folk in Texas. I hope that socialists everywhere are studying this history and holding lengthy discussions about it.

But after being at a demonstration with so many young people who are energized by this movement and ready to get involved, I realized there are several key points I want to emphasize in this moment about how we have to go about defending abortion rights. I am writing this article to share them in the hopes of stimulating discussion and even debate.

First, we will never successfully defend and expand abortion access without openly discussing and embracing abortion, and using the word abortion. 

NGOs like Planned Parenthood have done all manner of message testing and have developed euphemisms for abortion, emphasizing phrases like, “the right to choose,” and later “a decision between a woman, her family, and her doctor,” over slogans like Free Abortion on Demand, which actually articulates what we want. At one point, in Wisconsin, Planned Parenthood responded to a rash of explicit right-wing attacks on abortion access by accusing Republicans of “playing games with women’s health,” and delivering pink ping pong balls to legislators. In another instance, when Republicans introduced legislation that would prohibit UW Madison’s medical school from partnering with Planned Parenthood to provide abortion training for med students, Planned Parenthood discouraged activists who wanted to fight the legislation from talking about abortion. Instead we were told to focus on the fact that the legislation could cost the medical school its accreditation. Even now, language around the national day of action to defend abortion rights does not include the word abortion, instead adopting the slogan “Bans off our bodies,” which could just as easily be used by an anti-mask, anti-vaccine mandate demonstration as an abortion rights demonstration. 

I think this strategy is a self-defeating dead-end, but I understand where it comes from. Many abortion rights advocates are convinced that abortion is actually a losing issue, or too unpopular to mention out loud. They feel that by talking about abortion, they will only whip up right wing fervor about the issue. Democrats worry that they will lose elections by talking about abortion and the abortion rights group who work closely with the Democratic Party follow their lead and conservatize their own language so as not to alienate their partners. The idea is, if we’re quiet about abortion long enough to get the right people elected, those people will act to defend abortion rights once they’re in office. 

When abortion rights advocates resist talking about abortion, that means that the only people talking about abortion explicitly are the people seeking to ban it outright. We cede important ideological ground and contribute to the stigmatization of abortion.

But the fact of the matter is that Republicans and their anti-choice supporters are never confused about what attacks on abortion are about. They know that they are talking about abortion and no amount of dancing around the subject on the part of abortion rights advocates will change that. Further, when abortion rights advocates resist talking about abortion, that means that the only people talking about abortion explicitly are the people seeking to ban it outright. We cede important ideological ground and contribute to the stigmatization of abortion. We increase the likelihood that people will develop negative opinions and ideas about abortion. And when Democrats who are resistant to talking about abortion get elected, they don’t pass legislation that defends and expands abortion access because they haven’t built the popular support necessary to accomplish it. For them, acting on abortion is still as much a liability to their careers once they’re in office as it is before they are elected. 

We need abortion rights organizations and activists who are boldly and openly for abortion, with slogans and chants and signs that are about abortion. When Republicans introduce legislation that is intended to curb abortion access, we should not look for other elements of the legislation to emphasize but should defend abortion itself. 

Second, we cannot limit our activity to mutual aid alone. 

For years now, well meaning people have responded to attacks on abortion rights by suggesting that we form new, subteranean networks to provide abortions to people who need them and that we support abortion funds, which provide financial aid and support to people seeking abortions. To be clear, I think both of these suggestions are good and necessary. For a couple of years I took calls for Women’s Medical Fund, so I understand that every day in Wisconsin and around the country, there are people who desperately need support accessing abortion care. Their immediate need can’t be ignored. If you are pregnant and ready to end your pregnancy, you cannot wait for a mass movement to form and restore your rights.

But I believe that these networks will develop best around existing infrastructure, such as abortion funds and through healthcare workers. I am concerned by the idea of energetic, dedicated activists sinking all of their time into developing many new, fractured networks, especially when we need activists to do so much more. We need people to organize planning meetings and demonstrations. We need study groups and public presentations about the history of abortion access and the fight for abortion in the United States and abroad. We need socialists to provide a framework for understanding why abortion rights are under attack and how these attacks are beneficial to the ruling class.

We need strategy that is informed by history and a strong analysis of the world around us. This a moment when socialists in organizations like DSA should be taking a political lead.

History and analysis in particular are contributions that socialists are uniquely positioned to make. So many people wonder why abortion is under attack. Is it because individual men are sexist and hate women? Is it because of religion? Strategy flows from these conclusions. The widely decried call for a “sex strike,” for example, rests on the idea that the attacks on abortion access are somehow the fault of men writ large, when in fact working class men are relatively powerless and are also deeply harmed by attacks on abortion access. 

We need strategy that is informed by history and a strong analysis of the world around us. This is a moment when socialists in organizations like DSA should be taking a political lead. 

Finally, NGOs and politicians will not win this battle for us. 

While sympathetic politicians can advance legislation to defend and expand abortion access, it will take more than a handful of sympathetic politicians to actually pass legislation, expand the Supreme Court, and take all the other steps that would make abortion access more secure in the US. The fact of the matter is that sympathetic politicians are often matched, even in the Democratic party, by anti-abortion politicians whose obstinance and political betrayals have paved the way for the trajectory we’re on right now. Like investing all of our time into mutual aid, going all-in on campaigning for politicians also neglects the task of building a militant, pro-abortion movement in the streets. Worse still, campaigning for Democrats often means abandoning open support for abortion access out of the fear that it will cost Dems their election, as I mentioned earlier. 

We need to organize independently of the Democratic Party and of NGOs like Planned Parenthood, which works hand-in-glove with the Democratic Party and has had a conservatizing effect on the abortion rights movement for over a decade. This doesn’t mean refusing to take part in the same demonstrations and organizing committees. We want to be active participants in mainstream movements. But it does mean holding fast to our analysis, our arguments, and our demands, and maintaining a clear vision of what we actually want, which includes free abortion on demand but is also much more expansive. Socialists are fighting for a full transformation of society. Any strategy that precludes further steps in that direction – whether it’s tempering radical slogans, pledging uncritical loyalty to politicians in capitalist parties, or opposing reforms like Medicare for All – is not a strategy we can follow.

Roe v. Wade was decided by a conservative Supreme Court during Richard Nixon’s presidency. It was not the product of benevolent Democrats or a well-funded non-profit but a reaction to an extremely tumultuous moment in history, when militant, radical movements that scared the shit out of the ruling class were on the rise – the Black Power movement, the anti-war movement, the queer liberation movement, and the women’s movement, among a whole constellation of liberatory events and class conflicts around the globe that characterized the late 1960s. 

Activists cannot recreate the conditions that led to this kind of upsurge in struggle, but we can study these movements as well as successful struggles for abortion rights in places like Argentina and Ireland. We can also trust that struggle will break out again in the US, as it did last summer and as it does over and over when people who are crushed by capitalism reach a breaking point. And we can build our organizations and political networks to be ready when it does.

We are facing the potential for an upsurge in struggle now – and a big fight will be necessary if we are to preserve abortion access at all, much less expand it. Just this week the Supreme Court announced that it will hear arguments in a case from Mississippi that could spell doom for Roe v. Wade on December 1. Many reproductive rights supporters regarded SCOTUS’s refusal to intervene to stop the Texas ban from being enacted earlier this month as a grim signal of how the court intends to proceed. Activists in Madison are organizing for local march on the October 2 national day of action. Madison Area DSA will continue to share information about how our organization is getting involved in this important fight to defend abortion access.

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