Since the 1973 United States Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision in legalising most abortions, there has been a steady erosion of women’s abortion rights in the US - with the complicity of both major capitalist parties.
A new wave of restrictions spearheaded by Republicans has developed in the past three years, gaining more traction in the past year.
On the national level, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives recently passed a bill banning most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The final bill dropped a provision that would require women who have been raped or were victims of incest to report the crime to police first to seek an exception to the 20-weeks rule.
Instead, the final version imposes a mandatory 48-hour waiting period on such women before they can have an abortion.
The bill is named the “Pain-Capable Unborn child Protection Act”, referring to the medically debunked contention that fetuses feel pain after 20 weeks.
Sending a message
The House bill will probably not pass the Senate, and US President Barack Obama has promised a veto if it does, but the Republicans are sending a message that they intend to deepen their anti-abortion campaign. All of the possible Republican presidential candidates immediately signed on to the bill.
In the 2010 elections, Republicans made gains in many state governments. Since then, there has been a steady rise in laws in Republican-controlled states severely crippling the right to abortion. Eleven states have passed 37 new anti-abortion laws in the first five months of this year.
These laws include mandatory waiting periods, limits on later-term abortions, severe restrictions on abortion clinics, banning certain abortion medical procedures, mandatory “counselling” of women seeking an abortion to discourage them from the procedure, forcing women to view ultrasounds of their fetuses, mandatory requirements that minor women must have parental consent, and more.
In many of these states, clinics have been forced to shut down because of onerous restrictions. These include requiring all clinic physicians to have admitting rights to a nearby hospital – a privilege only a select group of doctors have at US hospitals.
Many women must go hundreds of miles to find a clinic, a special hardship on working-class women, who have to take time off work and find transport. Mandatory waiting periods, which require two or more visits, have the same effect.
Wealthier women can afford to avoid these laws by travelling to states or even other countries where there are less onerous laws.
These new laws bear down on working women the hardest. Especially harmful is the effect on the poorest.
The Democrats are content to point the finger at the Republicans in the two-party shell game that is US politics. They make zero effort to introduce bills to retake ground lost.
The Democrats' real attitude is expressed in the bipartisan support in Congress to keep renewing the Hyde Amendment for four decades, which bars spending any federal money to help fund abortions.
This hits poor women the hardest. The federal medical insurance program for the poor, Medicaid, can’t be used for abortions. Insurance covering abortions has to be purchased separately.
The bipartisan argument for support to Hyde is that people who are opposed to abortion rights should not have their “tax dollars” go to something they oppose. But many people oppose US wars, but don’t get a similar break for their tax dollars.
Legislators also passed a law, with bipartisan support, to prevent US funding for foreign aid from being used for any abortions. That means that such funding cannot be used to help women in Nigeria obtain abortions in cases of rape by Boko Haram.
The 1973 Supreme Court ruling did not come from nowhere, nor was it the result of a sudden change of heart by the nine robed reactionaries.
It came as a result of the radicalisation of the 1960s-'70s. Inspired by the Black liberation and anti-war movements of the time, and the mass youth radicalisation, a new militant women’s liberation movement arose.
In meetings, marches, and other mass mobilisations, on campuses and in the streets, militant women's voices and those of male supporters were heard louder and louder.
One of the main demands of the new movement was the right to abortion, which had been illegal in the US since the second half of the 19th century. This demand was connected to the fight for gender equality with the observation that women could never be equal if they could not control their own bodies and lives regarding reproduction.
Generally, the political battles to make birth control legal had been won and consolidated in the early 20th century. But the right of women to control their bodies, including their reproduction, was not recognised until Roe vs Wade.
The women’s movement changed mass consciousness, to the extent that between 1967 and 1973, 14 states reformed, and four states repealed, restrictive abortion laws.
A mass campaign was launched in the early '70s specifically aimed at overturning such laws. Socialists played an important role in launching this campaign, as they had in the anti-war movement.
This was the background to the 1973 decision, which struck down all existing criminal abortion laws. It legalised all abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy.
It allowed states to place restrictions in the second trimester to protect a woman’s health, and in the third to protect a viable fetus. But it also said that if a woman’s life or health were endangered, she could not be forced to continue the pregnancy at any stage.
Since then, there has been a relentless attack on the ruling by anti-abortion forces. Their first success was the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, and routinely renewed ever since.
In 1979, the Supreme Court started whittling away at its 1973 ruling. It said states could force a minor to obtain parental consent or persuade a judge to allow her to have an abortion. In 1980s, it backed the Hyde Amendment, by ruling that payment for abortions could be excluded from Medicaid.
In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that a highly restrictive Pennsylvania law, which included mandatory waiting periods, parental consent, and anti-abortion propaganda aimed at the woman, was OK.
It allowed laws to limit abortion at any stage of pregnancy, abandoning Roe, as long as the laws do not place an “undue burden” on a woman’s access to abortion.
In 2007, the court upheld a law passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush that banned a particular method of abortion used in late term procedures. The ban has forced doctors to choose a less safe procedure. This ban opened the door to state restrictions on later abortions.
The Republicans have used these decisions to go hog-wild in their attacks, while the Democrats bleat they can’t do anything because “the law is the law”. That is, they do nothing to try to change the law, or challenge the Supreme Court by proposing a Constitutional amendment supporting the right to abortion.
The establishment women’s groups bear much of the blame. The National Organization for Women turned away from mass mobilisations in the 1980s, and towards supporting the Democratic Party as the way forward for women’s rights.
The National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, which has a good formal position, similarly directs its fire into lobbying politicians and supporting Democrats.
The result is that the Republicans set the agenda, pushing against abortion rights, while the Democrats are drawn into their wake.
What is needed is a new mass movement. The Black Lives Matter movement is an example of how to start in this direction.