For the first time, in 1973, the United States Supreme Court affirmed — in a case known as Roe vs Wade — a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.
However, abortion rights were not won by legal arguments, but by a mass women’s liberation movement. The movement developed in the context of the broader mass radicalisation in the 1960s, which centered on Black civil rights, Black liberation and opposition to the US war in Vietnam.
The issues raised by the civil rights and anti-war movements sparked movements against national oppression in the US and its colonies, and for women’s liberation and LGBTQ rights.
The right to abortion was one of the central demands of the women’s liberation movement, expressed in mass actions, including large demonstrations. In New York, a state law affirming the right to abortion was adopted under this pressure.
The ruling class feared that the new mass movement for abortion rights was growing, and capitulated.
The reaction against the gains of the ‘60s, following the ebb of the mass radicalisation led to the undermining of Roe vs Wade at a federal and state level, including forbidding federal funds to be spent on abortion.
A mass movement against abortion rights, backed by the Catholic Church, fundamentalist Protestant churches and others was formed. Politicians from both capitalist parties were part of it.
This movement calls itself “Right to Life”, but has no interest in a woman’s life or safety, let alone her right to control her own body.
Anti-abortion justices were appointed to the Supreme Court with the support of both parties. When the Republicans under former president Donald Trump captured both houses of Congress, Trump nominated and the Senate ratified three more anti-abortion justices, forming a majority.
This campaign culminated in the Supreme Court ruling in June last year — six votes to three — to overturn Roe vs Wade and 50 years of abortion rights. Three generations of women enjoyed this right, but six black-robed reactionaries took it away.
The Court decision also empowered states to further erode women’s right to abortion.
The Republican-controlled state of Kansas held a referendum to amend the state’s constitution and outlaw abortion, in August last year, soon after Roe v Wade was overturned. Abortion rights groups immediately mobilised and the amendment was defeated.
Other Republican-controlled states succeeded in adopting anti-abortion laws.
During the midterm elections in November, abortion rights groups successfully mobilised in Vermont, California and Michigan to collect enough signatures to hold referendums and amend the states’ constitutions to affirm the right to abortion.
Abortion rights groups mobilised to defeat referendums against abortion rights in the Republican controlled states of Montana and Kentucky.
Montana’s amendment would have criminalised medical staff involved in an abortion and Kentucky’s amendment would have removed abortion rights from its constitution.
Despite this year not being an election year, the momentum for abortion rights has continued. A citizens-initiated referendum was held in the Republican-controlled state of Ohio on November 7, where a ban on abortions after six weeks had been put in place. It was overturned and abortion rights were codified in the state’s constitution.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Republicans initiated a referendum in August to raise the threshold for referenda amending the state’s constitution from a simple majority to 60%. But abortion rights groups mobilised and defeated it by 57%.
Following that victory, abortion rights groups are mobilising in Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Florida — where Republicans have passed abortion bans — to put abortion rights on the ballot in 2024.
In Florida, Floridians Protecting Freedom, a coalition including Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, has collected more than half of the 900,000 signatures it needs for a ballot measure to limit state government “interference with abortion” up to 24 weeks after conception.
The initiative reads in part, “No law shall prohibit, penalize, delay or restrict abortion before viability or when necessary to protect the patient’s health, as determined by the patient’s health provider.”
Until last year, abortion was legal in Florida up to 24 weeks. Republicans passed a ban after 15 weeks, but Governor Ron DeSantis put in place a six-week ban, with its enactment pending before the state supreme court.
The coalition had raised US$9 million for its campaign as of September. One day after the Ohio victory, $300,000 was raised.
Difficult hurdles remain. The coalition still must collect and have the state validate the remaining signatures by February. In addition, the ballot language must be approved by Florida’s right-wing supreme court. The state’s Republican attorney-general is challenging the measure.
A poll by the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab, released on November 30, found 62% of Florida voters said they would vote “yes” to a measure to protect the right to abortion in the state’s constitution. However, the DeSantis government and the Court may act to prevent the measure from even appearing on the ballot.
In Virginia’s state legislative election, Republican governor Glenn Youngkin said the state’s existing law allowing abortion up to 24 weeks should be replaced with a 15-week ban.
In effect, this made the issue central to the poll, and the Democrats swept both houses, which was largely attributed to the abortion question.
The Democrats claimed that this result showed that their (and Joe Biden’s) prospects for the 2024 presidential elections were looking up. But abortion is not the only issue mobilising the Trump right wing.
For example, racism and the movement against LGBTQ rights (parading as “parents’ rights”) in Virginia has resulted in books being banned and classroom discussions about the history of Black oppression and gender oppression being prohibited.
However, it is unlikely that the new “moderate” Democratic majority in Virginia’s legislature will repeal what Youngkin has put in place — in fact it is virtually precluded.
The Republicans are the spearhead of the ruling class’ move to the right, and the Democrats are following their lead.
Defending abortion rights could help the Democrats, if they vigorously campaign for them and the Republicans make abortion the main issue. However, both are unlikely as the Democrats move rightward and Republicans try to evade the issue. Moreover, a key issue confronting Americans is the economy.
How all this will play out in next year’s elections remains to be seen, but building a mass movement for abortion rights — not reliance on the Democrats — is the way forward.