The Courts Can’t Save Us. Organize Now to Protect Women’s Rights

Nine unelected judges are poised to ban legal abortion for the first time in decades, turning the clock back on women’s reproductive rights. Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, looks set to be overturned in the legal challenges to recently passed anti-abortion laws in Mississippi and Texas.

With the Supreme Court now fully in the hands of the radical right (the three most recent Court appointees — right-wing Justices Neil Gorsuch, rapist Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney-Barrett — were installed by Donald Trump), the future of legal abortion in this country is, indeed, very much in doubt. The Court could determine Roe’s fate by next summer.

In Many Respects, Abortion is Already Illegal

Of course, the evangelical right has been slowly but steadily chipping away at abortion access throughout the country for decades now. Six states — Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia — have only one abortion clinic in the entire state. A report by Verywell Health finds that 39 percent of reproductive-aged women in the U.S. live in counties that do not have an abortion provider.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has only further hindered abortion access. Numerous clinics have reduced their hours of operation or closed temporarily due to the pandemic. As with so much surrounding the seemingly unending pandemic, it remains unclear when — or if — these clinics will reopen.

Finally, the 1976 legislative provision, the Hyde Amendment, bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion services. In other words, a woman on Medicare would need to find some other — private — means of paying for abortion services. This oft-ignored law makes abortion completely inaccessible to poor and low-income women. It basically confers the “right” to abortion only to the wealthy. In this sense, abortion was outlawed for working-class women, decades ago. And, up until recently, President Joe Biden supported the Hyde Amendment.

The dystopian future Margaret Atwood painted in her 1985 novel-turned-hit-TV-series, The Handmaid’s Tale seems, in hindsight, to have been more of a prophetic warning than a piece of speculative fiction. Welcome to Gilead.

Where is the Outrage?

Yet the left is … where, exactly? Where is the outrage? Where are the masses of working-class people (women and men) protesting the very real possibility of the U.S. returning to a puritanical, pre-Roe status? Where are the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington — the largest single day of protest in U.S. history?

Indeed, many on the left seem to have given up on safe, legal abortion altogether. They have resigned themselves to a post-Roe society. Others are merely taking comfort in the fact that their state will uphold women’s reproductive freedoms. But this smug attitude amounts to an elitist dismissal of poor and working-class women and women of color in half the country who lack the financial means to cross state lines to obtain basic medical care. This is bourgeois “culture war” elitism at its worst.

Liberals Have Already Given Up the Fight for Abortion

Amy Littlefield, a pro-choice writer and activist, serves as Exhibit A for the left’s current resignation in the face of a historic rollback for women’s rights. Littlefield appeared on Democracy Now! recently and spoke of her conversations with close to 50 abortion rights activists.

“I think the most important thing that I saw was not what was going on inside the Supreme Court — which is sort of confirmation that they are going to do what the Christian right has been planning for decades,” she said. “But what I saw outside [the Supreme Court] was an abortion rights movement that was really emboldened, that was prepared, that was debuting the messaging that is going to be needed to rebuild a mass movement to change the culture and to reshape the fight in the years to come, after the right to legal abortion falls.” [Emphasis added.]

Littlefield readily admits that legal abortion in the U.S. is going to be outlawed. She is basically capitulating to the Supreme Court — an arm of the capitalist state. This is not a coherent “strategy” for the feminist left. It is surrender.

Littlefield elaborates on the pro-choice movement’s “strategy” in a Dec. 1 op-ed in the New York Times. But it amounts to little more than retreating into local elections, building up power over “years and decades,” (time which we do not have given the stark urgency of climate change…) and getting more liberal justices on to the Supreme Court. In other words, Littlefield’s strategy for the pro-choice movement differs little from precisely the sort of electoral activism it has relied on for the past 40 years. It relies on working within the same “proper channels” of bourgeois activism that brought us precisely to this point. The “proper channels” have utterly failed working-class people.

Representation is not Liberation

Elsewhere in the Democracy Now! interview, Littlefield took inspiration from the current diversity of the leadership of two of the major pro-choice “nonprofits.”

“[F]or the first time in history … both NARAL and Planned Parenthood are led by women of color,” Littlefield gushed.

Readers will have to forgive my lack of “wokeness,” but this is patronizing, tokenistic liberal identity-politics at its worst. Contrary to popular belief, representation (while no doubt positive in and of itself) is not the same thing as liberation. There is little to suggest that the change in leadership at either NARAL or Planned Parenthood has resulted in a more combative approach to fighting to protect reproductive freedoms.

In fact, Planned Parenthood has an abysmal record on this front. For decades Planned Parenthood’s strategy for dealing with anti-abortion bigots who congregate outside of its clinics and harass patients trying to enter has been the same attitude liberals take to the fascist right, in general: To simply ignore them and hope they just go away. If only the right was so easily dissuaded! It would certainly make the work of a socialist revolution a hell of a lot easier!

But leaving the Christian “pro-life” misogynists alone and unopposed only emboldens them. Doing so creates the false impression that there exists no opposition to their patriarchal views. The right must be confronted — ideally in a peaceful manner, but the left should not equate the violence of bigots and Christian fascists with that of those fighting for freedom and equality.

Don’t get me wrong: Planned Parenthood offers vital and much needed health care for women throughout the country. But the middle-class professionals who run the “nonprofit” organization know next to nothing about class struggle.

And, like so many liberal “nonprofits,” Planned Parenthood has tied itself to the hip of the capitalist Democratic Party. If the Democratic Party truly cared one iota about women’s reproductive rights, it would have passed a bill cementing a woman’s right to an abortion decades ago, rather than leaving the issue up to the courts.

Class Struggle Still Gets the Goods

Our only hope for winning genuine change is by stepping outside of the dead-end of electoral politics and the capitalist institutions like the Supreme Court. Indeed, the Supreme Court — a bourgeois legislative body completely unaccountable to working-class citizens — should not exist. Forget about expanding the Court, as many liberals have advocated. It should be abolished.

As Tatiana Cozzarelli points out in a recent piece for Left Voice, this is what happens when the working-class ties itself to the hip of the Democratic Party. This is what socialists mean when we call the Democratic Party the “graveyard of social movements.” All throughout the 2020 presidential election, leftist were assured that “once Biden was elected,” activists would begin the work of “pushing him to the left.” Yet, predictably, that movement never materialized.

While 2021 has seen some incredible labor struggles at Amazon, Deere, Kellogg’s, Columbia University, and Starbucks, these actions have been largely independent of the Biden administration’s anemic — and, at times, reactionary — agenda. Immigrant children are still being held in cages. There will be no increase in the minimum wage. The administration will not cancel student debt. Build Back Better is D.O.A. The U.S. — the richest country in the world — has the highest global death rate from COVID-19 And Biden’s climate action plan basically amounts to “Drill, baby, drill.”

“The Democrats are all tweeting against the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned,” Cozzarelli writes, “but tweeting is not fighting.”

She adds:

And yet they have the audacity to say that we should vote to save abortion rights, as if the Democrats don’t currently control the Presidency and Congress. Without a doubt, the Democrats will use this Supreme Court decision to scare people into voting for them in the [2022] midterms — vote Democrat if you want our state to maintain abortion rights. This hides the fact that Democrats have had decades to pass legislation protecting abortion rights at the state and federal level. And they haven’t done it. They have just trotted out abortion every two years in an attempt to get votes. [Emphasis hers.]

The left in the U.S. should be taking inspiration from working-class women in Ireland, Argentina, and Mexico, who, in recent years and months, have all taken to the streets to demand safe and legal abortion without apology. These sorts of mass protests and demonstrations are the true drivers of change. As Howard Zinn famously wrote, “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but who is ‘sitting in,’ — and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.”

Abortion is nothing more than basic health care. It should be provided to all women free, on demand and without apology. It is intimately linked with the need for Medicare for All. And let’s get real: Fetuses are not human beings. The hypocritical right has the audacity to scream about the “unconstitutionality” of (mostly unenforced) mask and vaccine-mandates, (even going so far as to cynically co-opt the pro-choice movement’s popular slogan, “My body, my choice,”) yet it has no problem limiting the very same freedoms and constitutional rights when it comes to women’s bodies. And don’t get me started on the stunning contradiction of “pro-lifers’” complete silence on issues of war and imperialism.

Furthermore, Roe v. Wade remains incredibly popular. Only 27 percent of Americans want to see it overturned. Thus, it is unclear to what degree the bourgeois, unelected justices of the Supreme Court can claim to speak for “We, the people.” Indeed, a recent poll finds that only 40 percent of Americans approve of the Supreme Court — the lowest approval rating Gallup has ever recorded.

Cozzarelli is right: We cannot be duped into being redirected to the ballot box to “save abortion rights,” or, for that matter, to “save democracy.” This is a dead end for the left. Now is the time to get in the streets and organize to protect women’s rights.

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Writer, socialist, and coffee-fiend. I have written for the West End News, Socialist Worker, a bunch of decidedly less interesting publications.

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Adam Marletta

Adam Marletta

Writer, socialist, and coffee-fiend. I have written for the West End News, Socialist Worker, a bunch of decidedly less interesting publications.

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