In the struggle for abortion rights, capitalism is the enemy

Nancy Welch of the Tempest Collective and Upper Valley for Abortion Rights delivered these remarks on the fight to rewin abortion rights at a recent meeting of Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores in La Plata, Buenos Aires, Argentina.


Source > Tempest

I am humbled by your invitation. Argentinian feminists have many lessons for us in the United States about how to rebuild struggle for abortion rights and for full reproductive justice. I also want to thank my comrades in the Tempest Collective and the socialist, Black, and Indigenous feminists who have helped orient me in this dismaying moment.

I’ll start with the grim accounting. Since the Supreme Court overturned its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which constitutionally affirmed a right to abortion, more than half the states in the country have banned or are expected to ban nearly all abortions. Most of these bans prohibit abortion after the sixth week of conception—a de facto total ban since most people don’t yet know they are pregnant and the scarcity of providers even before Roe’s overturn makes it difficult to secure a surgical or medical abortion within this window.

Many states with exceptions for rape or incest require filing a police report, which victims of sexual violence are often fearful to do. Clinics in states that do not require a police report are nevertheless telling pregnant women and trans and nonbinary people to go to another state for abortion care because providers don’t want to risk a prison sentence.

In Indiana this past week—a state where for the moment no ban has been enacted—the attorney general announced he is opening an investigation into the doctor who performed an abortion for a 10-year-old rape victim from neighboring Ohio, an abortion-ban state. Montana’s Planned Parenthood clinics now require proof of residency for anyone seeking medical abortion. In states that allow for an abortion to save the pregnant person’s life, we are already hearing reports that urgently needed care for miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies are being delayed until a hospital’s lawyers can weigh in—or denied altogether.

Today, Marie Solis writes in We Organize to Change Everything: Fighting for Abortion Access and Reproductive Justice, a fetus is granted more rights than the person carrying it. In this hellscape, Camila Valle warned in a recent Tempest forum, people will die not only from taking desperate means to end their pregnancies but also from being forced on the perilous path of continuing a pregnancy and giving birth.

The United States does not have a national guarantee to health care; what system we have is rife with racial disparities in access and in the kind of care provided. As a result, the U.S. has the highest maternal death rate among industrialized nations, especially for Black women, and unlike nearly all countries around the globe, our maternal death rate has climbed in the last decade.

Roe’s overturn has repercussions for rights beyond abortion. Our constitution’s 14th amendment, which ended slavery in the U.S., was interpreted by earlier Supreme Courts to also guarantee Civil Rights for African Americans and other marginalized communities and to affirm rights to interracial marriage, contraception, LGBT marriage, and same-sex intimacy. In overturning Roe, rightwing justices have foreshadowed and even voiced their intent to upend a host of hard-won rights for oppressed groups.

So long as the erosion and elimination of abortion rights in the U.S. is seen as a project of the Republican party alone, the Democratic party will continue to cynically fashion itself as “The Resistance,” and national organizations…will continue to divert would-be abortion-rights activists into getting out the vote rather than organize clinic defence.

The crisis I am describing has been many decades in the making. The forced birthers scored their first victory in 1976 when antiabortion Democrats, including then Senator Joe Biden, joined Republicans to vote for the Hyde Amendment, prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion care and thus closing the door to affordable abortion for poor women. In subsequent decades, opportunistic Democratic candidates have promised to repeal the Hyde Amendment and to enact federal legislation guaranteeing the right to abortion. But, notes Stephanie Attar, even in the ten years when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, they failed to do either. As a candidate, Barrack Obama pledged to introduce a federal Freedom of Choice act in his first 100 days in office. As president, he said Freedom of Choice was no longer a priority—even though Democrats held the majority in Congress for his first two years in office.

National reproductive rights organizations have also failed to defend abortion access on the ground. In the 1990s, for instance, when the Supreme Court ruling Casey opened the door for states to restrict abortion, large organizations like NARAL-Pro Choice America prioritized national elections, lobbying, federal court filings, and supporting Democratic president Bill Clinton to the neglect of local and state-level abortion defense. Under the eight-year Clinton presidency and beyond, state restrictions have piled up: shrinking the time frame in which abortions are permitted; requiring parental permission for children and teens; multi-day waiting periods; and more. For working-class people and for those living in vast rural states with few providers, abortion has long been unaffordable and inaccessible.

How has this happened in a country where a clear majority of people—more now than in 1973—support the right to abortion? For many people, taking their lead from liberal feminism, it is a matter of common sense to point to a conservative Christian agenda. At rallies and on social media, women have latched onto the iconography of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and an underlying argument that our otherwise stable and just democracy has been hijacked by religious zealots organized through the Republican party. Argued Chrissy Stroop in Open Democracy, “The Republican Party is poised to impose a Christofascist theocracy upon all Americans.”

Images of uniformed handmaidens from the filming of The Handmaid’s tale at the Lincoln Memorial.
“The problem with focusing on the Christian Right alone, however, is that it ignores the role of Democrats as handmaids in undoing abortion rights.” Photo by Victoria Pickering.

Certainly the patriarchal and misogynist Christian Right has raised a mighty army to turn back the clock on women’s and LGBTQ rights. The problem with focusing on the Christian Right alone, however, is that it ignores the role of Democrats as handmaids in undoing abortion rights. In the 1990s, for example, when I went to a Democratic party headquarters in Nebraska to ask how I could support pro-abortion candidates, they responded that their sole goal was to campaign for Ben Nelson, even though he was a member of and endorsed by antiabortion groups. When elected to Congress, Nelson championed the federal ban on late-term abortions. Also voting to criminalize late-term abortion was Democratic party Senator Patrick Leahy from the ostensibly liberal state of Vermont. Nevertheless, the NGO NARAL-Pro Choice America gives Leahy a 100-percent rating for supporting reproductive rights. Most recently, President Biden responded to Roe’s overturn with a toothless executive order and also by nominating an antiabortionist for a lifetime federal judgeship—that is, a federal judge who would oppose the “steps” Biden’s executive order only suggests be taken. Sickeningly, it was not outcry from Congressional Democrats but from Republican Rand Paul—no friend of abortion and LGBTQ rights—that convinced Biden to drop this nomination. So long as the erosion and elimination of abortion rights in the U.S. is seen as a project of the Republican party alone, the Democratic party will continue to cynically fashion itself as “The Resistance,” and national organizations like NARAL and Planned Parenthood will continue to divert would-be abortion-rights activists into getting out the vote rather than organize clinic defense.

Another widespread misconception is that Republican or Democrat, lawmakers are catering to their conservative base, pushed by ordinary people to enact restrictions and bans. As Marxists, we know that any society’s ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. We have only to look at the moneyed power of justices like Alito, Thomas, Kavanaugh, and Coney Barrett to see that antiabortion ideas come to us top-down, not bottom-up. We can also follow the money. Antiabortion organizations and lobbyists are not largely funded by working-class evangelicals and Catholics but by large investment funds and corporate foundations such as AT&T, Bank of America, Fidelity, GE, JP Morgan Chase, and Pfizer. To fight for reproductive rights, we need to know who our chief enemy is: not the U.S.’s working-class majority but its minority ruling and corporate class.

This begs the question of why so much corporate and political power has been marshalled to control the bodies of women and deny the existence of trans and queer people. One view on the Left is that the ruling class seeks to force birth to increase the labor supply and suppress wages. There’s some evidence for this: right-winger Paul Ryan calling for “more babies” to reverse the declining birthrate; the head of the Conservative Political Action Conference heralding abortion bans to ensure U.S. white supremacy; a footnote in the leaked draft of the recent Supreme Court decision lamenting that for adoption the “domestic supply of infants … has become virtually nonexistent.” But as Paul Heideman points out, this narrow economistic position overlooks that other countries such as Norway aims to assure a next generation of workers by increasing social supports for working women who also want a family.

I part company with Heideman, however, when he writes that we don’t have such supports in the U.S. because “capitalism tends to reinforce women’s social roles as caregivers.” Neoliberal capitalism does not just “tend” to reinforce traditional gender roles but utterly depends on it. Consider: To emerge from the deep economic crisis of the 1970s and further crises, including in 2009, the capitalist class and its parties—in the U.S. both the Republicans and the Democrats—have sought to destroy unions, suppress wages, intensify production, and impose austerity, including by offloading the costs of childcare, eldercare, education, and healthcare onto women in particular through unwaged or low-waged labor and through privatization and mounting debt. Notably, it was a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who ended the major U.S. Welfare program Aid to Families with Dependent Children in the name of “personal responsibility.”

The offloading of carework has been facilitated not only by the rhetorics of “personal responsibility” and “family values” but also by rhetorics of resentment and blame for anyone viewed as not living up to the new gendered, sexual, and racial order. Hence neoliberalism’s expanding hold has been bolstered by racist epithets about “welfare queens,” fears of “job-stealing” immigrants, and fairytales of women who abandoned elite careers to relish in the joys of stay-at-home motherhood. In sum, to succeed in such a massive reordering of the terms of production and a massive reduction in social supports, writes Tithi Bhattacharya, neoliberalism has needed to “re-craft gender identities and recirculate certain ideologies regarding the working-class family.” Foremost among those ideologies is the supposed “naturalness” of the bread-winning dad and baby-producing, child-rearing mom even as working-class families have scrambled to cobble together multiple low-wage job plus housing, childcare, and transportation to stay afloat.

So it isn’t just that the toxic brew of sexist, racist, and xenophobic ideologies is a byproduct of neoliberalism. Neoliberal capital has depended on these ideas; it has cultivated its devotees from the Right to Life foundation to the Army of God, from the Chicago Boys to the Proud Boys. And in the place of a state that provides social supports, we have what John Clark and Janet Newman in The Managerial State dub the “watch tower state”: policing and criminalizing communities of color; banning the teaching of this country’s racist and genocidal past and present; charging with child abuse parents supporting their transgender children; and regulating the lives of anyone with a uterus.

The enemy, then, is capitalism, and we can’t vote our way out of it, especially given that in the United States we have only two major parties, both dedicated to continuing this history, in one form or another, of exploitation and oppression.

A framework of social reproductive feminism, which I have only very briefly sketched, reveals that our fight is not only for “choice”—the right to choose abortion if one has the means to pay for it—but for full reproductive justice: articulated in the U.S by feminists of color and scholars such as Dorothy Roberts as the right not to have children, the right to have children, and the right to healthy and safe environments for parenting. With its reliance on policing, imprisonment, forced birth, and denial of health care rights and other social supports, neoliberalism clearly violates every tenet of reproductive justice. So have all forms of capitalism from the era of slavery and child labor to the continuing racist practices of Jim Crow and the export of U.S. military occupation, dictatorial rule, and economic shock to countries throughout the Global South. Indeed, the United States was founded on slavery and genocide; our society today is undemocratic and violent because our institutions and constitution were designed for continuing service to exploitation, oppression, and dispossession within and beyond U.S. borders. The enemy, then, is capitalism, and we can’t vote our way out of it, especially given that in the United States we have only two major parties, both dedicated to continuing this history, in one form or another, of exploitation and oppression.

To be clear, there are some legislative and judicial initiatives I do support: locally, for example, Vermont’s Reproductive Liberty Amendment. If passed in November, this amendment would not only enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution but also prohibit forced sterilization—a critical protection in a state that led the nation’s genocidal eugenics movement. And a defeat of this measure will embolden antiabortionists. Yet as the history of the Fugitive Slave Act tells us, alongside the chilling threats of prosecution faced by abortion providers and mutual-aid networks in all states, none of us can safely and freely seek abortion until we all can. Needed is the kind of constitutional crisis called for by the revolutionary rock band Rage Against the Machine which has begun playing under the banner “Abort the Supreme Court.” It is a constitutional crisis that our comrades in Chile have created and that were created in the United States with the Civil War and, a century later, the escalating and increasingly militant Civil Rights, LGBTQ, and women’s movements.

Creating a constitutional crisis in the U.S. today can seem like an insurmountably tall order given that the movements of the 1960s and early ‘70s were crushed by massive state repression or pacified by the Democratic party’s siren call. And creating such a crisis will be impossible if the Left does not articulate a strong socialist feminist alternative to the dominant stream of liberal or corporate feminism whose elite leaders will always be able to secure an abortion if they want one or employ a black or brown woman to nanny their children. But we can start—and are starting across the U.S. in grassroots organizations and collectives—by learning about the mass mobilizations and civil disobedience that won U.S. abortion rights in the first place and by building, participating in, and defending networks of mutual aid to provide women and trans and nonbinary people with abortion pills or to transport them to states where surgical abortion is available.

I have some hope that, despite the considerable repression already being marshalled against us, such local initiatives can grow into a national strategy and mass movement. The same generation that is organizing Amazon, Starbucks, and other workplaces is not going to take the denial of abortion and trans rights nor the continuing degradation of Black lives and the environment without a fight, and this new generation of working-class warriors seems more likely to strike than to line up behind the corporate, imperialist, Islamophobic “feminism” of a Madeleine Albright or Hillary Clinton.

Beyond hope, I also feel a grave sense of obligation to our sisters and comrades in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Ireland and beyond lest the United States export its antiabortion movement and undo the considerable reproductive rights you have so recently won. I’ll end where I began: We have much to learn from you. More, we have the responsibility to put the lessons into practice.

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