Abortion, the Supreme Court and the Socialist Movement

On the evening of May 2nd, POLITICO published a shocking leak of a draft majority opinion of the Supreme Court in the upcoming case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, showing the court poised to strike down their previous ruling in the famous 1973 Roe v. Wade case that abortion was constitutionally protected at the federal level. The news is infuriating, a triumph decades in the making for the reactionary Evangelical anti-abortion movement, and a terrible blow to women everywhere who already fight daily against all manner of assaults against their bodily autonomy, but the unplanned and premature manner in which this news was delivered is most welcome indeed, for it has given movements and the masses something that has previously not been present at the top level of judiciary politics: space and time, however limited, to act.

Prior to the Roe v. Wade ruling, abortion was illegal under all circumstances in 30 states and legal on demand in only 4. These laws were widely circumvented by interstate travel and illegal medical practice. Indeed, in the 19th century many doctors had encouraged banning abortions in large part because many practitioners were not medical professionals and were consequently either less safe than professionals or more affordable economic competitors. Juries would frequently refuse to convict women of the “crime” of abortion, so law enforcement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries generally turned to intimidating women who received abortions into turning over their providers.

Many early thinkers of the 19th century women’s movement were in fact opposed to abortion, though they viewed it as a symptom of male chauvinism forcing unwanted pregnancies onto women. This, however, did not stop the reactionaries leading the push for anti-abortion laws from blaming these early feminists for the alleged “rise” of abortion, though the practice was common and allowed in limited circumstances in England, the British colonies in North America and the post-independence early United States for centuries prior. Though the early 20th century did see some organized attempts to defend women’s rights to abortion, it wasn’t until the 1960s that abortion as a medical procedure began to be legalized on demand in the handful of states that allowed it pre-Roe.

Along with the pro-abortion women’s rights movement of the 60s that led up to Roe emerged the reactionary anti-abortion movement. Initially consisting of mostly Roman Catholic groups, following Roe the movement quickly gained steam among Evangelical Protestant churches and was part of the broad realignment of reactionary politics following the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. This realignment culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan and the formation of modern Conservativism. Today the anti-abortion movement is practically foundational to the Republican Party, who have become obsessed with “traditional” values, chiefly those related to gender politics and, more covertly, the racist order concealed and reified through property rights.

The anti-abortion movement has built increasing momentum with legislative victories as early as the Hyde Amendment and as recent as heartbeat bills and trigger laws now poised to go into effect, as well as a massive capacity for direct action ranging from routine protests outside most abortion clinics to open campaigns of violence and terrorism against abortion providers. This movement has both bolstered and been bolstered by parallel reactionary movements, helping connect the segregationist resistance of the 50’s and 60’s to the open resurgence of white supremacist and fascist politics seen under Donald Trump’s presidency.

The actual formal decision of the Supreme Court on this issue appears to be a declaration of the end of a process, rather than something which carries force in its own right. Already the post-Trump status quo appears to be such that Republican lawmakers feel emboldened to push the most extreme version of their policies knowing that Democrats continue to impotently lean on the hope of finding “common ground” with the Republican Party and the much-mentioned “moderate Republicans” (who at any rate serve as much as a fig leaf for the fascist momentum of the party with origins long predating Trump’s presidency, and indeed Trump’s membership in the party).

It is worth drawing attention to the broad political stances which are attached, directly and indirectly, to the dishonest and moralistic label of the “pro-life” movement. From one perspective, despite public opinion, this is the politics of the general US right in both parties. A minority of elected Democratic Party figures identify as “pro-life” with full consent of the party’s leadership, and the party at large has time and again failed its pro-choice base (most recently with both Obama and Biden having promised as Presidential candidates to codify Roe v. Wade into law and then failing to do so when elected, even with a congressional supermajority). But it is the Religious Right base of the Republican Party, drawing from a foundation of Evangelical Protestants and reactionary Catholics in particular and rising to prominence in the party and in US politics broadly concurrently with the rise of the Evangelical movement across the US, who can most strongly be linked to the push for “pro-life” rhetoric and policies.

What are the politics of the “pro-life” movement outside of abortion? We would hardly be the first to note that it is not at all a politics of defense of life in general (despite their insistence, when discussing abortion or the Black Lives Matter movement, that “all lives matter”). “Pro-lifers” are overwhelmingly pro-death penalty, and states which continue to execute prisoners regularly tend to be the most “pro-life” on abortion. “Pro-lifers” are overwhelmingly pro-military and pro-war. There was no great outrage from the Evangelical base of George W. Bush at the senseless slaughter of civilians and the poisoning through chemical warfare of entire future generations in Fallujah. “Pro-lifers” are the among the most supportive of killer police, the most defensive of white nationalist vigilante violence, the most tolerant of infiltration of their party’s politics by representatives of the white nationalist movement. Where there is real bloodshed and oppression of the weak, “pro-lifers” stare unblinking and unjudging at death-dealers.

Only in the face of declining white birthrates does this movement suddenly see a massacre where in fact there is none. And so, under the pretext of preventing the “murder” they imagine abortion to be, they attempt to force unwilling women into serving as birthing vessels to restore what they imagine and hope to be a natural gender politics.

Even then, “pro-lifers” support any assault on the welfare state that would benefit families and single mothers, from health care that would help in prenatal care of willing mothers, to state mandated paid parental leave, to rent credits and EBT/food stamps and welfare payments. Secure employment, childcare, education, while all the things parents and children need to really live their lives are under attack, “pro-lifers” stand and clap for the “liberty” represented by easing the flow of resources from the poor to the rich while pointing at the poorest and weakest in their midst, even their own family members, and screaming hollow accusations of “murder” for choosing to not give birth, whether for undeniable physical health reasons, or simple and understandable desire to not have parenthood thrust upon them without their consent.

According to POLITICO, the leak of the draft decision by the Supreme Court was a never-before-seen occurrence. For this to happen for the first time now can be explained through a larger or smaller subjective actor, that is to say, the person who leaked the draft may have acted alone or on orders from someone else, but in either event it shows that some of the highest organs of state are having increasing difficulty holding together their own structures and keeping their own people in line. While there obviously can be no comparison in motives or effects to the January 6th Coup Attempt of last year, progressive and even liberal elements within the Democratic Party and the state could similarly begin to flirt more with extraparliamentary means of confronting their rivals.

We must caution, however, that the realization by some liberals that fascist and fascist adjacent elements cannot be combated purely by means of established legal routine and procedure, this does not mean that the state, or liberal supporters thereof, can be viewed as part of a common anti-fascist popular front. Liberal elements in particular will trend towards a restorationist line and will have little overlap with the revolutionary change which the poor and oppressed need to alter the status quo that works in favor of fascists. We direct interested readers to the section “The CPUSA and Anti-Fascism” from our earlier piece “Fascism in the Contemporary US: Definition and Action” for a summary of the real shortcomings of an anti-fascist line which assumes too much from the state, the Democratic Party, and the dominant white settler society which they represent.

Up till now Chief Justice Roberts had tried to moderate the conservatives and preserve a veneer of legitimacy and non-partisanship, but this has been fraying and pushed to its limits as the court has been packed with conservative Justices, and in this context a “moderate” stance is drowned out and read only in terms of one of the two sides of the debate (in fact in the final instance the only real positions there are: support for anti-abortion laws which rob women of bodily autonomy and opposition thereto).

We have already alluded to the fascist trend which continues to advance in the United States, regardless of the liberals’ much-celebrated electoral victories. Fascism in more or less every instance makes ample use of the power of the state to reinforce “traditional” (actually modern capitalist) patriarchal family relations. This is in a sense unsurprising, as even under liberal democratic conditions the authority of the family and the authority of the state are the two principal means of force and coercion which we face at different periods in our lives. Even as the state takes over more and more of the role of the family as capitalism develops, from education to identity formation to the economic fate of all social classes, the state continues to enshrine the family as a legal entity, from marriage to inheritance laws to the rights of children (or rather, the lack thereof). Arch-reactionary trends who consider the status quo has taken social freedom (principally the freedom of women, who fascists are obsessed with controlling as daughters and wives alike) “too far” are behaving in a politically consistent manner when they attempt to reinforce the state’s role as reactionary patriarchal family, and the family’s role as carrier of state ideology.

Tragically, even as the right to abortion is being torn from the hands of more and more women around the country, there has been and will be more pushback for this particular component of reproductive rights and justice than many other fronts of this struggle, in no small part due to the race and class divisions which place the burden of struggle for other reproductive rights disproportionately on poorer women, on women from oppressed nation backgrounds (in particular Afro-Americans and Indigenous, who we must note have at many points in US history had their reproductive rights attacked from just the opposite direction, through forced sterilization, inferior pre-natal care, etc.), and on LGBT people.

In our analysis thus far we have spoken of “women” repeatedly as the target of anti-abortion politics. In fact, there are ways in which this is politically reductive and limiting, as the precedent set by Roe was also instrumental in the passing of civil rights for LGBT people of various gender identities, something which political progressives and more ethically serious and historically literate centrists have noted with alarm is also under threat as a consequence. And of course, not all those who can become pregnant are women, both due to the spectrum of gender identity (from non-binary people to trans men) among the AFAB population, and also due to intersex people, who historically are politically ignored in discourses of gender politics, even though state violence against them (including lethal state violence) is a consistent trend of reactionary policies of gender, sexuality, and eugenics.

Without ignoring these facts, it is also important to underline the political power of womanhood as a focal point of resistance precisely because it is the focal point of reactionary rhetoric: the patriarchal quality of reactionary politics means that in some sense they do not ignore these diverse groups: they target them as well. Many non-binary AFAB people and all trans men and (depending on physiological specifics) many intersex people are understood as “defective women” to be “fixed” or somehow “discarded”. None of these groups are under any obligation to view themselves as women, but all gender oppressed (including to a large extent queer men, who are read as “defective men”, because they are read as adjacent or similar to women) are obliged to view the women’s struggle against patriarchy as one struggle with their own, just as a truly liberatory women’s movement must appropriate all of their rights against the patriarchy and the state as such.

Sections of the masses, women, LGBT, and youth, already condemn the ruling classes for a host of crimes including and related to the end of Roe v. Wade: they condemn not only the overt reactionaries of the Republican Party and “pro-life” Democrats, but also “pro-choice” politicians and political organization which aid and abet this assault on reproductive and health care rights, particularly of women, at every turn under the pretext of conforming to political norms of process which were not designed to liberate the oppressed but rather to strengthen the hand of wealthy land-owning white men.

The person who leaked the draft decision clearly understood the limits of a politics of playing by the rules of the state, and conversely, the condemnation of the leak by the powerful (including those who are pro-choice) as a breach of correct state process reveal the necessity of going beyond such institutional limitations to achieve real liberation. Institutionalist liberal politicians do not and arguably cannot take up such a united struggle as is necessary to transform the conditions which allow these reactionary trends to continue to exist and even thrive, as they rely on and enshrine the state and its authority, which as we have seen, despite decades of progress, is quickly and easily recaptured by the forces representing the essential social relations which built it. In the place of politics within the existing bourgeois state, we must organize around the masses and their common resistance.

For political organizers, for radical progressives of all stripes, and for revolutionaries and socialists, it is not enough to approach the problem in terms of joining and amplifying the voice of street protests intended to articulate this rage and this perspective. As always in this country in particular, there is the very real risk that a pressure valve is being allowed so that we may vent our frustrations impotently and then go home muttering “the system is fucked”.

A conscious vanguard subjectivity must realize itself, and be organized: the message we need to bring to the already advanced section of the masses is one of politicization and imposition of their will. This means the strengthening of existing structures dedicated to women’s rights, health care, and abortion rights in particular. It means exposing the defeatist and opportunist tendencies which exist in these structures, and strengthening those elements and tactics which push back against the political status quo and the reactionary backslide it accepts and in doing so encourages.

The message we revolutionary socialists must articulate is the need for platforms representing their will, for women’s liberation, for a real standard of living including all manner of healthcare, and for organized forms which will concretely be able to respond in deed as well as in word to the provocations and attacks of the ruling classes. This means not only spontaneous protests, but planned marches, drives to recruit to especially local abortion rights organizations, strikes carried out by trade unions and organizing groups, acts of sabotage, yes, in short: any means necessary to transform the rules of the political game.

Already there are reports of physical force resistance to anti-abortion politics. It is in fact force which the state represents and force must be met with force. We must demand and work for a change from a state of affairs where the classes and social identities already in power are able to argue among themselves while we grind our teeth in rage below, to one where we realize our power as the real majority and are able to confront them with our strength.

Author: Struggle for a New World

Articles posted by the editorial collective of Struggle for a New World. Please submit inquiries, criticisms, pitches, and offers of large sums of untraceable cash to struggleforanewworld (at) gmail (dot) com.

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