Disarray over abortion
Anne McShane looks at the right’s assault on abortion in the US, the DSA’s abstentionism and the shameful record of what still passes for the left
As a young woman in Ireland in the 1980s, I longed for the legal rights that women in the US enjoyed. While Irish society was pervaded with a culture of institutionalised misogyny, life in the US seemed much freer. How things have changed!
Today women’s rights in the US are under unprecedented attack. In the line of fire for Christian fundamentalist politicians is the US Supreme Court 1973 decision of Roe v Wade. This decision protected a woman’s right to have an abortion as a key aspect of her constitutional right to privacy. The decision was a huge advance in establishing abortion rights across the US. However, it was not an absolute right, and politicians could still invade a woman’s privacy for regulation purposes if it was ‘in the public interest’. In essence Roe v Wade weighed the constitutional rights of the woman against issues of foetal viability. This, of course, has been its greatest weakness in terms of women’s rights. But up to recently it still meant that abortion was available for at least the first 20 weeks of pregnancy in all US states.
On September 1 2021, however, the state of Texas launched a major challenge to the status quo, by enacting Senate Bill 8 (SB8) - a law which bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. The statute stated in its introduction that “this is to be known as the Texas heartbeat law”. The name refers to the point at around six weeks’ gestation when the embryo’s cardiac activity can first be detected by an ultrasound. The law claims that “fetal heartbeat has become a key medical predictor that an unborn child will reach live birth” and that “the pregnant woman has a compelling interest in knowing the likelihood of her unborn child surviving to full-term birth, based on the presence of cardiac activity”.
Of course, this is a lot of nonsense. As all doctors know, an embryo at this stage of pregnancy does not have a heart. US doctors have protested that even to call it a foetus is wrong, and it is certainly not an “unborn child”. Dr Nisha Verma, physician in abortion services and member of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, told The Texas Tribune that “the activity measured on an ultrasound in early gestation is electrical impulses, not a true heartbeat”. In fact, “the sound that we hear at that point is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine”.1 And this electrical activity is not used by doctors as a medical indicator that the embryo will survive the pregnancy.
As Dr Jennifer Kerns - an obstetrician and gynaecologist, and professor at the University of Chicago - states,
There is nothing specific and meaningful and relevant about the detection of cardiac activity at this gestation that implies anything that’s relevant for women’s health or for pregnancies. It is one indicator - among many indicators - that a pregnancy may or may not be progressing with some expected milestones.2
In fact miscarriage is common, particularly at such an early stage.
The law effectively means a total prohibition on abortion in Texas, since the majority of women do not discover they are pregnant until at least six weeks have passed. The law divests the Texas state of responsibility for enforcing the law and allows private individuals to sue abortion providers or those who assist the procurement of an abortion. This is an apparently effective way of getting around Roe v Wade.
The Federal Department of Justice and Planned Parenthood has challenged the law in the Supreme Court. Arguing on its behalf, solicitor general Elizabeth Prelogar stated that Texas had designed SB8 “to thwart the supremacy of federal law, in open defiance of our constitutional structure”. While
states are free to ask this court to reconsider its constitutional precedents …, they are not free to place themselves above this court, nullify the court’s decisions in their borders and block the judicial review necessary to vindicate federal rights.3
But, while allowing a legal challenge to be brought against SB8, the Supreme Court refused to block it taking effect in the interim. The conservative majority is flexing its muscles in the manner hoped for by Donald Trump.
This has all resulted in enormous suffering for Texan women, who already have had to cope with a month-long ban on abortion in 2020 ordered by state governor Greg Abbott as part of his Covid executive measures. The Guttmacher Institute, which campaigns for reproductive rights worldwide, reports that Texan women now make up 80% of those seen at Oklahoma abortion facilities. The Austin Women’s Health Centre noted on October 28 2021 that:
Many Texans are trying to scrape together thousands of dollars to travel out of state, take time off work, and arrange childcare and transportation. Many Texans are self-managing their abortions. And tragically, countless Texans are being forced to carry pregnancies against their will. This burden will fall hardest on black, Latinx and indigenous people, undocumented people and low-income Texans, who will face the most severe barriers to accessing care out of state and will face disproportionate harm from the law.4
There is an even more important case before the Supreme Court - Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Centre, involving a ban by Mississippi on abortion after 15 weeks. Arguments were heard on December 1 and the belief is that the court will allow Mississippi to impose the ban. The Guttmacher Institute warns that this will encourage even greater reaction:
If Roe were overturned or fundamentally weakened, 21 states have laws or constitutional amendments already in place that would make them certain to ban abortion as quickly as possible. Anti-abortion policymakers in several of these states have also indicated that they will introduce legislation modelled after the Texas six-week abortion ban.5
There are a number of states with bans ready to take effect, including pre-1973 bans never removed from state statute books despite Roe v Wade.
It is clear that the US is deeply divided at the political level, and has been for many years. Roe v Wade has survived many challenges, but, now that the Supreme Court has a conservative majority, its chances of survival are slim. Former vice-president Mike Pence boasted recently: “We may well be on the verge of an era when the Supreme Court sends Roe v Wade to the ash heap of history, where it belongs”. He called on the Supreme Court to “make history”.6 Arizona has now asked for the court to allow its ban on abortion of foetuses with genetic abnormalities. The Republican-controlled Florida legislature is actively pushing to reduce the time limit for abortion from 24 weeks to six, in a law modelled on the Texas one.
Moves to take advantage of the retreat on abortion rights are being formulated and the right is organised.
Health professionals and abortion providers are, of course, protesting. Polls show that the majority of US citizens do not want restrictions on abortion. Monmouth University recently conducted a national survey, in which 54% of participants disagreed with the Supreme Court allowing the Texan ban to remain in place, while another 90% disagreed with private persons being able to sue abortion providers. Another poll by NPR/PBS/Marist found that six out of 10 Americans opposed a ban after six weeks, which “includes 59% of Republicans, 61% of Democrats and 53% of independents”.7
On October 2 a reported 660 protests took place across the US against the attacks on abortion. They were called by Women’s March, a liberal feminist lash-up, including leading Democrats, which has organised anti-Trump events. Looking at the reports and photographs of the marches, it is evident that these protests mobilised far more than middle class feminist America, and included large numbers of working class women and men. Participants appeared angry, determined and militant.
It is very disappointing that the leadership of the Democratic Socialists of America did not call for the active participation of all members in the protests. Indeed its Socialist Feminist Working Group publicly condemned the events in advance and declared that the DSA:
… cannot endorse the Women’s March. Previous controversies associated with Women’s March leadership have shown a bias for creating space for cisgender, white women, leaving BIPOC, transgender and other marginalised women out of the conversation. The Socialist Feminist Working Group believes that women and non-binary people from all backgrounds need to be included and welcome to participate in the work for total women’s liberation. In addition, as socialists we believe that in order to achieve a non-patriarchal society the capitalist system must be abolished - a view that is not supported by the Women’s March organisers. Therefore, the working group cannot say in good faith that socialist feminism will be fought for at the march.
An article by Natalia Tylim and Emma Wilde Botta in Tempest, a publication on the DSA left, condemned the DSA’s boycott as a missed opportunity, which left the liberal feminist agenda unchallenged: “By abstaining from the marches, we forgo the opportunity to pose an alternative to the liberal BS from the front of the march.”8 Another article from the Reform and Revolution caucus castigated the working group’s excuse that socialist feminism would not be fought for on the marches:
This will certainly not happen if socialist forces abstain from taking part in mass events such as these. It is an especially sectarian stand, coming from a group which is part of a multi-tendency organisation representing a number of different socialist trends and political influences.9
The DSA leadership has remained silent, and does not appear to have chastised the SF working group. This suggests a problem at the heart of the organisation, resulting in effective demobilisation of protests and the demoralisation and fragmentation of those members and chapters who have been campaigning on the issue.
It is too often the case that socialist leaders - even those who consider themselves champions of women’s rights - buckle to opportunist pressure. In Ireland I have witnessed leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party dismiss the demand for a woman’s right to choose as ‘too divisive’, when it came to winning elections. Of course, when public opinion shifted in support of abortion rights in 2018, these brave leaders decided it was safe to mention the demand.
Similarly, the SWP in Britain has shown how easily demands for women’s rights can be dropped. From 2003-07 it was involved with George Galloway and the Muslim Association of Britain in the popular frontist formation, Respect. Galloway, now of the Workers Party of Britain, was a well-known opponent of abortion, as was MAB. Leading members of the SWP continually fought our attempts to have Respect adopt a principled pro-choice stance. At a pre-conference meeting on October 8 2004, long-time SWPer Gareth Jenkins argued that “Respect should not campaign for an extension of abortion rights - ie, making the right to choose a reality”. I added at the time:
You cannot help but wonder how the SWP proposes to put its own politics into practice when it refuses to put them forward in the organisation that is its main field of activity. Maybe principle is now considered a private matter for SWP members.10
At the SWP’s Marxism event the previous year, Lindsey German - a self-declared ‘staunch fighter for women’s emancipation’ - had laid the ground by demanding that demands for women’s and gay rights should not be treated as “shibboleths”.11 In other words, they were expendable, and if necessary could be dropped. At the 2004 Respect conference, Lindsey German and John Rees (then leading SWPers and now Counterfire) presented a shameful compromise. They countered our motion for “a woman’s right to choose” with a meaningless declaration of opposition to all oppression, and a statement that Respect MPs would not seek to change the current legislative position on abortion. Consequently Respect’s election materials omitted any mention of either abortion rights or gay rights.
I have given these examples to illustrate where sidelining this important question leads. A woman’s right to choose is not a feminist demand, but one that all socialists must fight for as part of a Marxist programme, recognising the centrality of women’s emancipation to our universal liberation.
‘An issue that cannot be ducked’ Weekly Worker October 13 2004: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/548/an-issue-that-cannot-be-ducked.↩︎
‘No compromise on sexism and homophobia’ Weekly Worker July 9 2003: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/488/no-compromise-on-sexism-and-homophobia.↩︎