25th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade
Choice and Women's Liberation:
Abortion Rights and the Fight to Defeat the Reactionary Agenda
An Open Letter to the Pro-Choice Movement
from Mary Lou Greenberg
Revolutionary Worker #940, January 18, 1998
The 25th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the January 22, 1973 Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion in the U.S., is time for a hard look at the ongoing battle to defend abortion rights. The availability of legal abortion over the past 25 years has made it possible for millions of women to preserve their health, their dreams, and their lives.
Without the ability to control their own reproduction, women cannot participate fully and equally in every sphere of society. To the degree Roe gave women the ability to control their own reproduction, it is something to celebrate.
At the same time, on this 25th anniversary, the battle for safe, legal abortion is more intense than ever and is at an extremely critical stage. In the last five years, two doctors, one escort, and two clinic workers have been killed, and others wounded, by anti-abortion assassins. More bombings and arson of clinics occurred in 1997 than in any year since the previous peak in 1984. The anti-abortion forces have gone on the offensive around a procedure for later abortions. They have targeted high school women with their anti-abortion propaganda campaigns. They are actively organizing millions of men and women around the idea that abortion is immoral, should be outlawed, and must be stopped.
This offensive against abortion has received support from the highest levels of government. Harmful restrictions on funding and access, especially for poor women, were instituted immediately after Roe. Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Supreme Court came down with a series of rulings that gave states the right to restrict access to abortion. Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush openly promoted reactionary anti-abortion forces. Democratic president Clinton talks about abortion as something that should be "legal but rare." And under his watch, abortion has definitely become "rarer"--more difficult to obtain. At the same time, large sections of the pro-choice movement have found themselves demobilized, pinning one hope after another on the Democrats.
All in all, women are being made to feel shame and guilt if they want to end a pregnancy. Confusion has been sown. Women growing up in the last two decades have been bombarded with all kinds of anti-scientific lies--that fetuses are babies, that abortion is murder. And for millions of women today the right to abortion effectively does not exist. Restrictions imposed by states, lack of medicaid funding make it especially hard for poor, Black, Latina, Native American, young women and women in rural areas to control their reproduction. In 84 percent of the counties in the U.S. there are no abortion providers.
Once again, enforced motherhood is taking its toll: too many women forced to have children they don't want, too many dreams deferred. Women forced into desperate acts like leaving unwanted babies in dumpsters.
This assault is not an isolated thing. It is part of a larger reactionary political agenda that the ruling class is pushing. I am talking about the whole "war on the people" that is stalking the land: the dismantling of welfare, laws that limit people's rights, the warehousing into jail of a whole generation of Black and Latino youth, attacks on immigrants, the rollback of affirmative action, censorship. This is an agenda that stands for male supremacy, for white supremacy, and for the imposition of a fundamentalist Christian morality.
Waging the fight to keep abortion legal, safe, and accessible is a crucial part of beating back this larger reactionary program.
The Abortion Issue--A "Diversion" or a Core Question
I have heard some pro-choice people express exasperation that women's reproductive freedom is "still" something that needs to be fought for. Some say it's a "diversion" from the real issues the women's movement needs to take up. Some despair that the abortion battle has taken up precious resources of time and money. Some say that the issue has "hijacked" the women's movement. Others just express weariness with a seemingly never-ending battle.
As someone who's been in the revolutionary movement for many years and for the past 10 years been involved in clinic defense in many cities and worked with abortion providers under attack, I can definitely empathize with and understand the frustrations that give rise to those sentiments. How maddening it is to not only see the principles we fought so hard for now under attack, but to see dedicated men and women murdered, others put under grave threat, and thousands of women a year basically denied abortion.
This is the situation we face. And we have to take it on. Rather than viewing the abortion issue as a "diversion," I want to argue strongly that this question concentrates much of the struggle for women's freedom and equality. It is a bedrock battle. For without the freedom to decide if or when to give birth and the ability to terminate unwanted pregnancies, other choices for women, such as working outside the home, going to school, etc. are pretty hollow. Abortion is, in fact, a core issue which has profound implications for every other aspect of the fight for women's freedom. This is a central point we need to grasp and figure out how to act on.
Why Is the Right to Abortion "Still" Being Contested?
We need to step back and ask why, 25 years after Roe v. Wade, abortion rights are so bitterly contested. Why, when poll after poll shows that a vast majority of Americans favor choice, when tens of millions of women have benefited from the exercise of this right, do we find ourselves increasingly on the defensive, both quite literally at the clinics and in the battlefield of public opinion?
The fact is, the battle around abortion is not about fetuses, but about women and their role in society. The pro-choice movement has pointed out that the "antis" are totally preoccupied with the fetus and leave the woman, without whom the fetus would not exist, out of the equation. And in their giant posters of fetuses, they do, literally, paint women out of the picture. But in actuality, the anti-abortion leaders ARE quite focused on the question of women and could care less about the fetus (other than as a symbol). That is to say, the driving force of this movement is the aim to reinforce women's subjugated position within the family and in society at large.
Over the past three or four decades we've seen major changes in the economy and in society. One of the biggest changes is that women have entered the work force in greater numbers. They have gained greater economic and social independence. Women set their sights beyond just being wives and mothers. All this is having the effect of breaking down the traditional family with its traditional role for women as domestic slave and provider of emotional support for "her man" and family. Having women step outside these roles presents a threat to a society based on patriarchy.
In this context, there is a big battle over what role women will play in society. This is what the abortion debate is about, and this has given rise to intense polarization.
At one pole is what has been called the "Christian right." In the eyes of the "Christian right," the role of a woman is to be submissive and dutiful to her husband and a sacrificing mother to his children. And this is put forward as "Divine Law." Look at what some prominent figures in this movement say:
"The woman who is truly Spirit-filled will want to be totally submissive to her husband... This is a truly liberated woman. Submission is God's design for women." (Beverly LaHaye who founded Concerned Women for America in 1979 and wife of Moral Majority co-founder Tim LaHaye.)
"Women have babies and men provide the support. If you don't like the way we're made, you've got to take it up with God." (Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum)
If you want an idea of how the "Christian right" would like society to treat women, see the movie or read the book The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. In this story set in the not-so-distant future, fertile, white women are turned into baby-breeders under the total control of men.
The anti-abortion movement and the ideology that goes with it is the front edge of the attempt to "keep women in their place." But, bad as that is, it is also more than that.
The leaders of this movement are working to advance a larger agenda. They are working with and within the government to pass all kinds of reactionary laws. They are enlisting millions of foot soldiers in a mission to "take back America," based on Christian fundamentalism. And they have a vision for how to build this movement. Here is how Richard Viguerie, one of the architects of the religious right, put it some years back: "The abortion issue is the door through which many people come into conservative politics." For this movement, attacking abortion is a key part of putting women "in their place." Reinforcing male domination is an essential part of their whole agenda. And they consciously see mobilizing people against the right to abortion as a way to organize people into their larger reactionary movement.
It becomes clearer why the "Christian right" is given legitimacy and voice. It provides a phony moral veneer and shock troops for violent intimidation of those who are targeted by and/or who disagree with that agenda. And this "grass-roots" movement fits right into the war on the people being waged by the ruling class. There is a consensus among those in power around what Refuse & Resist! has called "the politics of cruelty."
* Tearing up the safety net for the poorest in our society and undercutting all kinds of social welfare programs. Connie Marshner from the right-wing Heritage Foundation argues that concern for the poor is just a cover for feminists to oppose motherhood by encouraging reliance on government assistance rather than the church: "In the name of helping the poor, the attack on motherhood continued."
* The institution of a punitive social atmosphere, a massive expansion of prisons, the use of the death penalty, the removal of legal safeguards, etc. One observer noted that the biggest cheers at the 1996 Christian Coalition national gathering came for calls to speed up the death penalty!
* The attacks on any effort to win social justice for oppressed peoples and groups, such as affirmative action and rights for immigrants, sometimes, outrageously enough, in the name of "racial reconciliation."
* The forcible imposition of religious values and institutions into the functioning of the state--from the Ten Commandments on courtroom walls to prayer groups in Congress and public schools.
Again, the attacks on women, and the cutting-edge attack on abortion, is not just another item on the above list. It has great importance to the whole agenda. The more the anti-abortion movement makes headway, the more they will be able to push their whole reactionary agenda. This is why it is so important for the people to go up against this movement and everything it stands for.
Let's Call It For What It Is --Fascism.
The mindset of the "Christian right" can be characterized by what the German writer Thomas Mann called "sentimental brutality," the phrase he used to describe the outlook of the Nazis in Germany. They sentimentalized motherhood, but the brutal fact behind this sentimentalization was the right of men backed by the full power of the state to force women to bear children against their will.
Isn't this the thinking of the "Promise Keepers," with their vow to strengthen the family and nation--in exchange for women assuming the traditional role of dutiful wife and mother and submitting to men?
As for the "Christian right's" sentimentalization of the fetus, the brutal reality of their program is the denial of prenatal care to millions of women who DO want to have children, the imprisonment of working class pregnant women who use drugs, the ending of welfare and food stamps for single mothers, and the coerced sterilization of poor women, especially women of color.
They sentimentalize marriage. Meanwhile, they attempt to curtail the right to divorce, to (literally) demonize and fix blame on single mothers or even working mothers generally, to cut off or severely limit women's participation in anything but kinder, kuche, kirche (children, kitchen, church, the program for women under the Nazis).
I would like to offer another quote:
"The sacrifices which the man makes in the struggle of this nation, the woman makes in the preservation of that nation in individual cases. What the man gives in courage on the battlefield, the woman gives in eternal self-sacrifice, in eternal pain and suffering. Every child that a woman brings into the world is a battle, a battle waged for the existence of her people...our...movement has in reality but one single point, and that point is the child, that tiny creature which must be born and grow strong and which alone gives meaning to the whole life-struggle."
These are the words of Adolf Hitler. And they are being echoed today in the discourse of the Christian right. We should call these people what they really are: Christian fascists. To call this program "fascist" is not "name calling," but correctly identifying a political program that has great implications for huge sections of people, including women.
We should call them fascist because that is what they are: promoters and advocates of openly, aggressively reactionary politics which seek to enforce, including through brute force unrestrained by law, the most oppressive and profit-squeezing (exploitative) economic and social relations. The better we understand this, the stronger will be our resolve and the better we'll do at uniting others to oppose them.
The Role of Clinton & Company
Along with taking a hard look at these Christian fascists' overall program, I think we have to talk some hard truths about the role of forces like Clinton in this whole picture. The fact is that Bill Clinton has presided over the implementation and enforcement of the "politics of cruelty." Sometimes, as with welfare "reform," this has gone along with lip-biting expressions of regret and broken promises to "improve the bill," and at other times--as with the building of prisons and removal of legal rights for prisoners--with smiling gusto. Some people say, "but hasn't he stood in the way of the anti-abortion forces?" Well, let's look at the situation and his role.
We've been fighting these Christian fascists with their drumbeat demonization of providers and women who dare to get rid of unwanted pregnancies, their attempts to close clinics and terrorize and kill doctors and clinic staff. At the same time Bill Clinton tells us abortion should be "safe, legal and rare" and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore urge people on both sides to "dialogue" with each other (their message at the 1997 Roe anniversary).
Well, should abortion be rare? Certainly there should be increased availability of condoms and other means of safe, reliable birth control, and sex education. We want fewer cases of rape and incest. In such a situation, the frequency of abortion might go down. But when Clinton talks "rare" he is not talking about this. Rather, he is pandering to and actually reinforcing the belief that there is something immoral about abortion itself--that there is something wrong with a woman deciding that she does not want to be forced to bear a child and exercising her right to end her pregnancy. But why should it be rare for a woman to decide whether or not she wishes to bear a child, or when? If abortion is an essential means for enabling a woman to act on that decision--and it is--then abortion should not be rare but readily and easily available to be done as often as needed.
"Safe, Legal and Rare" Surrenders the Moral High Ground to the Antis
Reiterating his "safe, legal and rare" mantra, Clinton surrenders the high moral ground to the Christian fascists. And this in turn lends legitimacy and force to their relentless efforts to curtail abortion rights. Moreover, it sows confusion at best and even guilt and shame among many women, especially the younger generation that never experienced the reality of "back-alley abortions."
The pro-choice movement has not adequately taken on this damaging line of Clinton's. While some good and important efforts have been made, the pro-choice movement has been too defensive. We need more of the attitude of abortion on demand and without apology. We need to uphold abortion providers, and to encourage more doctors to perform abortions and more medical schools to train students in it.
As for encouraging "dialogue" between the two sides, one side is killing doctors, threatening women and bombing clinics. The other side is supporting women and defending doctors and clinics. One side is right and the other side is wrong. How can there be "dialogue" or "common ground" between these two? Instead, we do need to forcefully refute the lies of the Christian fascists, draw the links between the abortion question and their larger agenda, and put them on the defensive. They cannot be allowed to claim the mantle of morality for an agenda of poverty, punishment and patriarchy!
The Problem Is That
We Are Not "Radical" Enough
Some condemn "extremism" on "both sides." Some say the pro-choice movement is "too radical." But the problem is not that the pro-choice side is too radical, but that we are not radical enough. We have relied too much on the courts and feds, and not enough on building our own strength--including our mobilized strength to defend clinics and providers from any and all forms of attack.
Relying on "friends" like Clinton has only immobilized the pro-choice movement and set the people up for more attacks. In my opinion, this has been part of Clinton's role from the very beginning--to politically demobilize the millions of women who were growing increasingly active and more radical in the face of the naked misogyny, the barely varnished "coat hangerism," of the Reagan-Bush administrations.
But whatever one thinks of Clinton, don't we have to seriously sum up the net effect of pouring resources into and confining our activity to the framework of politics as usual--the never-ending contention between Democrats and Republicans that has, step by step, shifted the political terms more and more to the right?
Don't we have to recognize what a losing dynamic it is where, even as much of the movement is disgusted with Clinton's welfare-cutting, prison-building, family-values-promoting presidency, too many still get sucked into rallying behind him as the "last best hope to hold back the right"? Again, we find ourselves caught in a nightmare where, as RCP Chairman Bob Avakian puts it, "yesterday's outrage becomes today's `compromise position'--and tomorrow's limit of what we can aim for."
How to Change the Situation
What do we need to change this dire situation? I am in full agreement with the Refuse & Resist! 10-point program for defending abortion rights which was issued in 1995 shortly after the murders of two clinic workers in Brookline, MA. It states: "We ourselves have to create both a political climate and a practical situation where it is impossible for the Christian fascists to wage their attacks on women and their clinics. No one is going to do this for us." The 10 points include organizing support and defense of clinics and providers and says "abortion providers must be defended. Self-defense is our right and our responsibility." The points also include calling on prominent figures to speak out against attacks, countering the antis in the media, and building "cooperation between all the forces working to protect the road forward, recognizing that different people will contribute in different ways." We need to reach out to the new generation of women, both to help them understand the issues better and to involve them as a decisive force of this battle.
One small but significant example of what I mean took place last summer in Dayton, Ohio. Operation Rescue had called for a national mobilization to close clinics and especially to target a particular doctor. The pro-choice movement did not have unity over whether to take this attack head-on. But a group of veteran activists, working together with students and youth in the area, and taking R&R!'s 10-point program as a guide, confronted the antis at every turn. We denied them an open field at the clinics and in the media. Through this battle, people gained a better understanding of who the antis really are, their links to the larger agenda, the vital connection between abortion rights and women's freedom, and the ways in which, by relying on ourselves, we can deny the other side victories and learn how to defeat them. In this way we can begin to reverse the momentum that is now so aggressively reasserting and reinforcing the ideology and politics of patriarchy and shift the question to the liberation of women.
While on one level I share everyone's frustration with having to continue to fight this battle 25 years after Roe, I also think there's a profound lesson here. As a revolutionary communist, I see the struggle for women's liberation, and this battle around abortion, as part of the larger struggle for a new world. And I believe that unless and until this political and economic system--that not only thrives on but actually relies on patriarchy--is overthrown, every step toward the emancipation of women will be at minimum bitterly contested and the full potential of women will not be realized.
We need to dialogue and strategize about what it is going to take to carry this battle forward. But there also needs to be room for discussion and debate about what it's going to take for women to be really liberated. We need to be discussing these issues even, and especially, in the midst of today's struggles and in preparing for future battles.
We must take the offensive by changing the way we fight--to more thoroughly rely on ourselves and shift the terms that have been set by the other side. Let's make this 25th anniversary of Roe a time for new resolve and determination in the fight for women's liberation.
Mary Lou Greenberg is the spokesperson for the NY Branch of the RCP and a long-time activist in the fight for reproductive rights.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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