By Nancy Rosenstock
CHICAGO, June 17, 2021—“We have spent our whole lives working towards our futures, and without our input and without our consent, our control over our futures has been stripped away from us. I hope you can feel how gut-wrenching it is. I hope you can feel how dehumanizing it is, to have the autonomy over your own body taken from you.”
These words spoken by Paxton Smith at her May 30 high school graduation in Dallas, Texas—departing from her prepared and approved comments—clearly express the sentiments of large numbers of people in this country, especially youth. They reflect the problems the ruling rich and their government face as they try to push back women’s right to choose abortion and deny us access to safe and legal procedures. Smith eloquently expressed a basic truth: genuine women’s equality and liberation is impossible if we are denied the right to control our own bodies.
In the first half of this year, attacks on abortion rights have escalated. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 561 new abortion restrictions have been introduced across 47 states, including 165 total bans. Since January, 16 states have already enacted 83 of these restrictions. If all these measures were adopted, they would increase by a whopping 43% the total number of 1,313 abortion restrictions states have enacted since Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that decriminalized abortion.
In what may be the most significant threat, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear this fall a case that takes up a 2018 Mississippi law banning almost all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The law allows only narrow exceptions for medical emergencies and fetal abnormalities. Lower courts have blocked this measure as unconstitutional. The high court will rule whether state laws can prohibit abortions at or before 15 weeks. The Supreme Court’s decision to hear this case signals it is open to a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.
“The Supreme Court just agreed to review an abortion ban that unquestionably violates nearly 50 years of Supreme Court precedent and is a test case to overturn Roe v. Wade,” said Nancy Northup in a May 17 press release. Northup is the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, one of the groups representing Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
Other attacks this year
This threat comes on the heels of other attacks this year:
- In May, Texas governor Gregory Abbott signed into law a bill that would ban abortions as early as six weeks, so early in the process that many women do not even know they are pregnant. No exceptions are provided for cases of rape or incest. The law would also make it possible to sue anyone who knowingly “aids and abets” an abortion, even if they do not live in the same area or even know the woman seeking the abortion. Anyone who helps with transportation or with financial assistance would be liable as well.
- In April, more states passed abortion restrictions, including a new near-total ban in Oklahoma, a six-week ban in Idaho, and a twenty-week ban in Montana.
- Some localities are creating “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn,” as the name of a Texas-based advocacy group suggests, with appeals to “help us assist cities in outlawing abortion within their city.” In one such case, the Lebanon, Ohio, city council passed an ordinance in May banning all abortions. Doctors who perform the procedure could face misdemeanor charges, a fine of up to $2,500, and a possible one-year jail term. The sole city council member opposing the ban resigned from the council in protest.
- Several states have placed restrictions on women’s ability to obtain medication abortion. On April 12, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided to allow women to receive abortion pills by mail during the Covid-19 pandemic. A number of states are pushing to reverse this decision.
- Emboldened by this onslaught on a woman’s right to choose—led by right-wing politicians and aided and abetted by decades of acquiescence from the Democratic Party—physical attacks on abortion clinics and providers continue. In May and June, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Chicago repeatedly had its windows smashed in.
These latest assaults on women’s rights are not new; but the level of the intensification of the attacks is remarkable. Access to safe, legal abortion has been pushed back over the years to such an extent that now, in many areas, women have to travel great distances to get an abortion. In fact, a majority of U.S. counties do not have an abortion clinic. In some cities, the nearest such facility is more than 100 miles away. Half of Georgia counties do not have a single gynecologist!
Young women, in particular, face an additional assault on their right to control their own bodies, imposed by laws such as the Illinois “Parental Notice of Abortion Act” and similar measures in other states.
How did we win the right to legal abortion?
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in the historic Roe v. Wade decision, a huge victory for women.
Since then, right-wing forces, with backing from the Catholic Church and emboldened by the U.S. government, have been on a relentless drive to push back women’s rights with bipartisan support. In 1976, for example, just a few years after Roe v. Wade, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment banning federal funding for most abortions. Large, veto-proof, bipartisan majorities approved Hyde, including then Senator Joe Biden, the current U.S. president. While shifting in form, Hyde has been renewed every year since then under Democratic and Republican administrations alike. The Hyde Amendment especially hurt women who rely on Medicaid for their health needs, disproportionately affecting Black and Latina women.
The Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade as the movement for legalized abortion was still gaining strength. Consequently, many supporters of abortion rights were unprepared to take on the attacks that began so quickly after Roe v. Wade. The bipartisan nature of the assault was not well understood. Reform-minded forces in the broader battle for women’s liberation relied on lobbying politicians in Congress in an attempt to fight back. Mobilizing the mass sentiment for a woman’s right to choose abortion, through street actions and protest meetings, largely receded into the background for years.
The women’s liberation movement and the fight to decriminalize abortion in the 1960s and 1970s was part of a broad political radicalization in the United States and around the world at that time. Following on the heels of the movement to end the Vietnam War, the mass civil rights movement, and a worldwide youth radicalization, women began to organize for their rights. At the time, contraception was more difficult to obtain and women were dying in back alleys or from self-induced abortions. In addition, many women, especially Puerto Rican and Native American women, were being sterilized against their will.
The 1973 Supreme Court decision came after years of fighting for the right of women to control our own bodies. Rallies, testimonials to the horrors of the denial of legal and safe abortion, speak-outs—all were utilized to sway public opinion and mobilize large numbers of people in order to reverse the reactionary and discriminatory anti-women laws. A step forward was taken when New York State passed a liberalized abortion law in 1970. But women and our allies recognized that this fight was a national one. The battle could not be truly effective on a state-by-state basis.
Currently, some writers and activists are raising the idea of “organizing for a post-Roe America.” A widely touted book, Handbook for a Post Roe America by Robin Marty, is being promoted with the following: “The end of Roe is coming. How will you prepare?”
The problem is that this approach accepts defeat before we’ve lost the fight we need to wage. Therefore, it should be rejected. It ignores the reality that a large majority of people in this country support the right to legal abortion. According to an April 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, 59% of the population believes a woman’s right to choose abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Accepting defeat now, also underestimates the role of young women, who have never lived in any other world than the one in which abortion is legal. This sentiment is reflected at abortion-rights rallies in the often-heard slogan: “We will never go back!”
Many of those who advocate the view that we should organize now for a “post-Roe America” understate the horrors of what life was like for women before abortion was legal. According to the Guttmacher Institute, some 200,000 to 1.2 million illegal abortions took place each year in the 1950s and 1960s. During that period, an average of 5,000 women died each year from botched abortions.
Ms magazine published an article, titled “We Will Not Go Back,” in May 2019. “I was a medical student and young doctor in the late sixties and early seventies, and what I saw before abortion was legalized was forever branded in my memory,” Dr. Barbara Roberts explains in that story. “I saw women brought into emergency rooms in septic shock, with perforated wombs, even disemboweled by incompetent butchers because their own physicians were prohibited by law from helping them. These experiences radicalized me and I joined the fight to legalize abortion. Vicious anti-abortion fanatics want to return women to a state of reproductive slavery.” Prior to the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roberts was a leader of the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition.
Every attack on women’s rights needs to be met with a response. In Chicago, on two nights last month, the windows of a Planned Parenthood clinic were destroyed. In response, on less than 24 hours notice, 100 people rallied in support of the clinic and a woman’s right to choose. “We heard about what happened and knew that these things can really escalate unless there is a clear and unapologetic response,” Rachel Cohen, one of the organizers of the May rally, told the magazine Rebellious.
One of the lessons we can take from the early days of the women’s liberation movement is that we must rely on ourselves. If women don’t fight for our rights, no one will. We can’t rely on Democratic or Republican politicians. We must organize on a broad basis to defend and extend abortion rights and in opposition to overturning Roe v. Wade, setting aside political differences we may have on other issues. In this way, we can mobilize women and our supporters in huge numbers to counter and beat back the ongoing assault on our rights.
When the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the Mississippi abortion case in October, women and our supporters need to show the world, in massive numbers, in the streets of Washington, D.C., that legal abortion is here to stay. Onward to a march and rally in the nation’s capital!
The fight for abortion rights is an international one. In Poland thousands protested in January of this year after a draconian law that virtually outlawed all abortions was passed in that country. The same month, after a long campaign in Argentina, thousands upon thousands celebrated a new law legalizing abortion in the South American country. In Ireland, following a referendum in 2018 legalizing abortion, women have continued to fight to expand access. These struggles point the way forward and can serve as our inspiration.
We will not go back! Defend Roe!
Nancy Rosenstock was an activist in Boston Female Liberation and served on the national staff of the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition in 1971. Today she is a member of Chicago for Abortion Rights. She is the author of the forthcoming book Inside The Second Wave of Feminism: A Participants’ Account of Boston Female Liberation, 1968–1972, which is scheduled for publication in 2022 by Haymarket Books.
Categories: Women's Rights
Great article! I especially like the quote by Dr Roberts, who saw first hand the number of women who lost their lives when abortion was illegal. We need to do a lot of educating about how restricting the right to abortion means condemning women with no other options to illegal abortions.
Thank you Cathleen! Yes, agreed, we need to do a lot of educating (disseminating this article would be one step) and a lot of mobilizing toward local, stateweide, and, hopefully, national protests to defend a woman’s right to choose.