A national campaign of mass action to defend a woman’s right to choose abortion is now necessary. This has been true for some time. But the September 1 U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 decision that refused to block a Texas law prohibiting abortion after cardiac activity is detected—which can be as early as six weeks after the onset of pregnancy—underlined the urgency of the moment. Many women are not even aware they are pregnant at that time.
The law clearly violates the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade ruling that decriminalized abortion. That landmark case also arose from a Texas law aimed at denying women the right to control their own bodies.
Summing up Roe, the website Oyez explains: “In the first trimester of pregnancy, the state may not regulate the abortion decision; only the pregnant woman and her attending physician can make that decision. In the second trimester, the state may impose regulations on abortion that are reasonably related to maternal health. In the third trimester, once the fetus reaches the point of ‘viability,’ a state may regulate abortions or prohibit them entirely, so long as the laws contain exceptions for cases when abortion is necessary to save the life or health of the mother.”
The latest attack on women’s rights from Texas breaks new ground in the campaign to undermine and overturn Roe, which started the moment the high court announced the 1973 ruling. The Texas law deputizes any citizen to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion. Anyone, from an Uber driver who transports a woman to a clinic that provides abortions, to the clinic itself, can face costly legal action at the whim of whoever decides to act to restrict women’s rights. The law provides no exception for cases of rape or incest. Plaintiffs do not need to live in Texas or have any connection to the abortion to file a suit. The law entitles them to $10,000 and their legal fees if they win in court. Defendants who prevail, however, cannot recover their legal fees. This is a dream come true for vigilantes and bounty hunters. It is also a nightmare for women and women’s rights supporters.
A dangerous consequence is that the few remaining clinics that provide abortion services in Texas are now declining to do so. The day after its enactment, there seemed to be near-complete compliance with the law before even a single suit had been filed.
This means that abortion is now, in fact, illegal in the second largest state of the Union.
There are also indications that other states could quickly mimic Texas. On September 2, Republicans in Arkansas, Florida and South Dakota promised to do so when legislatures in these states reconvene.
The legal battle over the Texas law is not over. The court’s majority stressed that it was not ruling on the constitutionality of the Texas legislation and did not mean to limit “procedurally proper challenges” to it.
However, supporters of women’s rights and reproductive freedom cannot wait to act. For far too long the broad support that clearly exists for women’s right to choose abortion has not been mobilized in the streets to answer the right-wing offensive against it. Inaction over many years has demobilized supporters of women’s equality. That needs to be reversed. Younger people—and anyone who sees the need to act now—can get the ball rolling.
The national call for statewide and local protests on October 2, issued by Women’s March and 90 other women’s rights groups across the country, can be a start.
President Joe Biden quickly announced he had directed the “launch of a whole-of-government effort” to respond to the court’s decision. But we cannot rely on such promises, aimed at discouraging independent mass action by supporters of women’s rights. The President can neither legislate nor overrule the Supreme Court. For decades, the Democratic Party establishment and its cheerleaders have peddled the myth, rather successfully, that liberals or “progressives” will guarantee a woman’s right to choose. Over the same period, states and localities across the country have significantly narrowed access to abortion. A number of states today only have a few clinics, or just one facility, to meet women’s needs. At the same time, new laws—the Texas legislation is only one example—seek to overturn Roe v. Wade or reduce it to a paper letter, as the Texas statute does.
A key moment in the drive to undermine the rights guaranteed by the Roe decision came in 1976 when the Democratic Party controlled both the House and Senate. The Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Hyde Amendment then, banning federal funding for most abortions. Large, veto-proof, bipartisan majorities approved Hyde, including then-Senator Biden (who now, after 45 years of the consequences of Hyde and other efforts to restrict access to abortion, says he has changed his mind). Every year since then, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have renewed Hyde, though the exact scope of the restrictions have varied. (The budget proposal Biden introduced this year omits the Hyde amendment, but the budget has not been adopted so the issue remains unsettled.)
The Hyde Amendment has especially hurt women who rely on Medicaid for their health needs, disproportionately affecting Black, Latina, and Native American women. The abhorrent new Texas law, like other restrictions on the right to choose, will have a similar discriminatory effect. Women with the resources to travel to another state will be able to obtain abortions there; those without such resources will not.
The bipartisan approval of Hyde, only a few years after Roe, signaled the intent to restrict, undermine, and ultimately overturn a woman’s right to choose. It was an early warning that only independent mass action by women and supporters of women’s rights could successfully repel such attacks. The record of the past 45 years shows that warning was not heeded.
Full equality for women is impossible unless laws guarantee women the same right to control their own bodies that men take for granted. That includes the right to choose abortion, full access to contraception as well as to be free from all attempts at forced sterilization. A woman’s control of her own body in every respect is a precondition for full equality. Those who believe in women’s rights need to begin a national campaign of education and mobilization to make clear that the majority in the United States will not allow women to be dragged back to the days of dangerous, illegal, back-alley abortions.
We should act on the words of Texas student Paxton Smith who, speaking at her high school graduation on May 30, said:
“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.”Paxton Smith, high school graduation speech, Dallas, Texas, May 30, 2021
As long-time women’s rights fighter Nancy Rosenstock wrote in World-Outlook shortly after Paxton’s powerful appeal:
“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.
“…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!
“We will not go back! Defend Roe!”