by Susan Rosenthal
(Updated at: Abortion: Whose Decision?)
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to outlaw a form of late-term abortion. As the one dissenting judge remarked, the ruling bans "a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists."
This blow against women’s rights did not come out of the blue. As soon as abortion was legalized in 1973, anti-abortionists began picketing and bombing women’s clinics. In 1976, the Hyde Amendment eliminated abortion funding for poor women. Since Hyde, a web of restrictive laws have made it increasingly difficult for women to access abortion. Today, ninety percent of U.S. counties offer no abortion services at all.
Not only is it harder to get abortion, it’s also harder to get contraception, including the morning-after pill. Employers can refuse to provide contraceptive coverage in their health plans, pharmacists can refuse to dispense oral contraceptives, and doctors can deny patients’ requests for birth control information. As a result, women need more access to abortion, not less.
Women with money can always get safe abortions. Restrictions on abortion hit working-class women hardest. Before abortion was legalized, 90 percent of the women who died from illegal abortions in New York City were Black and Hispanic.
Regardless of your personal views on the subject, it is dangerous to support any legal restriction on abortion. The right to control one’s body is a basic democratic principle. If women are denied this right, then no one’s rights are safe.
The Supreme Court justified its ruling by saying that it wanted to protect women from making harmful decisions. Anti-abortion campaigns are designed to make women feel guilty about having abortions. That guilt is then used to claim that abortion harms women’s mental health. "Informed consent" and mandatory counseling laws aim to dissuade women from having abortions and make them feel guilty if they do. That such measures traumatize women seems to be of no concern.
Anti-abortionists completely ignore the fact that abortion is much safer than childbirth. The risk of death from legal abortion in the U.S. is extremely rare compared with the much larger risk of dying in childbirth. And childbirth has well-documented mental-health risks in the form of postpartum depression and psychosis.
The abortion debate is not about what’s best for women. The ruling class doesn't care about women’s health or their lives. If they did, we would have paid parental leave and a national system of childcare. The attack on abortion is part of a larger strategy to remove decision-making power from ordinary people. In the workplace, the boss dictates the worker’s every move, including bathroom breaks. In society, the State dictates personal behaviors, including sexuality and reproduction.
Violation of the right-to-decide is so taken for granted that people get caught up in debates about how the State should control people. The right of the State to dictate personal matters is never questioned.
A genuine democratic society would provide all the options — sex education, contraception, abortion, support for having children — and trust people to make the best decisions for themselves. Of course, some people’s choices will turn out badly. However, poor outcomes cannot be avoided by denying people choices. Women who cannot obtain safe abortions will have unsafe abortions, with their much greater risk of infection and death.
We must learn the lessons of the past 30 years. The right to abortion cannot be trusted to "pro-choice" liberals who have failed to defend abortion rights. Without the right to abortion there is no choice. We need free abortion on demand, so that all women have the right to choose.
The right to abortion can’t be trusted to politicians either. In 2006, Democrats joined with Republicans to outlaw abortion in South Dakota. Democratic Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton calls abortion a "sad, even tragic choice" that shouldn’t "ever have to be exercised, or only in very rare circumstances."
The right to control our bodies is a working-class demand that goes hand-in-hand with the right to control our lives, our work, and our society. These basic rights will be won only when ordinary people organize in their millions to fight for them.
For more on this subject read POWER and Powerlessness, Chapter 15, "Beware the Middle Ground." Available at www.powerandpowerlessness.com