The United States is currently facing the greatest assault on abortion rights since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. A Texas anti-abortion law, which went into effect in October, has criminalized abortions after six weeks of pregnancy — before many people even know they’re pregnant — and incentivized vigilante policing of anyone who seeks or provides an abortion, or even just drives someone to a provider. Soon after, the state of Mississippi imposed a ban on abortions 15 weeks into a pregnancy, which challenges the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling that established the legality of abortion up to the point of “fetal viability.”
On December 1, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Missisipi case and signaled that the new anti-abortion law will be upheld, which would effectively undo the Roe decision by making these “legal” abortions almost impossible to access, and could kickstart a series of “trigger” laws across the country in the 21 states with laws or constitutional amendments banning abortion already on the books. In other words, upholding the Mississippi law would effectively end the federally guaranteed right to an abortion in the United States. The ruling will come in June 2022.
Many have suggested that the new assault on abortion rights results from the absence on the bench of “progressive” judges such as the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg. But the strategy of voting for Democrats to secure a more liberal Supreme Court is a dead end. The Supreme Court is made up of unelected officials that hold the position for life, and are completely unaccountable to anyone, least of all the poor and working class for whom the legal right to an abortion is fundamental.
There is a way forward, however. Activists in Argentina and Ireland have shown that abortion rights can be won through persistent, combative, and collective action. In Poland, women, students, and workers walked out to protest a near-total ban on abortions imposed in 2020, recognizing that their collective strength, not “progressive” judges, as the only way to secure reproductive rights. That’s precisely how we can protect the right to an abortion in the United States.
In 2018, Ireland legalized abortion for the first time. Yet it was not the court system or legislators who were responsible. It was the massive women’s movement that took to the streets and organized combative actions to secure the right to abortion.
Abortion was prohibited by law in Ireland in 1861. More than a hundred years later, the country took the offensive against women even further, codifying that ban with a 1983 constitutional amendment that granted legal personhood to fetuses. Not only did the amendment prohibit terminating a pregnancy, but it even placed legal restrictions on disseminating information about accessing abortions, including censoring British magazines in Ireland that advertised abortion services. Women who attempted to end pregnancy illegally without medical supervision faced 14-year jail sentences.
The first March for Choice was organized in 2012 and, over the next several years, pro-choice demonstrations grew to tens of thousands of people. The movement was galvanized by the tragic death of a 31-year old dentist named Savita Halappanavar. She had been told by doctors that a miscarriage was imminent, but the state intervened to keep her from terminating the pregnancy. Continuing the pregnancy killed her, and her death became a national symbol of the dangers of denying abortion rights.
On International Women’s Day in 2017, thousands of women in Ireland took part in the “Strike 4 Repeal,” demanding an end to the Eighth Amendment. Participants successfully shut down Dublin for four hours. It was clear that the abortion rights movement was shifting popular opinion. Politicians who for years had defended the anti-choice laws were forced to change their public positions.
In 2018, the Irish government, under heavy pressure from the movement but still unwilling to legalize abortions itself, called a referendum. The feminist movement organized a massive campaign to vote “Yes” to abortion rights. Several unions were won over to the campaign and declared their support. Tens of thousands of Irish people living abroad, from the United Kingdom to Australia to Tokyo, flew home to cast their votes. The “Yes” vote won by a landslide, with two-thirds of Irish voters supporting the right to choose.
Abortion was long considered an untouchable issue in the Latin American country, given the central role played by the Catholic Church in Argentina’s politics. Jorge Mario Bergoglio — known now as Pope Francis — was one of the many leading figures in the church who helped block any relaxation of restrictions on abortion.
But the threads of women’s resistance run deep in Argentina. The feminist movement — with many of its members aligned with Trotskyism — organized some of the first public demonstrations for the right to an abortion and free access to contraceptives in the early 1970s. The movement grew in response to new limits on birth control imposed by President Juan Péron. Far-Left organizations launched the Frente de Lucha para la Mujer (Front for Women’s Struggles), which demanded not only abortion and contraceptive access but also wages for domestic work, free childcare, and rights for LGBTQ people.
When the military dictatorship took power in 1976, abortion rights were further restricted. But even then the Left refused to sideline its agitation for abortion access in its legal and underground press.
After the dictatorship ended in 1983, legal provisions regarding abortion were reset to what they had been in 1922: they were permitted only in cases of rape or if the pregnant person’s health was in danger. Neither the center-Right nor the center-Left governments, including that of the “progressive” Cristina Kirchner — the country’s first woman president, who served from 2007-2015 — lifted the general ban on abortions.
The abortion rights movement began to gain steam in the 1990s and took a leap forward in the 2010s. The new wave of activism was closely tied to the growing movement against femicides in the country; activists rightly highlighted that deaths from clandestine abortions was one more manifestation of the violence facing women in Argentina.
In 2015, 14-year-old Chiara Pae was found buried underneath her boyfriend’s house in Rufino, Argentina. An autopsy revealed her death to be the result of severe beatings to her head and body. This murder, one of countless femicides in the country and across Latin America, sparked the Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) movement. The enormous demonstrations that responded to Pae’s death spanned several countries, including Chile and Uruguay, and gathered 200,000 in Buenos Aires alone.
Following another murder of a young woman in 2016 in the coastal city of Mar del Plata, Ni Una Menos organized a women’s mass strike, the first of its kind in Argentina. Across the country, women walked out of work dressed in mourning. The movement made clear the link between femicide, healthcare, and abortion rights. If people cannot access free, safe, and legal abortions, they are more likely to seek clandestine abortions that can result in death.
A Green Wave, as it came to be known, shook the country in 2018, as hundreds of thousands of women, girls, LGBTQ people, and supporters filled the streets throughout the country, many in green bandanas that became a symbol of the fight for abortion rights. The anti-capitalist Left — the only political force without links to the Church — also played a leading role in the movement. One of the most visible figures was Myriam Bregman, a human rights lawyer, Trotskyist, and member of the PTS (Workers Party for Socialism); she is now a member of Argentina’s Congress. Socialist feminist groups such as Pan y Rosas (Bread and Roses), built by the PTS, organized thousands of students, workers, and women activists to take to the streets under its purple banners during the years-long fight.
Abortion rights were finally won in 2020 — a direct result of the country’s mass women’s movement. Several members of Congress aligned with Péronism were forced to reverse their earlier oppostion to abortion, and a new law legalizing abortion passed. While the new law does not go as far as the movement had demanded, it was an important victory achieved only through persistent organizing and massive demonstrations in the streets.
Last year’s mobilizations in Poland represent some of the most recent mass demonstrations for abortion rights. Poland has long had some of Europe’s strictest laws against the right to an abortion. Of the few abortions that were sanctioned, the vast majority were in cases of fetal defects.
On October 22, 2020, the new Polish Constitutional Tribunal, a judicial body established to resolve disputes on the constitutionality of the activities of state institutions, decided on a near-total abortion ban, even in cases of fetal defects. Following the court ruling, tens of thousands of Poles gathered in protest. The demonstrators established a democratic council that met and drafted demands, one of which was the resignation of the government. An estimated 400,000 women took to the streets across the country during the days that became known as the Women’s Strike. Activists interrupted masses and defaced churches, and walked off the job and out of classes.
While the movement has not yet won, it has shifted public opinion. Today, more Poles support abortion rights than ever before.
The Movement We Need
The successful mobilizations in Ireland and Argentina show how abortion rights can be won and preserved. It won’t happen, though, through the Democratic Party. Democrats have never taken steps to codify Roe into law when they have held both the White House and Congress. In fact, a record number of abortion clinics began to close during the Obama presidency.
Nor will protecting abortion rights come from the million-dollar nonprofit organizations tied to the Democratic Party, which organize only the occasional symbolic march. These groups and their leaders have failed to stand up for our rights too many times to count. Organizations like Planned Parenthood or NARAL have directed their enormous resources toward electing Democratic politicians — Planned Parenthood contributed $45 million during the 2020 election campaign — rather than organizing a powerful, sustained movement in defense of abortion rights.
Rather than relying on politicians or organizations like these, we need to demonstrate our strength in the streets and through combative actions to secure this critical democratic right. This means drawing inspiration from the brave Irish, Argentinian, and Polish activists, organizing strike actions and shutting down business as usual. It means creating democratic organizations to coordinate struggles around the country, with decisions made by assembly, so that we can keep mobilizations going until abortions are made freely available — and free of cost — to all.
We have the power to win. Let’s use it.