After a leaked decision showed that the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, tens of millions of people across the United States are rightfully terrified and outraged. We know the Right doesn’t plan to stop there — this is just one more obstacle removed from its quest to criminalize abortion at the state level, ban abortion on the national level, and set a precedent for the erosion of other rights.
Though many are saying we have to take our anger to the polls, we can’t bet on a losing strategy anymore. Instead, a mass movement is our best defense against these reinvigorated attacks on our rights — attacks meant to oppress and disempower us. Such a movement, one that draws its power from the action of people in the streets and their workplaces and schools against the attacks of the Right, could prevent the decision from being overturned in the courts.
But if we’ve learned anything since 1973, it’s that precedent isn’t enough. We must demand that the right to free, safe, legal, and universal abortion is made law nationally immediately — without exception, without apology, and without being forced to travel hundreds of miles across state lines. This will require taking on some of the most undemocratic U.S. institutions with a mass movement like those that won millions of people the right to an abortion in Argentina and Ireland.
The Right to Abortion Has Been Eroded Since Roe v. Wade
Roe v. Wade supposedly made abortion legal in the United States and protects us from the right-wing anti-abortion movement’s attempts to exploit our bodily autonomy for their political interests.
But every person who has ever sought reproductive healthcare in the United States knows that the reality of post-Roe life has always been wildly different. Though abortion may have been nominally protected by the decision, it has never been a universal right. Roe v. Wade banned states from criminalizing abortion to a certain point, de facto decriminalizing abortion without legalizing it outright. But that didn’t stop right-wing state governments from imposing the most restrictive laws possible, from 24-hour waiting periods to laws requiring parental notification.
But abortion access hasn’t been under threat solely from the Right. Roe v. Wade didn’t prevent abortion clinics from being shut down year after year with bipartisan support due to lack of funding. The Hyde Amendment, enacted under Democratic president Jimmy Carter and supported by Joe Biden, prohibited federal funding for abortion care. Indeed, the number of independent abortion clinics has declined by over 30 percent in the last ten years. Many more closed during the pandemic and are unlikely to reopen.
Existing in the limbo of precedent set by a Supreme Court decision, abortion rights have never been safe from the attacks by the state and they have never been guaranteed to all people.
The Limbo of Precedent
With the stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court has decided what hundreds of millions of people can do with their bodies and their futures — going against the will of the majority of people in the United States who not only want Roe v. Wade kept in place, but who support the legalization of abortion outright. For nearly 50 years, a crucial right — that of bodily autonomy — has been in the hands of one of the most blatantly undemocratic institutions in the United States.
In fact, many of the freedoms of the majority of people in the United States — particularly the most oppressed sectors of society — have been decided on by the Supreme Court, from interracial and same-sex marriage, to outlawing segregation and discrimination in schools. In many instances the Court has limited those freedoms, from upholding slavery to restricting the right to vote.
While it claims to be above politics, the Supreme Court restricts and expands our freedoms in accordance with shifts in the political situation, responding to social, political, and economic crises within the system — let’s not forget that it was a mass movement of U.S. feminists who pushed the Court to decide in favor of abortion rights in Roe v. Wade in the first place. This has everything to do with politics: ensuring that the ruling class can advance its own interests against the will and needs of the majority of people living in the United States.
As long as abortion rights were nominally protected by Supreme Court precedent, it was always in danger, subject to the whims of nine unelected judges propped up by the institutions and class they represent. Now, these judges are ensuring that abortions will once again become clandestine operations performed by providers risking their livelihoods, that abortions will once again become death sentences for many. Abortion access was never about getting the right judges or the right number of judges on the court bench — it’s about a system that survives financially and politically by toying with the options of hundreds of millions of people.
The Forever Campaign Promise
That doesn’t mean that the rollback of abortion rights was inevitable. A whole host of other institutional methods and political maneuvers by Republicans and Democrats alike have brought us to where we are now.
Given that the Court is unlikely to reverse its draft decision, activists and community organizations are raising the demand to codify Roe v. Wade into law to protect abortion access. That call has since been echoed by Democratic Party politicians from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Senator Chuck Schumer.
Such legislation has long been a campaign promise of the Democratic Party to a base that is overwhelmingly in support of abortion rights. Yet despite decades of opportunities and multiple Democratic presidencies, the attempt to codify abortion access into law has failed with a whimper every time — damningly, even when the Democrats have held both the presidency and the Congress, as they do today.
The Democratic Party uses abortion as leverage each election cycle — sometimes making it a primary issue when it fears losing the support of its left-leaning base, other times conveniently forgetting about it when they need to pivot to appeal to more moderate voters. When it comes down to actually passing legislation to defend our rights against the attacks of the Right, however, Democrats have nothing to offer but excuses. They point the finger at everything: the filibuster. Anti-abortion colleagues. Polarization and the Far Right. But the Democrats — including progressives like Bernie Sanders — continually endorse and campaign for pro-life candidates. They’re doing so even now, in the face of Roe being overturned.
It’s true that there are institutional obstacles in the way of enshrining abortion rights into law. But they aren’t insurmountable — they’re just lines the Democrats don’t want to cross because doing so risks damaging the institutions they and the Republicans protect.
The debate over the filibuster is a prime example. Some Democrats have taken up the call to “reform” or even end it, but the party leadership has no intention of following through. Chuck Schumer has blatantly refused to bring the issue to a vote in the Senate. For their part, the progressive politicians making the call to end the filibuster refuse to step out of line with the party to push for such a move. Instead, the Democrats have decided to stick to the losing strategy of bringing to the floor abortion legislation they know is going to fail.
But this is little more than an effort to boost the Democrats’ dimming midterm prospects by positioning themselves as the “lesser evil” compared to the Republicans. Indeed, capitalizing on the fear of losing abortion rights has so far been very lucrative for the Democratic Party’s midterm aspirations — in just the two weeks since the decision was leaked, the Democrats have received over $7 million in donations.
For his part, Joe Biden — despite at various times in his political career acting to limit abortion rights — has styled himself as an abortion-rights advocate, promising in 2019 on the campaign trail to codify Roe v. Wade. Biden has recently reiterated this promise, modifying it to show the dire situation of the Democrats going into the midterms:
“If the court does overturn Roe, it will fall on our nation’s elected officials at all levels of government to protect a woman’s right to choose. And it will fall on voters to elect pro-choice officials this November. At the federal level, we will need more pro-choice senators and a pro-choice majority in the House to adopt legislation that codifies Roe, which I will work to pass and sign into law.”
But we can’t wait until November. In a matter of weeks, tens of millions of people will no longer have even limited access to what is unequivocally lifesaving healthcare. For decades, politicians have convinced us that we are helpless to stop these attacks. They tell us to take our anger and fear to the polls election after election to make sure that even the nominal right to an abortion isn’t overturned.
But we can’t hold our breath any longer. It’s time to let it out as a powerful, unified cry in defense of our right to choose what we do with our bodies and our futures. And that means taking on the Supreme Court, the Senate, the filibuster, and all antidemocratic measures of the state that stand in our way.
It’s Our Fight to Make It Law
A mass movement to enshrine the right to an abortion into law — and defend it — will require the coordinated action of all those millions of people who are outraged by the Supreme Court’s decision. It will require organization in our workplaces, schools, and communities to come into the streets to show the Right that we are ready to fight back. With such a movement — led democratically through assemblies and workers organized in committees to defend the right to an abortion in their workplaces, unions, and across sectors — we can fight to make universal abortion access the law of the land.
But we’re not starting from zero. We have examples of how to make what politicians have told us is impossible a reality, like the feminists in Argentina and Ireland who organized for years in the streets to make abortion legal.
When we organize independently of capitalist politicians, we can see that their excuses for why abortion can’t be a universal right are just that — excuses. And with such a movement, we do not have to limit our demands to whatever watered down law Congress will negotiate to appease the Right. The 2021 Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA), for example, which the Democrats have been failing to pass for over a year now, would codify Roe v. Wade. That is certainly a step forward in defending abortion from the attacks of the Right, but it stops short of making it a universal right.
The WHPA doesn’t remove the systemic obstacles that stand in the way of accessing abortion and other healthcare services. Instead of making abortion servies free, it makes them subject to the murderous U.S. insurance industry that makes billions of dollars while denying healthcare to hundreds of millions of people. But with our own movement, millions strong, we can fight for what we actually want, on our own terms: free, legal, safe abortion on demand.
The codification of abortion into federal law isn’t a cure-all solution; rights guaranteed by law and access aren’t the same thing. Many people — the vast majority of them working class, poor, and people of color — have always struggled to find healthcare providers, get to clinics and hospitals, and pay for operation and treatment. And without a movement ready to defend it, abortion will always be used by capitalist politicians as a bargaining chip to galvanize their respective bases.
In the fight to defend abortion rights, a law legalizing abortion would be a gain for hundreds of millions of people across the United States. It will be hard-won in the streets — not in the courts, not in the Senate, and not by the Democrats and their allies. The path towards a federal law guaranteeing the right to free, safe, and legal abortion on demand will be paved by the intervention of the hundreds of millions of people whose lives depend on it. And with such a movement in place, a law would provide the basis for both defending our right to an abortion against any attack from the Right and for fighting for so much more.