Defending Women’s Lives

Against the Current No. 22, September/October 1989

The Editors

IT IS NOT SURPRISING that the right-wing chose abortion as the issue around which to challenge women’s liberation. For the right-wing, it is an issue that lends itself to simplistic arguments. It is an issue around which a movement can galvanize, and feel righteous.

Women can’t begin to control their own lives until they can control their own bodies. Therefore abortion is fundamental to women’s liberation. The right knows that. We know that.

Until Webster v. Reproductive Health Services most women felt their access to abortion was secure. Now many are frightened and angry at the prospect that Roe v. Wade may be reversed and they’re ready to defend women’s right to abortion.

How will this defense be organized? With what strategy? And what politics? Will the movement reach out to working-class women and women of color? Will the movement try to win pm-choice votes “by any means necessary”? Or will feminists craft a political program that goes beyond the demand for legal rights to include the material support women need to have reproductive freedom? Will the movement focus on electing pro-choice candidates? Or use the fight for abortion rights to radicalize a new generation of women, emphasize direct action and building grassroots organization? Will the movement address the real concerns and fears that the right has so successfully manipulated?

Whatever our differences, we should remember that there are many contributions to make in this struggle. We need to debate political strategy, but our attacks should be reserved for those who would deny our rights, not each other. Key to building a visible, broad and united movement will be mass demonstrations and protests such as the one the National Organization for Women has called for Washington, D.C. on November 12th.

Since the mid-1970s the anti-abortion forces have successfully chipped away at the legal right to abortion by eroding the rights of the poorest and the youngest, many of whom are among those most victimized by racism. But many in the pm-choice movement did not understand this strategy and consequently did not respond in the vigorous outpouring we see today. In essence they thought a legal right, once won, was “safe.”

Today it is clear all women’s legal right to abortion is precarious. Our strategy must be to oppose every restriction and to win back the ground that has been lost. Otherwise women may confront the problem Black men faced after the failure of Reconstruction, when—although Black men didn’t lose their constitutional right to vote—few could exercise the right.

In order to protect legal abortion we must defend all women’s access to abortion. After all, the legal right has little concrete meaning if the women who need abortion can’t get one. For this reason restoration of federal funding for abortion needs to be high on the feminist agenda—and prominent in our slogans. For this reason the movement must oppose teen-age consent laws. In reality it is only by defending the most vulnerable women that we can successfully defend the rights of all women.

As the abortion struggle moves into the state legislatures, many have concluded that abortion rights can best be defended by electing pm-choice candidates. Some anti-choice politicians may soften their stance to get elected; pro-choice politicians will make promises.

But abortion rights will not be secured through elections, any more than civil rights were won by electing liberal politicians. State Jim Crow laws were overturned when the civil rights movement organized massive resistance and protest and the federal government was compelled to step in.

Of course, state legislatures will be an important location of the abortion struggle. But the key to guaranteeing women’s access to abortion is to change the country’s political climate. And that can only be done by building a visible positive movement. To do that the women’s movement needs to reach out and draw in the creative energies of women of color, young women, poor women, working women.

To organize a broad movement that reaches out beyond the already convinced will require addressing the concerns and anxieties that the anti-abortion forces have so successfully manipulated. Many women are ambivalent about abortion—and this ambivalence is reflected in the contradictory public opinion polls. These reveal a majority support for legal abortion, but one that wants to restrict the circumstances under which a woman can choose abortion.

The anti-abortion movement’s focus on the fetus, on “innocent life, “on women’s “duty to protect life and to make sacrifices, taps into real anxieties and fears over the breakdown of the old sexual code, the commodification of women’s sexuality and the sexualization of the culture. Women have been freed in some ways, but more exploited in others. Talk of “responsibility” and “promiscuity” in discussion of abortion expresses not only desires to control and repress women sexually but also women’s wish to protect themselves and their daughters from sexual exploitation.

Traditionally, tying women to children and family has meant that nurturing and caring are women’s tasks. But, if women are not forced to care, will they? And if they don’t, who will?

These fears are not entirely irrational in a world where families have to rely on their own resources in an increasingly competitive economy with big winners and big losers, a world where it is difficult for people to provide for themselves, to secure their future. “Compulsory motherhood” and “compulsory heterosexuality’ are central to a conservative vision of an ordered and caring world. The more public services deteriorate, the more desperate women feel, the more vulnerable they become to this ideology that centers on women’s traditional family as a haven in a world that is growing more heartless.

For this reason, it is important for feminism to offer an alternative ethic to that of the right The pro-choice movement must fight both for the crucial principle of personal liberty–a woman’s right to be free from government control of her body and reproductive life—and for the conditions and programs needed to make choice real for all women.

Many women understand the important of their caregiving work and identify with it. Those women are caught in a dilemma in which it appears they can’t have freedom and security, autonomy and collectivity, personhood and motherhood. This is especially true for working-class women and women of color.

Rather than the right’s approach of “punishing” women who inadvertently become pregnant, defenders of women’s rights call for measures that can empower a woman to control her body and her life. It is important to connect a woman’s right to abortion to a broader struggle for reproductive rights: sex education and school-based health clinics, increased spending for birth-control research—most specifically, the testing of RU 486—and women’s right to the material resources that allow them to raise children with dignity and opportunity.

A society that cares for people and values their lives doesn’t have to depend on women’s unpaid labor and their self-exploitation. And that’s the society we as socialist-feminists are working for in demanding expanded public services like parent-and worker-controlled quality childcare, guaranteed medical care, neighborhood care for the elderly, decent housing, good jobs and a living wage.

Now is the time to rebuild a political movement which is pledged to march in Washington, D.C. on November 12th for Women’s Lives, which proclaims that abortion is a responsible, moral choice, which demands that women control their own bodies, lives, destinies.

September-October 1989, ATC 22