The Abortion Rights Movement Needs Something More than VotingRoundup
tags: abortion, anarchism, radical history
Spencer Beswick is a PhD candidate at Cornell University who writes about the history of anarchism and the left in the late 20th century. He blogs at https://emptyhandshistory.com.
The U.S. Senate recently voted against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have written a constitutional right to abortion into federal law. But Senate Democrats claimed that the bill was mostly a symbolic act, designed to mobilize voters later this year. Yet as the Supreme Court moves to possibly reverse Roe v. Wade, the Democratic Party has failed to lay out a plan of action for upholding abortion rights. Action at the ballot box appears insufficient to protect abortion rights.
Beyond voting for candidates who support abortion rights at election time, what is to be done? The historical experiences of the feminist abortion struggle between the 1960s and 1990s offer alternative strategies. Feminists originally won reproductive rights through mass mobilization in the streets combined with widespread underground provision of abortion and other health care. These actions forced the Supreme Court to affirm a constitutional right to abortion in 1973.
Roe v. Wade officially protected the right to abortion, but the ruling was frequently challenged. The 1976 Hyde Amendment prevented many poor women from receiving care by forbidding the use of federal funds for abortion. Then, in the 1980s, a growing militant antiabortion movement pressured the government to impose further state and federal restrictions. Right-wing extremists bombed clinics and assassinated abortion providers. Operation Rescue, founded in 1986 by Randall Terry, advanced the slogan “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder” and tried to physically shut down clinics. In response, feminists mobilized in myriad ways. But it is the lessons of anarchists within the feminist movement in particular whose actions can inspire and guide mass mobilizations today as we face the potential end of Roe.
Feminists mobilized to protect abortion rights from right-wing attacks through a combination of protests, legislation and legal cases. These strategies laid the basis for the Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that substantively upheld Roe v. Wade but opened the door to further restrictions provided there was not an “undue burden.”
On the other hand, anarchists (anti-state socialists) within the feminist movement rejected voting and legal reforms in favor of radical grass-roots activism. Instead of the slogan “we’re pro-choice and we vote,” anarchists often marched behind a banner reading “we’re pro-choice and we riot!”