To quote the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, ‘this is some bullshit’.
Since the overturning of Roe v Wade on Friday, the following states have outlawed abortion: South Dakota, Utah, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama. Those that plan to ban within one month include North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Texas, Mississippi and Tennessee. Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia will likely follow not long after.
In Roe, the Supreme Court interpreted that the US Constitution implied a right to privacy, which included abortion (and homosexuality). The right to abortion was not absolute, however. The Court created a model where abortion would be legal for the first three months of a pregnancy, could be legislatively limited by states in the second semester, and banned after the foetus became viable.
Even before Friday, access abortion remained under constant attack, especially in certain communities.
In September last year, Texas passed the Heartbeat Act, which meant that after six weeks, a foetus has more rights than the person who is pregnant. The act banned most abortion after detection of a foetal heartbeat and allowed citizens to sue abortion providers or those who helped someone get an abortion, by, say, driving them to a clinic.
Mississippi, which has the highest infant mortality rates in the US, had only one operating clinic. It is estimated that ‘people of color comprise 44% of the population but 80% of women receiving abortions’ in the state. ‘Women are just out here trying to survive, you know?’ said Rep Zakiya Summers. ‘And Mississippi doesn’t make it any easier.’
According to writer and abolitionist Victoria Law in We Organize to Change Everything: Fighting for Abortion Access and Reproductive Justice (an essential collection that Verso Books is currently giving away for free) an estimated 58,000 people incarcerated each year are pregnant: ‘A 2021 study found that only nineteen state prisons and four jails allow abortion in both the first and second trimester. Two-thirds of those nineteen state prisons and at least one jail required the incarcerated woman to pay for the procedure.’
In the same collection, Cecilia Fire Thunder (Oglala Lakota), the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and others note in a submission on Mississippi’s then 15-week abortion ban that ‘Native people are less likely to receive any kind of sexual health service compared to white women’ and they ‘have the least access to emergency contraception and abortion services.’
Even in urban settings with IHS facilities, restrictions on the use of federal funding make abortion inaccessible for many Native women. The Hyde Amendment presently restricts all federal dollars, including all funds intended to fulfill the trust obligation to provide health care to Native people, from funding abortion services except in extremely rare circumstances. For Native people, this has resulted in a total prevention on access to abortion care since 1976, despite the constitutional guarantee of access enshrined in Roe v. Wade.
This latest reproductive crisis is not about red and blue states or Democrats versus Republicans. Roe was won on the back of a vigorous civil rights movement. With the move from direct politics to delegated politics, Jeff Sparrow argues in Trigger Warnings, ‘the rhetoric of liberation no longer possessed the same force without crowds on the streets and thus gave way to more achievable, practical demands.’ The ‘top-down nature of delegated politics,’ where we rely on reforms or put our faith in community leaders or politicians or courts to make thing happens, will see, if not outright defeat, the slow erosion of our civil rights. Institutions will always fail us, because they feel pressure from fossil fuel companies and arms manufacturers and bipartisanship rather than from the people they’re meant to serve.
For several decades, polling has indicated that around 70 per cent of the American public supports abortion for reasons including rape and health of the pregnant person—but unqualified support was greatest at the height of the women’s movement. ‘Though it’s tempting to think that opinions simply evolve on social issues like abortion, it’s clear that the level of support for abortion rights is at least partly a function of the level of social struggle for abortion rights,’ observes Paul Heideman in Jacobin.
There has been debate these past few days over who is responsible for the overturning of Roe. Maybe it’s the judges on the Supreme Court, who have lifelong appointments and are unrepresentative and unaccountable (and kind of creepy). Maybe it’s Obama’s fault: In 2007, he vowed his first act as president would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, but in 2009 claimed it was not a priority because it could ‘inflame divisions’. Maybe it was the Democratic Party, that in rallying behind the slogan ‘safe, legal, and rare’ set the tone that abortion is something we should apologise for.
But in truth, the establishment never have the same interests as us. They have little relationship to and care for the lives of people and the ordinary things we have to contend with. They don’t struggle to pay rent or healthcare. On the contrary, they are beholden to landlords and the private insurance and healthcare industries.
The economic hardship faced by people denied an abortion lasts for years. The Turnaway Study (conducted by the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program at the University of California San Francisco) found that those denied an abortion were more likely to struggle to pay rent, food and transportation, and were more likely to be evicted or face bankruptcy. For ‘turnaways’, intimate partner violence is less likely to decrease, and there are numerous other social and health wellbeing factors that result from being forced to give birth.
It is easy to despair when we see how we far we are from reproductive justice, but we must take heart in the mass demonstrations against the overturning of Roe. The numbers, the anger, the persistence, and the recognition that we only get change by organising.
Recent wins in the labour movement are equally heartening. They also show how we must reorient abortion and reproductive freedom, for choice is fundamentally a labour issue.
When it comes to labour rights, it’s not only (only!) forced pregnancy that’s an issue, or the discrimination faced for being pregnant or having a child, or the lack of parental and carer’s leave. There’s the risk in the work itself when pregnant, the lack of healthcare, the idea that your worth is reduced and your body and needs become secondary or less-than.
‘The United States is already a brutal place to be pregnant, and a merciless one in which to raise a child,’ writes Kim Kelly in In these times, but ‘it’s an even worse place to be a pregnant worker.’
The minimum wage is far too low, rent is far too high, and whatever remnants of a social safety net that working people were able to secure in recent decades have since frayed to tatters. Parental and infant mortality rates are deplorable, and are especially high for Black and Indigenous birth parents. We are living through a public health crisis, a housing crisis, a climate crisis, an economic inequality crisis and a political crisis. Bringing a child into this world should be a choice, not an order. Workers who are forced to surrender their bodies via judicial mandate and deliver unwanted babies are not being protected or respected, at work or as people. They are not free.
In the wake of the Supreme Court decision, some companies have said they’d move their businesses or help workers access abortions—as if Amazon, with its history of filthy practices and union-busting, cares about the welfare, health or rights of their employees.
Abortion rights are labor rights are human rights. All unions must fight for our fundamental rights. Fuck the Supreme Court.
— SBWorkersUnited (@SBWorkersUnited) June 24, 2022
The massive successes of recent grassroots organising campaigns at workplaces like Amazon and Starbucks are galvanising. But they also illustrate that unionism doesn’t stop at joining. We have to be active in our movements—part of a united force that’s growing and learning and demanding more. Collective organisation can take many different shapes, but it succeeds when power is not delegated. When we ourselves are active.
In Australia, it is unlikely that we will find ourselves in a political environment or a legal scenario where our abortion rights could be reversed, as Lizzie O’Shea outlined over the weekend. But the right to abortion is not only about the laws that make the health procedure accessible. If we don’t address the economic hurdles, then abortion will still be available only to some. As Daile Kelleher, CEO of Queensland’s indefatigable Children by Choice, writes:
Pregnant people are still travelling hundreds of kilometres to access abortions in Australia. Still paying thousands of dollars. Still being refused information or support from doctors who block access. Still being locked out of public hospitals who refuse to perform abortions.
The fight for all of us to share the same rights will never be over. We must not concede our power to the establishment, because they cannot and will not fix it for us.
Image: Ted Eytan