Fighting for reproductive rights in the age of Trump

Donald J. Trump is committed to:

■ Nominating pro-life justices to the US
 Supreme Court.

■ Signing into law the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would end painful late-term abortions nationwide.

■ Defunding Planned Parenthood as long as they continue to perform abortions and reallocating their funding to community health centers that provide comprehensive health care for women.

■ Making the Hyde Amendment permanent law to protect taxpayers from having to pay for abortions.

— donaldjtrump.com, October 18, 20161

An estimated four million people turned out for the January 21Women’s March around the United States and the rest of the world, and with good reason: there is a misogynist megalomaniac in charge of the world’s biggest superpower. Indeed, Donald Trump has already raised a belligerent middle finger to that mass outpouring.

During Trump’s first reckless weeks in office, he greatly accelerated the attacks on abortion rights that have already been underway for four decades—with the aim of overturning legal abortion altogether. During a presidential debate in March of last year, Trump even claimed that women who undergo abortions “should have some sort of punishment.”2 He has pledged to appoint enough anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court to overturn its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal in the US—in which case the issue would “go back to the states”—exactly the conditions that existed before Roe v. Wade. In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, interviewer Leslie Stahl asked how women would cope if their home state banned abortions, and Trump shrugged, “Yeah, well, they’ll perhaps have to go, they’ll have to go to another state”—as if this would be just a minor inconvenience.3

On Trump’s first day in office, he reinstated Ronald Reagan’s so-called “Mexico City Policy” that bans US aid dollars to any health care providers beyond the country’s borders that even mention abortion as an option to desperate patients facing unwanted pregnancies. Both Clinton and Obama struck down this ban, also known as the “global gag rule,” while George W. Bush—and now Trump—reinstated it. But Trump has gone one large step further—cutting funding not only to family planning agencies but also to HIV, Zika, and maternal healthcare programs that provide abortion referrals.

While self-righteous politicians use the global gag rule to score points with their ostensibly “pro-life” supporters at home, it is a death sentence for poor women around the world: 47,000 women, most from the Global South, die from unsafe or illegal abortions each year, according to the World Health Organization.4 This number will surely grow now, because evidence shows that the gag rule creates a deadly spiral: defunding the very healthcare clinics that could have provided contraception, thereby raising the rate of unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortions—causing more women to die.5

The global casualties of unsafe and illegal abortions underscore women’s need to control their own reproductive destinies, especially for poor and working-class women. Women bear the emotional, physical, and ultimately the financial burden of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term. This is the reason why, when abortion is illegal, women risk their lives to have abortions, for the sake of their own and their families’ survival.

This is also the case inside the United States, where the economic and social consequences of racism put the lives of Black women, Latinas, and other women of color most at risk when abortion is unavailable. In the years before abortion was made legal in New York City in 1970, for example, Black women and Puerto Rican women made up 80 percent of all women who died after an illegal abortion.6 Women’s right to abortion is central to control over their bodies and reproductive lives. Denying it threatens their lives.

The 1976 Hyde Amendment targeting poor women inside US borders, by barring federal funding for Medicaid abortions, was followed by the 1984 Mexico City Policy directed at impoverished women abroad. Every year since 1986, the Hyde Amendment has been reinstated through Congressional vote. Though denying abortions, it has continued to allow funding for Medicaid sterilizations, in what can only be described as a resounding echo of twentieth-century racist eugenics programs that forcibly or coercively sterilized tens of thousands of Black people, Native American women, Latinas, people with mental or physical disabilities, and prison inmates.7

The Republicans’ path of destruction in the Trump era

Republican Party leaders have made no secret of their intent to eviscerate abortion rights in Donald Trump’s first term. On January 24, the House passed bill H. R. 7, making the Hyde Amendment permanent. But this bill, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act of 2017,” also vastly extends the federal ban to bar federal money (including both federal subsidies and tax credits) for any private health insurance plans that provide abortion coverage. 8

Republicans also plan to make good on their long-standing pledge to defund Planned Parenthood now that they have a president likewise eager to do so. The Republicans’ first heartless attempt to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, which would have defunded Planned Parenthood for the next full year, failed to muster enough GOP votes to pass the House in March. But there is no doubt that they will keep trying to deny federal funding to Planned Parenthood and also to cut Medicaid spending—the most successful part of the Affordable Care Act.9

Federal funding for Planned Parenthood has traditionally taken the form of reimbursements through public programs such as Medicaid that provide healthcare to low-income people and people with disabilities. That would now dry up completely. Since the Hyde Amendment, the federal money going to Planned Parenthood affiliates only covers preventive care: breast and cervical cancer screenings, contraception, and well-woman visits. But Republicans plan to deny federal funding for these crucial services even to patients served by the many clinics that do not perform abortions—simply because Planned Parenthood does so at some of its clinics.

Roughly two-thirds of Planned Parenthood’s patients rely on public health programs like Medicaid, and the federal government provides about 75 percent of the organization’s public subsidies.10 Removing federal funding will not only devastate Planned Parenthood financially, but it will also overwhelm remaining health centers serving low-income women, leaving millions of women without any preventive healthcare or contraception access.

The experience in Texas provides a glimpse of the early effects of defunding Planned Parenthood. In 2011, Texas cut funding to family planning clinics by 66 percent because many of these clinics made abortion referrals even if they did not provide abortions. The state redirected the funds to community health clinics. In 2013, Texas refused federal Medicaid assistance because it went to Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics—instead setting up a state-funded women’s health program that withheld money from any organization affiliated with an abortion provider. At the time, Planned Parenthood served 60 percent of low-income women in Texas.

Because of these cuts, eighty-two Texas family planning clinics were forced to close, and the remaining clinics had the capacity to serve only half the number of patients they had previously.11 Many of the women left behind were unable to access affordable birth control or other medical services. Preliminary studies have begun to document the grave consequences:

■ The maternal mortality rate doubled between 2010 and 2012, from 72 to 148 pregnancy-related deaths.12

■ Low-income women who had previously relied on a local Planned Parenthood clinic experienced a 27 percent increase in births in the 18 months following the 2013 cut in funding for Planned Parenthood.13

The looming reproductive healthcare crisis—manufactured on Capitol Hill

Obscured by the anti-abortion bombast on Capitol Hill, millions of poor and working-class women—already denied access to affordable abortions—face a looming reproductive healthcare crisis. This crisis is entirely manufactured, in Congress and state legislatures across the country—justified by the same paternalistic bluster that has long trivialized women’s need to control their own bodies as a basic human right.

Abortion is never a selfish or “frivolous” choice for any woman, contrary to the caricature created by anti-choice bigots inside and outside Congress—which depicts women using abortion as just another form of birth control, carelessly delaying their abortions for the sake of personal convenience up to the point of delivery. Trump’s claim that “in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby,” is pure fabrication.14 On the contrary, nearly 92 percent of abortions take place by the thirteenth week of gestation. Only 1.3 percent occur after the twentieth week—nearly all of them due to severe fetal abnormalities that would impede or prevent survival outside the womb or threaten the woman’s life.15

The most typical abortion patient is Black or Latina, in her twenties or thirties, who is living below or slightly above the federal poverty line and already has one or more children. Furthermore, 53 percent of abortion patients pay for it themselves, without Medicaid or insurance funding.16 First trimester abortions can cost from $400 to $1,500, according to Planned Parenthood.17

Affordable contraception is as crucial as abortion (and has lowered the abortion rate to historic lows in recent years, due to the Affordable Care Act’s widespread provision of free contraception). 18 Yet the GOP seeks to gut birth control access, along with vital reproductive healthcare. During the House debate on Obamacare repeal, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., even voiced opposition to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurance plans include maternity coverage. “What about men having to purchase prenatal care?” Shimkus asked. “I’m just . . . is that not correct? And should they?”19

The fight to defend Planned Parenthood is therefore a key component of the fight for reproductive healthcare, for all women and also for transgender people. Trans people, especially trans people of color, face widespread discrimination in accessing all healthcare. Nearly 20 percent of transgender people report trouble getting basic healthcare, while 28 percent say they have been harassed in medical settings—causing roughly 50 percent to delay or avoid necessary medical care. Half of transgender men have foregone annual pelvic exams because of this discrimination. In addition, insurance companies often deny coverage for mammograms for transgender men or prostate exams for transgender women, simply because their gender doesn’t match the category for which the service is covered.20

How can we defend Planned Parenthood?

Millions of women rely on Planned Parenthood for their healthcare—and the huge turnout at the January 21 Women’s Marches showed the enormous capacity that exists for defending reproductive rights through mass struggle. Despite this obvious potential, Planned Parenthood’s national leaders, including its president, Cecile Richards, have thus far appeared reluctant to build such an activist movement—instead relying on their long-standing strategy of electing and lobbying politicians. After the House passed H. R. 7 on January 24, Richards tweeted, “Now’s the time to make those calls to Congress.”21 But calls to Congress have been proven over a period of decades to be a thoroughly inadequate response to the scale of the attacks on reproductive rights, much less the ones we now face in the age of Trump.

We need, now more than ever, a fighting movement that explicitly ties reproductive rights to women’s right to control their own bodies. Instead, Planned Parenthood’s public relations campaign has sought to battle the anti-choice onslaught by retrenching politically, downplaying its commitment to providing abortions, and instead emphasizing the non-abortion medical services that their clinics provide. The organization recently even sponsored an ad that depicts a woman recalling how Planned Parenthood staff convinced her that she shouldn’t have an abortion, as her adorable toddler plays in the background.22 This approach doesn’t allow Planned Parenthood’s advocates to argue forcefully for women’s right to choose abortion—one of its most necessary services.

When anti-choice crusaders announced plans for “Defund Planned Parenthood” rallies across the country on February 11—mainly outside women’s clinics—Planned Parenthood leaders actively discouraged pro-choice activists from organizing counterprotests. As DNAinfo in Chicago reported,

Anti-abortion activists plan to protest outside Planned Parenthood clinics in the city on Feb. 11. But instead of urging people to counterprotest, Planned Parenthood asked its supporters to stay away and find other ways of helping the organization. That’s because protests and counterprotests might frighten or confuse patients who are trying to use the clinics that day, spokeswoman Julie Lynn said.23

Concern for patients surely is not the only reason Planned Parenthood leaders discouraged protests—since they also opposed protests outside the clinics that were closed on that day.

Moreover, those who argue that clinic patients will be traumatized by the sight of pro-choice supporters carrying visible placards defending abortion rights do not speak for all patients. On the contrary, the sight of demonstrators defending every woman’s right to abortion can be a confidence booster for patients, showing that there is a movement to support their right to choose and countering the dozens or hundreds of anti-abortion zealots calling them “murderers” and “baby killers.” It is also the case that many of those demonstrating for choice have been abortion patients themselves.24

As it turned out, thousands of pro-choice activists nevertheless turned out to counterprotest the “Defund Planned Parenthood” protesters on February 11, in many cases outnumbering them.25 The entire point of counterprotesting these reactionaries is to demoralize them and to deplete the confidence they have gained through Trump’s election. The potential exists today to build a movement that defends the right to abortion without apology, using the power of our numbers to combat the Republican assault on reproductive rights. Only this kind of a movement will shift the balance of forces toward upholding abortion rights.

The role of the Democrats and their loyalists

Why have the largest and most long-standing pro-choice organizations, including Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the National Organization for Women (NOW) been virtually paralyzed at a time when Planned Parenthood’s survival is at stake and women’s right to legal abortion hangs in the balance? These organizations played no role in initiating the January 21 Women’s March, which was called via Facebook and then went viral among the millions of activists-in-waiting who wanted to defend women’s rights in the age of Trump.

The problem lies in mainstream feminist organizations’ long-standing loyalty to the Democratic Party, which has not returned the favor. While Democrats remain formally pro-choice, they have retreated and steadily surrendered political ground to the Republican Party, tailoring their politics to appease the political “center”—mostly white swing voters undecided between voting Republican or Democrat—as an electoral strategy. Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election demonstrates the increasing futility of this strategy even on the electoral front, when much of the Democrats’ traditional voting base was not motivated to vote for the party that takes their votes for granted yet does so little to defend their interests. But this electoral strategy has also been an outright disaster for reproductive rights, leading to their steady erosion, whether a Democrat was in the White House or not.

The Hyde Amendment may have been a Republican initiative, but the Democrats held a majority in both the House and Senate when it first passed in 1976—and more than 100 House Democrats voted in favor of its passage. The Hyde Amendment has been renewed every year since with both Democratic and Republican votes—whichever party was in the majority. The Democratic Party did not take a formal stand against the Hyde Amendment until 2016, when its platform finally called for repeal—forty years too late.26

In addition, Obama expanded the Hyde Amendment’s restrictions on federal funding for abortion to also apply to the Affordable Care Act. Whereas the Hyde Amendment targeted poor women, Obama aimed at the rights of all women receiving insurance from companies participating in the “Obamacare” program. On March 24, 2010, the White House issued an executive order referring to abortion as an issue of “conscience” while stating explicitly,

The [Affordable Care] Act maintains current Hyde Amendment restrictions governing abortion policy and extends those restrictions to the newly created health insurance exchanges. Under the Act . . . new protections prohibit discrimination against health care facilities and health care providers because of an unwillingness to provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.27

Thus, even self-proclaimed “pro-choice” Democrats have played an active role in enacting and maintaining some of the harshest restrictions on abortion, especially for poor and working-class women. Mainstream feminist organizations, which represent the interests of white, middle-class women, have never held Democrats’ feet to the fire or made a priority of organizing to overturn the Hyde Amendment, presumably because it mainly affected poor women.

Mainstream feminists let Bill Clinton off the hook

Bill Clinton played an especially decisive role in the 1990s, beginning with his broken campaign promise to pass a “Freedom of Choice Act,” guaranteeing the legal right to abortion. As soon as he was elected, Clinton never mentioned it again. Yet the same mainstream feminists who pulled out all the stops to get Clinton elected never held him accountable for this betrayal.

Even before Clinton’s election, the potential for building a mass pro-choice movement was as clear then as it is now. When legal abortion was last under threat in the Supreme Court, at least 300,000 pro-choice activists demonstrated in Washington, DC on April 9, 1989.28 In 1992, an even larger crowd—at least 500,000—turned out to defend the right to choose.

But the leaders of the largest pro-choice organization, the National Abortion Rights Action League (since renamed NARAL Pro-Choice America), had already made a conscious choice to shift their polemic on choice to one that would “play” on Capitol Hill. NARAL issued a “talking points” memo to its affiliates in 1989, instructing staffers specifically not to use phrases such as “a woman’s body is her own to control.” Rather, the right to choose was to be cast as a right to “privacy.”29 Increasingly, pro-choice organizations emphasized that being pro-choice also meant being “pro-family,” giving up critical ideological ground to the main slogan of the Christian Right.

Clinton’s first term as president witnessed the most anti-choice voting record in Congress’s history until then, while states across the country passed a multitude of abortion restrictions—from mandatory waiting periods to parental consent and notification laws. Yet Clinton’s only attention to the abortion issue in his second term was to promote sexual abstinence among teens to lower the country’s abortion rate. In 1997, Hillary Clinton urged the pro-choice movement to start forging unity with abortion foes on points of agreement, such as lowering the abortion rate in the United States.30

Mainstream pro-choice organizations continued to take their lead from the Clintons. For example, NARAL embarked on a campaign in 1997 to help the Clinton administration in reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies by 30 percent. “People would like to see fewer abortions,” echoed NARAL leader Kate Michelman at the League’s annual luncheon (ironically) celebrating the twenty-fourth anniversary of the right to legal abortion.31

Clinton steals Republicans’ thunder, dismantles welfare

Clinton did fulfill his campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.” However, he did so by signing Republican-sponsored legislation eliminating the federal welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which immediately threw many thousands of poor women and children off welfare and without a lifeline. Clinton replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), with a five-year lifetime time limit for assistance, accompanied by a host of punitive measures. Clinton also signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, which allowed states to decide whether to place “family caps,” denying recipients more financial assistance if they had any more children while already receiving government aid.

This limit was based on the racist notion of “welfare queens” promoted by Ronald Reagan—a caricature of welfare mothers as having numerous children just to increase their monthly government check, which ostensibly allowed them to live in luxury at taxpayers’ expense. The facts show otherwise. In 1990 and up until today, 90 percent of welfare recipients have two or fewer children.32 The family caps were initially adopted by twenty-two states and remain in fifteen states today. In 2006, the Urban Institute found, not surprisingly, that family caps raise the number of children living in “deep poverty”—which has surely increased further since the 2008 Great Recession.33

The state of New Jersey, for example, was one of the first states to enact the family cap and hasn’t increased welfare payments in twenty-nine years. If a woman has an additional child while already receiving welfare payments, her cash assistance drops from $424 to $322 per month. Eight in ten New Jersey children living in poverty receive no public cash assistance.34

Ronald Reagan invented the racist “welfare queen” caricature, but Bill Clinton signed the “Personal Responsibility Act,” collaborating with Republicans like Newt Gingrich in punishing poor women and their children, simply because they exist. Yet mainstream feminists, including the pro-choice movement, remained silent as Clinton thrust many thousands of poor women and children deeper into poverty. These middle- and upper-class feminist organizations’ priorities lay elsewhere on the political front, leaving them no time or inclination to advocate for poor women, especially poor women of color.

Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign ads emphasized that he had signed a ban on gay marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act, and “required teen mothers on welfare to stay in school or lose benefits.” Yet the mainstream feminist organizations’ support for Clinton’s reelection never wavered.35

Without pressure from below to defend the right to abortion, especially for poor women, the Democratic Party steadily retreated on choice. In January 2005, on the thirty-second anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, Senator Hillary Clinton called abortion a “sad, even tragic choice” that shouldn’t “ever have to be exercised, or only in very rare circumstances.”36 Michelman—who assumed the role of Democratic Party strategist after retiring as NARAL’s president—quickly voiced her approval. In a letter to the New York Times, Michelman stated, “Senator Clinton deserves praise for reaching out to anti-choice Americans.”37

Is it any wonder that when Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016 as a pro-choice candidate, her claims rang hollow among those whose votes—including those of poor women of color—she thought could be taken for granted?

The precarious state of reproductive rights

Well before Trump took office in January, reproductive rights in the United States were already precarious, due to the patchwork of restrictions in states around the country that determine whether, when, and where women can receive abortions. The following are just some of the many restrictions in place as of March 1, 2017:

■ Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia prohibit the use of state funds for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or if the woman’s life is in danger. South Dakota provides state funding only if the woman’s life is in danger, leaving rape and incest survivors who are poor without the option to abort.

■ Eleven states restrict coverage of abortion in private insurance plans.

■ Seventeen states require counseling before an abortion that includes at least one of the following medically unsubstantiated claims: The “link” between abortion and breast cancer (five states), the “ability of a fetus” to feel pain (twelve states) or “long-term mental health consequences” for the woman (eight states).

■ Twenty-seven states mandate waiting periods of twenty-four hours between the initial counseling session and when the procedure is performed. This requires two separate visits to the clinic—and an overnight stay if long-distance travel is necessary to reach a clinic.

■ Twenty-six states require one or both parents to consent to a minor’s decision to undergo an abortion. Eleven other states require that one or both parents be notified.38

As this list makes clear, the anti-choice legislation since Trump’s election is just a short step beyond the restrictions already in place in many states. There is a simple reason why the anti-choice agenda has advanced while abortion rights have been so severely eroded over the last few decades. In contrast to the passivity of pro-choice organizations loyal to the Democratic Party, anti-abortion groups tied to the Republicans’ anti-abortion agenda have been well-organized and committed to activism since the 1970s. The anti-abortion movement has rallied by the tens of thousands in Washington each January 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. They have built grassroots activist organizations, picketed outside of women’s clinics, harassed patients seeking care, and made their presence known in localities across the country—usually without facing large pro-choice counterprotests of pro-choice activists.

Even in the face of Trump, congressional Democrats show no sign of shifting course. Within days of the Republican bill repealing the Affordable Care Act in March, for example, Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi offered a “compromise” to the GOP. “We would be able to swallow, I think, some things (that Republicans want), if that’s the price to pay to get the rest of it,” she announced, without even putting up the pretense of a fight.39

The pro-choice movement needs to take the offensive, and we can only do that by forcing Democratic Party politicians to understand that they can no longer afford to ignore those fighting for abortion rights. This requires large numbers of pro-choice activists defending clinics under attack and counterprotesting anti-abortion bigots whenever they assemble, with the aim of outnumbering them.

When Planned Parenthood spokespeople urged pro-choice activists to refrain from counterprotesting the Defund Planned Parenthood pickets on February 11, they were replaying a familiar argument, counterposing clinic escorts (who help patients into the clinic) to abortion rights protesters, as if the two can’t coexist. Escorts are extremely important, but they are also no substitute for a large and vocal pro-choice presence to counter the anti-abortion movement. Both are needed.

The lessons of the past are useful to inform the future course of the pro-choice struggle. A fanatical group calling itself “Operation Rescue” (OR) emerged in the 1980s, with the primary purpose of barricading women’s clinics with large numbers of anti-abortion activists. OR enjoyed some spectacular success early on, most dramatically during its “Summer of Mercy” in Wichita, Kansas in 1991, when its members descended on women’s clinics by the hundreds. Mainstream feminist organizations chose not to mobilize pro-choice forces to defend the clinics at that time, instead relying on court injunctions and police protection. This tactic failed miserably, and OR managed to shut down Wichita clinics for a period of weeks.40

Flush with confidence, OR announced its next major target: Buffalo, New York, with its “Spring of Life” mobilization set for April 1992. Despite the pro-choice washout in Wichita, mainstream feminist organizations again refused to call mass counterprotests. The local Cincinnati branch of NOW, for example, canceled its buses for Buffalo after learning that national NOW was against confronting the bigots.

This time, however, grassroots activists from around the country took matters into their own hands and organized a massive pro-choice counterprotest in Buffalo. When OR arrived in Buffalo, they were vastly outnumbered by pro-choice activists defending the clinics, mobilized purely through grassroots efforts. In the end, not a single Buffalo clinic was closed, and pro-choice activists chanted “Operation Failure” as the anti-abortionists skulked away.

How legal abortion was won,and how we can turn the tide today

As we fight for abortion rights in the age of Trump, it would be wrong to conclude that we are in an unwinnable situation. Many lessons can be learned from the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which first won the right to legal abortion. Women’s liberationists built a movement based not only on the power of numbers but by also confidently linking the fight for abortion to the fight for women’s rights more broadly. On August 26, 1970, the women’s movement called a national day of action, the Women’s Strike for Equality, which brought over 50,000 women out to demonstrate for women’s rights across the country. These demonstrations also called for free abortion on demand. In addition, hundreds of local protests for legalizing abortion were organized between 1969 and 1973. In this way, the movement successfully influenced popular sentiment throughout society, so that those in power felt the need to respond to pressure from below.

In fact, California’s anti-abortion governor, Ronald Reagan, was forced to sign the nation’s first state law legalizing abortion in 1970. And Richard Nixon—whose opposition to abortion parallels Trump’s today—was in the White House when the Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade decision. The Court itself was packed with conservatives, yet voted seven to two in favor of legal abortion. Justice Harry Blackmun, who authored the Roe v. Wade decision, was a Nixon appointee to the Court. Ruling class institutions like the Supreme Court, despite rhetoric to the contrary, are susceptible to pressure from below.

In 1971, Nixon stated, “Unrestricted abortion policies, or abortion on demand, I cannot square with my personal belief in the sanctity of human life—including the life of the yet unborn.” To this statement, the New York Women’s Strike Coalition responded in kind, “We will grant Mr. Nixon the freedom to take care of his uterus if he will let us take care of ours.”41

Over time, the women’s movement won the support of large segments of US society. A 1972 Harris poll showed that significantly more Black women (62 percent) supported “efforts to strengthen and change women’s status in society” than white women (45 percent). As Louis Harris and Associates reported in 1972, “American women, in a relatively short period, have accelerated their desires for a changed role in society. Those who are most concerned with strengthening women’s status represent an essentially urban coalition of young, well-educated, and black women.”42 By 1976, a Harris survey reported that 65 percent of all women (and 63 percent of all respondents) supported “efforts to strengthen and change women’s status in society.”43

But just three years after the Roe v. Wade decision, Republicans used the Hyde Amendment to strike the first blow in its campaign to overturn legal abortion, using open racism that heaped contempt on poor women of color to justify it. The Hyde Amendment set the dynamics in motion that gradually stripped poor and working-class women of some of their most basic rights over the course of four decades. Democrats have either acquiesced or even expanded the attacks, as Clinton did when he dismantled welfare in the 1990s and Obama did when he barred federal subsidies for abortion in the Affordable Care Act. The unrelenting legislative assault, based on the assumption that poor and working-class women cannot be trusted to control their own reproductive destinies, took aim first at the right to abortion, then at the right to contraception, and most recently at women’s right to reproductive healthcare.

Now we face the possibility that the legal right to abortion will be overturned, demonstrating that mainstream feminists who took their lead from the Democratic Party and turned their backs on the women who suffer the most have failed to stop the attacks.

But a new women’s movement is in the process of formation. The massive Women’s March on January 21 was just the beginning of a new era in the fight for women’s rights. It was soon followed on International Women’s Day on March 8 with the International Women’s Strike and “A Day without a Woman.” We need to build on this potential to build the kind of activist mass movement that fights for those who are the most oppressed among us, with the aim of shifting the balance of forces back in favor of women at long last.


  1. “Trump Campaign Announces Pro-Life Coalition,” Trump campaign press release, October 18, 2016, https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/trump-campaign-announces-national-co-chairs-of-pro-life-coalition.
  2. Rebecca Shabad, “Trump Stokes Controversy With Abortion Comments,” CBS News, March 30, 2016, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/donald-trump-proposes-abortion-ban-punishment-for-women-who-undergo-procedure/.
  3. Emily Schultheis, “Trump Talks to ‘60 Minutes’ About Same-Sex Marriage, Abortion and the Supreme Court,” CBS News, November 13, 2016, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-promises-pro-life-justices-supreme-court-same-sex-marriage/.
  4. Department of Reproductive Health and Research, World Health Organization, Unsafe Abortion: Global and Regional Estimates of the Incidence of Unsafe Abortion and Associated Mortality in 2008 (WHO: 2011), http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/44529/1/9789241501118_eng.pdf.
  5. Emily Crockett, “Trump Reinstated the Global Gag Rule. It Won’t Stop Abortion, But It Will Make It Less Safe,” Vox, January 25, 2017, http://www.vox.com/identities/2017/1/23/14356582/trump-global-gag-rule-abortion.
  6. Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), 204.
  7. In 1974, an Alabama court found that between 100,000 and 150,000 poor Black teenagers were sterilized each year in Alabama. The 1960s and 1970s witnessed rampant sterilization abuse and other forms of coercion aimed at Black women, Native American women, and Latinas—alongside a sharp rise in struggles against this mistreatment. A 1970s study showed 25 percent of Native American women had been sterilized, and that Black and Latina married women had been sterilized in much greater proportions than married women in the population at large. By 1970, 35 percent of women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico—still a US colony—had been permanently sterilized. See Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA) and Susan E. Davis, ed., Women Under Attack (Boston: South End Press, 1988), 28; Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class, 219; Meg Devlin O’Sullivan, “We Worry About Survival”: American Indian Women, Sovereignty, and the Right to Bear and Raise Children in the 1970s (PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2007), 35.
  8. Hannah Levintova, “The House Just Handed a Big Win to the Anti-Abortion Movement,” Mother Jones, January 23, 2017, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/01/house-representatives-trump-hyde-amendment.
  9. Mary Clare Jalonick, “House GOP Health Bill Would Freeze Planned Parenthood Funding, Cut Women’s Services,” Denver Post, March 10, 2017, http://www.denverpost.com/2017/03/10/republican-health-care-plan-planned-parenthood-abortion/.
  10. Elizabeth Dias, “Republicans Take Upper Hand in Fight to Defund Planned Parenthood, Time, January 7, 2017, http://time.com/4626516/planned-parentho....
  11. Joseph E. Potter and Kari White, “Defunding Planned Parenthood Was a Disaster in Texas. Congress Shouldn’t Do It Nationally,” Washington Post, February 7, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/02/07/defunding-planned-parenthood-was-a-disaster-in-texas-congress-shouldnt-do-it-nationally/?utm_term=.e58b8faf34a7.
  12. “Maternal Mortality Rates in Texas Doubled After State Cut Funding to Planned Parenthood,” New York Times, August 19, 2016, http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2016/08/19/maternal-mortality-rates-in-texas-doubled-after-state-cut-funding-to-planned-parenthood/.
  13. Deborah Netburn, “After Texas Stopped Funding Planned Parenthood, Low-Income Women had More Babies,” Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-planned-parenthood-texas-births-20160203-story.html.
  14. Danielle Paquette, “‘Rip the Baby Out of the Womb’: What Donald Trump Got Wrong About Abortion in America,” October 20, 2016, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/10/20/rip-the-baby-out-of-the-womb-what-donald-trump-got-wrong-about-abortion-in-america/?utm_term=.40e0eb3bf10e.
  15. Division of Reproductive Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, “Data and Statistics,” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, updated January 6, 2017, https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/data_stats/.
  16. Jenna Jerman, Rachel K. Jones and Tsuyoshi Onda, “Characteristics of U.S. Abortion Patients in 2014 and Changes Since 2008,” Guttmacher Institute, May 2014, https://www.guttmacher.org/report/characteristics-us-abortion-patients-2014.
  17. “In-Clinic Abortion Procedures,” Planned Parenthood, 2017, https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/abortion/in-clinic-abortion-procedures.
  18. “U.S. Abortion Rate Continues to Decline, Hits Historic Low,” Guttmacher Institute, January 17, 2017, https://www.guttmacher.org/news-release/2017/us-abortion-rate-continues-decline-hits-historic-low.
  19. Gabby Kaufman, “GOP Lawmaker Asks Why Men Should Have to Pay for Prenatal Care,” Yahoo News, March 10, 2017, https://www.yahoo.com/news/anthem-insura....
  20. Fact Sheet, “If You Really Care About Reproductive Justice, You Should Care About Transgender Rights,” National Women’s Law Center, September 2015, https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/rj_and_transgender_fact_sheet.pdf.
  21. Cecile Richards, Twitter post, January 24, 2017, https://twitter.com/CecileRichards/status/824035487199404033.
  22. Sarah Weldon, “Planned Parenthood’s President is Preparing for the Worst,” The Week, February 27, 2017, http://theweek.com/speedreads/682727/planned-parenthoods-president-preparing-worst.
  23. Kelly Bauer, “Planned Parenthood Asks Supporters to Stay Away From Anti-Abortion Protests, DNAinfo (Chicago), January 27, 2017, https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20170127/river-north/planned-parenthood-anti-abortion-protests.
  24. Lichi D’Amelio, “Why We Need Protest to Stop the Anti-Choicers,” Socialist Worker, February 7, 2017, https://socialistworker.org/2017/02/07/why-we-need-protest-to-stop-the-anti-choicers.
  25. “RESIST: Huge Counter-Protests Overwhelm ‘Defund Planned Parenthood’ Rallies,” Common Dreams, February 11, 2017, http://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/02....
  26. Emma Green, “How Abortion Divides Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine,” The Atlantic, Aug 1, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/abortion-tim-kaine-hillary-clinton/493913/.
  27. Exec. Order No. 13535, Federal Register (March 29, 2010).
  28. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Supreme Court ruled on two cases that held the potential to overturn legal abortion in the United States: Webster v. Reproductive Health Services in 1989 and Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992. In both cases, mainstream feminist organizations organized national pro-choice protests in Washington, DC. In the end, the narrow Supreme Court rulings on these cases further restricted abortion rights but did not overturn the key provisions of Roe v. Wade.
  29. William Saletan, Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 72–73.
  30. “A Step Backward for Abortion Rights,” International Socialist Review 1, Summer 1997, http://isreview.org/issues/01/notes01.shtml.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Jamelle Bouie, “The Most Discriminatory Law in the Land,” Slate, June 17, 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2014/06/the_maximum_family_grant_and_family_caps_a_racist_law_that_punishes_the.html.
  33. Signe-Mary McKernan and Caroline Ratcliffe,The Effect of Specific Welfare Policies on Poverty,” http://www.urban.org/research/publication/effect-specific-welfare-policies-poverty.
  34. Teresa Wiltz, “Growing Number of States Repeal Family Welfare Caps,” PBS Newshour, July 13, 2016, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/growing-number-states-repeal-family-welfare-caps/.
  35. Jane Roh, “Stakes High for Dean,” Fox News, February 12, 2005.
  36. Patrick D. Healy, “Clinton Seeking Shared Ground Over Abortions,” New York Times, January 25, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/25/nyregion/25clinton.html.
  37. Kate Michelman, Letter to the Editor, New York Times, January 27, 2005.
  38. “An Overview of Abortion Laws,” Guttmacher Institute, March 1, 2017, https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/overview-abortion-laws.
  39. Erin Kelly, “Pelosi Says Democrats Willing to Deal on Health Care Fixes if GOP Reaches Out,” USA Today, March 10, 2017, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2017/03/10/pelosi-says-democrats-willing-to-deal-on-health-care/99001568/.
  40. Mark Larson, “Operation Failure in Buffalo,” Socialist Worker, January 21, 2011, https://socialistworker.org/2011/01/21/operation-failure-in-buffalo.
  41. Judith Hole and Ellen Levine, Rebirth of Feminism (New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Company, 1970), 29–94.
  42. “The 1972 Virginia Slims American Women’s Opinion Poll,” study conducted by Louis Harris and Associates, http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/ICPSR/studies/7326.
  43. “Women of the Year: Great Changes, New Chances, Tough Choices,” Time, January 5, 1976, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,947597,00.html.

Issue #95

Winter 2014-15

The political economy of low-wage labor

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