The 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision is Jan. 22. How have women fared since then in getting U.S. courts to recognize their right to choose for themselves whether to complete or terminate a pregnancy?
It has been a tough struggle, one that can seem even harder today than in earlier periods. The right wing has mobilized against the right to safe, legal abortions and, in some instances, even against birth control measures like the morning-after pill. Their reactionary campaign has included attacks on Planned Parenthood that have hobbled its ability to provide other health care and reproductive services to poor women. While the violence against medical personnel, including the murder of doctors, has abated, the threat remains.
This has taken place during a period when the biological and medical sciences that give women more control over their reproductive system have made great advances. And many more of the scientists themselves are now women, bringing a different outlook to the field.
Thus, the social-political atmosphere has gone backward even as the potential for greater freedom for women has moved ahead. Why this great contradiction?
Why is it that in 1973, seven Supreme Court justices, including five Republican appointees, could vote that a Texas law banning abortions was unconstitutional, while today abortion’s legal standing is being aggressively reduced by state courts and legislatures, and there is fear that the next Supreme Court ruling will move in that direction?
It’s important to review the history to understand what is happening. In 1920 — the year women in the U.S. won the right to vote — the fledgling Soviet state enacted the world’s first laws protecting a woman’s right to choose abortion. At the same time, it established protections for everyone — like the right to a job, housing, education and medical care — that enhanced a woman’s right to have and raise healthy children.
This first successful workers’ revolution began the process of transforming a largely agrarian, illiterate country, only recently emerged from feudalism, into an industrial powerhouse. Women, freed from the confines of the patriarchal family, where they had been little more than men’s property, entered social life as workers, students and political cadre. Their demands for reproductive rights were heeded in this effervescent environment of tradition-shattering social change.
In those early days, the Russian Revolution had a profound impact on the world. Progressives everywhere were reinforced in their demands. Eventually the ruling classes, especially in the imperialist countries, had to make concessions on many social issues or risk further alienating the masses of people.
It wasn’t until after World War II, when most of Eastern Europe had been liberated from fascism by the Soviet Red Army, that a woman’s right to choose began to gain legal recognition throughout Europe — first in the East, years later in the capitalist West.
It’s important we point out this history. The imperialist news media will not. Only the right wing will raise it, in order to red-bait the women’s movement to their blatantly anti-woman followers.
There is no denying that the destruction of the USSR and counterrevolution in Eastern Europe set back women’s rights there. It also opened up a more reactionary period in the world, in which imperialism could launch neocolonial wars with impunity and corporate greed could go wild. The right wing everywhere was emboldened.
That is what the women’s movement in this period has been up against. There has been a large shift to the right, starting at the very top. Reactionary billionaires have flooded the political arena with oceans of money trying to subvert everything won by the movements of the workers and oppressed.
But now the capitalist system is in a deep crisis. The burden of that crisis is being forced onto the masses through layoffs, budget cuts, foreclosures, etc. We are entering a new period of fightback, from Wisconsin to Occupy Wall Street to the Chicago teachers’ strike. This period has similarities to the militant struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s — which led to the Roe v. Wade decision.
Women are the hardest hit by the cuts in social programs — both as laid-off public workers and as people denied needed services. The organized women’s movement will grow stronger, involving more working-class women and women from oppressed nations, as the general struggle against capitalism ramps up.
In addition to demanding and defending a woman’s right to choose whether to have children, the growing struggle against capitalism will also demand social guarantees that all children can be raised in a humane environment where food, shelter, housing, education, medical care and a rich cultural life are realities for all. Women the world over must be freed from the chains of patriarchy and capitalist oppression once and for all.