“Life is winning in America.” Mike Pence’s words echoed across the national mall, where thousands of anti-abortion activists (antis) gathered for their annual March for life in January 2017. Since those early days in office, the Trump administration has delivered on its campaign promises, such as allowing states to deny Title X family planning funding to Planned Parenthood, pushing for a national 20-week abortion ban, and amending the Department of Health and Human Services strategic plan to include “serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception.”
Support from the Trump administration has emboldened anti-abortion activists, who have increased in both numbers and in the severity of their tactics. A pertinent example of this is the “red rose rescue mission” led in September where they invaded clinic waiting rooms in Michigan, Virginia and New Mexico. In December, thousands turned out to a North Carolina clinic, marking the largest clinic protest since the early 1990s.
Meanwhile, reproductive health is in crisis: 7 states have only one abortion clinic remaining, funding cuts have caused thousands to lose access to basic preventive and contraceptive care, and the United States was one of the only countries to see a rise in maternal mortality rates between 2000 and 2015, with black women nearly three times as likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth related causes than white women.
On March 8th, New Yorkers will gather in Washington Square Park, joining women and allies in cities all over the world, to demonstrate in recognition of International Working Women’s day, armed with a very different vision of what life winning in America looks like. International Women’s day was founded by socialists in 1909 in recognition of the female garment workers who marched right here in New York City the previous year, demanding a shorter work day, better pay and working conditions. Ultimately, they were fighting for what these demands could offer — leisure time. They might give one the time to develop oneself, to read, write, and enjoy the beauty of life — art, literature, friendship, and love.
Our foremothers were fighting for a better world, and so are we.
In 2018 we face ever increasing income inequality, fear for basic safety in a violent police state that is anti-immigrant and anti-black, and the complete destruction of the remaining social safety net. IWS organizers draw upon the radical tradition of International Women’s day, calling for social, economic, racial, and reproductive justice.
Reproductive justice is a term that was coined by a group of black feminist activists in the early 1990s. In its most simplistic form, reproductive justice includes the right to have a child, the right not to have a child, and the right to parent the children you have in healthy and safe environments. Reproductive justice is about bodies; it’s about the way in which we walk through the world, how our physical being — our gender, race, class, geographical location, what we do for work — makes us subject to particular abuses of power and control, how it relegates us to certain spaces and experiences, and in turn, how much freedom we have in the choices we make.
In their call to action, organizers lay out their demands; one of which is the demand for sexual and reproductive justice, including being able to decide “how, if and when to have children”. It is here that I will focus on abortion access. It is fundamental to reproductive justice and is in grave danger.
The antis have been overwhelmingly successful in shifting the debate to focus on fetuses. This framework erases pregnant people’s lives, and zeroes in on evaluating their reasons for abortion, their morality, and a fetishization of their “victimhood.”
Understanding the history of how we came to this moment is critical to building a bold new vision and to re-shape the debate in this country around abortion.
***Abortion is a class issue***
The stripping away of access to abortion is not new. As Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation put it “ Roe is already in shambles.” Since legalization of abortion in 1973, the approach of the anti-abortion movement has been two-pronged: work to make abortion completely illegal through continuously bringing forth personhood measures, while simultaneously introducing restriction after restriction to chip away at access.
From waiting periods and parental consent forms, to insurance bans and gestational limits, all the way down to the width of the clinic hallway, more abortion restrictions have been passed in the U.S. since 2010 than in the preceding 30 years.
These restrictions disproportionally impact poor and working-class women. Since abortion has been heavily restricted by most insurance policies in the United States, following Hyde Amendment restrictions, most patients pay out-of-pocket costs. The cost for a first-trimester abortion, on average, is a little over $500, and it increases rapidly with gestational age after 12 weeks. Paying for an abortion is not something that you can save for or anticipate, but it is time sensitive, and demands immediate attention. However, a 2016 study by the Federal Reserve found that 46% of Americans could not cover a $400 emergency expense. That means that nearly half of all Americans could not afford to have an abortion should they or their partner become pregnant; this is not an isolated problem.
The large majority of abortion patients, 75% in 2014, were poor or low-income, making the cost of an abortion a clear issue of access. However, it is not just the procedural cost that makes abortion financially difficult to obtain. Fewer providers and increased restrictions such as waiting periods increase cost, as many women need to arrange for childcare, transportation, and time off of work to travel. Attacks on abortion and limiting access are a part of a larger attack on working-class people, on the basic dignity of the right to their own bodies.
These attacks on abortion access for working-class women are not new. they are the result of a relentless and well organized anti-abortion movement, and a complete lack of political commitment on behalf of the Democratic Party, who adopted the choice framework, and a defensive strategy, to protect the legal right to abortion.
When the Hyde Amendment, which is a budget rider that bans all federal funding including Medicaid from going towards abortion services, was first put into effect in 1977, Democrat Jimmy Carter said “there are many things in life that are not fair that the rich can afford and the poor cannot”, positioning abortion as a privilege for those who can afford it.
The Choice framework and the focus on legality, accepted legal abortion as the focus and allowed women to be removed from dialogue. When women were included in public debate, the famous “safe, legal, rare” mantra was often invoked, signaling that while abortion may be legal it is not moral. This mantra invoked respectability politics, and created a dichotomy of “good” and “bad” abortions.
Democrats had a slight shift of pace in the 2016 election: Hillary supported the Each Woman act, legislation that would have guaranteed both private and public insurance covered abortion. In 2018, the direct attacks on abortion are undeniably more severe than any before. However, Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the house announced that “abortion is fading as an issue”, and went on to explain that for democratic candidates it is more about what kind of limitations you will make. Pelosi is not an exception, she is the rule. She represents the overwhelming majority of Democrats that have accepted the terms of debate the antis have laid out and settled for making concession after concession when it comes to abortion. Pelosi went on later to say that anti-abortion candidates should not be excluded from running as Democrats, because there are many anti-abortion democrats, and the real focus that they care about is “working families”.
This idea that abortion can be used as a bargaining chip for an agenda that prioritizes “working families” or to win a broad leftist agenda is insulting. Abortion access is fundamental to any emancipatory politics because working-class women, and the families they support, cannot be free without it.
***The antis are emboldened***
The rise of the right has given the anti-abortion movement unfettered confidence. Two weeks ago, just over a year after his first march for life speech, Mike Pence declared that “abortion will end in our time”. Antis have normalized violence and harassment both at our clinics and by legislating who has access to abortion. Legislative attacks on state abortion access from the right are unprecedented, but many of their current victories have been made possible by the ground that they have won physically.
We have become so accustomed to anti-abortion protesters in our spaces that encountering hundreds of people praying, aggressive “sidewalk counselors” attempting to change minds, or enlarged images of bloody fetuses, when going to obtain an abortion or contraceptive care is expected. This normalization of violence and harassment at our clinics has been replicated through legislative gains. One of many examples is the 20-week abortion ban. This particular gestational limit is arbitrary, and the claim that fetuses can feel pain at this point in pregnancy has been repeatedly rejected. Yet after many introductions, and some failures, the 20 week ban has become law in 19 states, and was voted on by the U.S. Senate last month.
***It’s up to us***
Democratic representatives are not the only ones who have ceded ground to antis. For many years mainstream feminist organizations have chosen to stay out of the way, refusing to engage with the protesters that line their block, and minimizing abortion rather than fighting for it. This has only led to an increase in the antis’ confidence.
For 45 years, abortion has been left up to the courts and legislatures, who have prioritized the legal right to abortion over actual accessibility. The defensive strategy that Democrats and mainstream feminist organizations have taken for so long is not working. We can no longer afford to minimize the importance of abortion care. Regardless of whether abortion makes up 3% or 100% of a clinic’s services, clinics should be proud of the abortion care they provide to the women who seek it.
In reality, abortion is only one pregnancy outcome. On its own, apart from the context of women’s lives, it has no real meaning — it is quite simply a medical procedure. Abortion is healthcare; in an ideal world it would not be political. However, the onslaught of legislation targeting abortion access disproportionately impacts working-class women.
When we fight for abortion access, what we are actually fighting for is the right of all pregnant people to make decisions about their bodies and their lives with respect and dignity. The state determining who has access to abortion is really about controlling women’s bodies and lives. It is a political problem, and it demands a political response.
This political response need not come from representatives or lawmakers. It will come from the people most impacted: pregnant people, working-class women, people of color, trans* and gender queer folks — it’s up to us.
***NYC for Abortion Rights***
While abortion is consistently referred to as one of the most controversial issues of our time, the numbers actually do not reflect that. The majority of Americans support the right to abortion.
Antis have been so successful not because of people power, but because they show up and they are unapologetic in their demands.
NYC for abortion rights is a collective of women and allies that was formed in the aftermath of Trump’s election. When Anti-abortion activists called for protests at Planned Parenthood centers all over the country on February 11th, 2017, a group of NYC-based women and allies came together to organize a counter-protest. We turned out nearly 200, outnumbering the antis and showing them that when we put our bodies on the line, we win. We are committed to reclaiming the spaces that belong to us as patients or former patients. We are committed to reclaiming the spaces in front of abortion clinics that the right has for so long laid claim to and that belongs to us. Now, more than ever, we need a fighting grassroots movement for free, legal, and on-demand abortion and that’s what we are building at NYC for Abortion Rights.
As folks who are committed to building a grassroots movement, we are deeply inspired by #metoo, and we believe that demanding abortion be free and accessible to everyone who needs it, echoes the same fundamental concept: that our bodies are our own.
When NYC for Abortion Rights joins the strike and takes to the street tonight we will be following in the steps of thousands of our foremothers that gathered right here in New York City in 1909 to fight for a better world. We are fighting for dignity — dignity in our work, in who and how we love, in the decisions about our bodies and our sexual and reproductive lives.
Kate Castle is an activist and organizer with NYC for Abortion Rights. A version of this essay was originally published by Left Voice.