Reproductive Rights

BY:| September 26, 2001

Speech given at the Women’s Equality Conference

To bear or
not bear children – to control one’s own fertility, one’s physical self
– is a basic and profoundly important human right. 40 percent of the world’s
three billion or so women live in countries that to one degree or another
usurp that control or deny that right. And of course in our own country,
a sharp struggle is raging over that right.

women’s right to bodily autonomy, women’s right to self-determination
– is a basic principle for those who are fighting for a democratic society,
for a better world, a humane world.

Illegal abortions
claim tens of thousands of lives annually, across the globe. Hundreds
of thousands of women experience permanent injury, including sterility.
I couldn’t find the statistics for our country before Roe v. Wade, but
deaths and injuries certainly numbered in the thousands.

So, we are
not overstating when we say that this fight for the right to abortion
is a matter of life and death. And although we place abortion rights in
the broader context of reproductive rights, this is a special attack,
and requires special attention.

The struggle
to keep abortion "safe and legal," has taken on new importance
under this ultra-right president, who, according to Monday’s NY Times,
sends a representative of his administration every Wednesday morning to
meet with 100 "conservative" organizations, most — if not all
— of which are part of the powerful and well-funded anti-abortion lobby.

On its first
day in office, the Bush administration blocked funds to international
family planning programs, in one quick act sentencing many women around
the globe to illness, injury and death. (The anti-choice forces have been
emboldened by this president, and already there are signs of a new offensive,
including the idea of cutting federal employees’ benefits to remove abortion
and birth control.)

And, of course
the looming danger of additional right-wing Supreme Court justices has
the women’s movement up in arms — hence the April 22 March for Women’s’
Lives — more about that in a moment.

Just a bit
of background on the status of abortion rights and reproductive rights
generally, or what has happened since the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court
decision: Almost immediately, efforts to restrict abortion began, starting
with cutting off Medicare funding for abortion, (the 1977 Hyde amendment).
Only 13 states have since passed laws that replace those federal funds.

On the state
level, abortion rights have been under sustained attack, with many defeats
for women, including laws requiring parental notification, waiting periods,
and widespread abuse of the so-called "conscience clauses, which
were meant to allow individual doctors to refuse to perform abortions,
but are now routinely invoked to cover whole institutions, who are motivated
not by questions of conscience but by profits and politics.

Some states
have even tried to pass laws requiring notification of the spouse, although
so far, these have been declared unconstitutional. And lest we think these
are only "backward" states, the case I read about was Pennsylvania.

As a result
of this legislative and judicial attack, and the open terrorism directed
against abortion providers and clinics in the 1980s, today 1/3 of American
women live in counties where there are no abortion services. There is
not a single doctor in North Dakota who provides abortions. Another very
troubling and dangerous trend is the sharp decline in the number of medical
schools that provide abortion training as part of their ob-gyn programs.

A new and
very important feature of the restricting of reproductive rights is the
impact of the explosion of for-profit health care, and the privatizing
and merging of health care facilities. In many cases, when public hospitals
merge with Catholic ones, they stop providing not only abortions, but
family planning services of all kinds, including birth control and voluntary
sterilization. And most states do not require hospitals that merge to
inform the public of these changes. HMOs, always seeking to guarantee
the profit bottom line, keep reimbursement rates too low and impose excessively
burdensome requirements and paperwork, which in effect limit access to

As a result
of all of this, abortion is legal, but its availability as a basic women’s
health service is, in actual fact, denied or limited for many, many women,
mainly rural, young, poor, and minority women.

At the same
time, sterilization abuse, mainly practiced against Black, Latina and
other racially and nationally oppressed and poor women has in some cases
been employed at genocidal levels. This seemingly contradictory situation
— attempts to restrict abortion, alongside involuntary sterilization
— in fact makes perfect sense given that the right’s political and cultural
offensive is both anti-woman and racist to the core.

And with
40 million people without health insurance, it’s obvious that millions
of women, working-class women, poor women, can’t possibly be getting quality
reproductive care.

A casualty
of the right wing offensive of the ’80s and ’90s has been the ideological
and moral high ground: an aggressive, well-funded and well-organized "pro-life"
movement has succeeded in reframing the debate, and has put the women’s
movement on the defensive, with a large section of the pro-choice movement
framing the question solely or mainly as one of individual choice (and
that the choice is to not be a mother), and the right to privacy.

On this:
I think we have to acknowledge the problems in the "privacy"
argument, which can and has been used against women (the obvious example
being on the question of domestic violence). There are also problems with
relying on the "individual rights" argument — because to truly
have choices when it comes to motherhood or not, the majority of women
need a society with a greatly expanded definition of rights, including
but not limited to, the right to health care, the right to child care,
the right to a job.

But, that
said, we should employ any and all principled and reasoned arguments that
uphold the right to abortion as something women must have.

A few thoughts
on the theoretical side of the issue. And I have to say here that my thinking
on this, though it’s been getting a workout the last few months, was pretty
rusty and dusty, and I think our Party has a ways to go to get up to speed
on the Marxism-feminism dialogue/debate. There is a lot in it that relates
to questions of reproductive rights and women’s role in the family, which
is interesting, and not just purely academic, either. It’s interesting
to me, because it gets you thinking about gender roles as socially determined,
about society as something that changes and develops, and about the family
as a historically determined form.

I won’t claim
to understand it all, or attempt to present it here, except to say this:
the big debate, as I see it, has to do with the "whys"-that
is, why are women and men unequal, why are women oppressed? Or, to put
it in the present day context, why are women, and women’s rights so much
the target of the ultra right?

I think women
are in the ultra-right bull’s eye for a number of reasons, having to do
with the its overall ideological agenda, which is to shore up capitalism
in a period when the working class is being pushed back, when the ruling
class seeks to restore and maximize profits via many avenues, including,
though not limited to, fundamental cuts in social programs, privatization,
and globalization. The ideological companion of this drive is the concept
of the family as the sole legitimate and ideal source of support and survival
— even as the reality of working-class families’ ability and resources
for providing support are under all-sided assault. Private over public,
the family over society, individual initiative over collective effort
— these are the ideological underpinnings of the corporate attack on
the living and working conditions of the working class, and they are directly
related to women’s conditions of existence as bearers and primary caretakers
of children, among other things.

And of course,
the ultra right has also successfully used abortion rights and other "social
issues" to divide and divert the people’s movements.

Lastly, I
would also say that in a general sense, although political democracy is
the ideal form for capitalism, true rights and true freedom, true equality,
are not part of that equation, or necessary to it, and in fact true gender
equality is very threatening to a system based on division, competition
and repression.

Getting back
to the struggle for abortion rights: our attitude, our position, should
be that the right to bodily autonomy and control over reproduction is
necessary for women to be self-determining, autonomous, adult human beings.
Communists must be part of the movement to defend that right, as worth
defending in and of itself. But as socialist-feminist Johanna Brenner
says in her book, Women and the Politics of Class, "bodily autonomy
is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, for most women’s self determination."
That is why we call for, and fight for, a broad definition of reproductive
rights, including:
— the right to safe, available, affordable, abortion;
— the right to safe, available, affordable birth control;
— the necessity of sex education;
— healthcare for all, including pre- and post-natal care;
— an end to forced sterilization;
— paid parental leave, for women and men,
— quality, public childcare and public education.

This is really
a minimal program in order to make "self-determination" a reality
for most women — also necessary are good jobs, affordable housing, public
transportation, elder care, quality schools and adult education, etc.

In the 1930s,
my grandmother, a working-class Italian woman, had an illegal abortion,
which developed into gangrene and almost killed her. She had two children
and didn’t want any more, because her husband was a batterer. In the 1950s,
my aunt, a working-class Puerto Rican woman, a very gentle, maternal woman,
also had an illegal abortion, which was so botched that was never able
to have children.

I hesitated,
but then decided, to include these personal stories because abortion is
a very emotional issue; we shouldn’t deny it, nor should we shrink from
it. The Christian right and the anti-abortion movement have run with the
emotional side of this question. Playing on people’s ambivalent feelings
and using distorted and false information they have fought for this turf
and so far, they’re winning. But I believe we can fight back, even on
the emotional level, as well as on the moral and philosophical level.
We have to connect and define the fight for reproductive rights with the
fight for workers’ rights and human rights.

But most
important is that abortion is a political issue, an extremely important
political issue, for this reason: the women’s movement is a key element
in the growing labor-people’s coalitions, and it has and must continue
to seek common cause with the other key movements. Constructing a broad
approach to reproductive rights is necessary for building that common
cause; we should help frame the demand for abortion rights in ways that
build the working-class component of the women’s movement.

Because of
the breadth of the coalitions that are emerging, there are many, many
opportunities to build unity on concrete demands and in the course of
real struggle. For instance, the whole question of the role of the HMOs
and the relationship between lack of access to reproductive care as part
of the growing lack of access to any health care at all for millions of
Americans — there is common ground for the women’s movement and the movement
for health care, and of course with the labor movement.

Our approach
to the question of reproductive rights — to broaden how this demand is
framed — can help build unity between the women’s movement and the labor,
Civil Rights and other people’s movements, unity which is an absolute
necessity for the coalition to become strong enough, united enough, to
fight and win.

This unity
is absolutely necessary to fight the Bush administration; it’s absolutely
necessary to win elections, it’s absolutely necessary to defend Roe v
Wade, it’s necessary to win union organizing drives, when you think about
the composition of the working class today.

Our position
— that abortion is a woman’s right, that it is about bodily autonomy,
yes, about self-determination, yes, but also about health, about the right
to choose to end a pregnancy and the right to have and raise children,
and that our goal is a society that provides the material conditions necessary
for both choices — those concepts will deepen the politics of the coalitions
that are emerging and which hold so much promise.

Our Party
is mobilizing for the April 22 emergency action for women’s rights in
Washington, D.C. Our aim should be to participate in and help build the
broadest possible local coalitions to organize for the march. A broad
approach to reproductive rights, targeting the ultra right and its representative
in the White House, can turn the April 22 demonstration into the first
mass, militant protest against the Bush administration. It has that potential,
and we should do everything we can to realize it.

We can help
make the connections with labor, with the health care movement, with environmental
organizations, with the equality movements, that some in the single-issue
oriented abortion rights groups won’t make. Although we recognize the
emergency nature of the fight to defend abortion rights at this moment,
and are committed to this fight, single-issue organizing – on abortion
rights or any other issue — is not a winning strategy. Of course many
very important sections of the women’s movement see this, see the need
for unity with the labor movement. This coalition approach will gain strength
in the course of united struggles against the right.

The challenge,
the task, for the April 22 demonstration and beyond, is to be part of
building a powerful, united, labor-people’s coalition. It is the order
of the day and the only way to win, on reproductive rights and the whole
range of issues confronting our people.


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