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Vol. 76/No. 5      February 6, 2012

Roe v. Wade: key gain for
women and working class
On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court issued the Roe v. Wade decision decriminalizing abortion. This year marks the 39th anniversary of that watershed victory.

The court acted at a time when the disparity was becoming acute between the rapidly changing social position of women in employment, education and throughout society, and the institutionalized forms of sexual discrimination and oppression that still existed. Millions of women had entered the workforce during and after World War II—transforming the working class and themselves in the process. In those years, for the first time, scientific advances brought safe, effective methods of contraception and decreased the dangers of medical procedures, including abortion.

The decision came as a growing women’s rights movement was taking to the streets and gaining confidence on the crest of the mass proletarian-based struggle for Black rights. Both battles irreversibly strengthened the working class.

In the decades since, the U.S. ruling class and its two parties—the Democrats and Republicans—have engaged in a steady campaign to chip away at women’s right to abortion as part of the wide-ranging offensive against the rights of working people. These measures have aimed their fire first and foremost at working-class and rural women.

President Obama issued an executive order in 2010 extending the ban on Medicaid funding for abortions to insurance plans offered in the new health insurance exchanges set up as part of the administration’s health insurance reform. He endorsed blocking over-the-counter sales of the Plan B contraceptive pill for anyone under 17.

In 2009, during a speech at the University of Notre Dame, Obama called on supporters of women’s rights and anti-abortion forces to seek “common ground” to “reduce the number of women seeking abortion.” Two weeks later, Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kan., was gunned down by an anti-abortion rightist.

In recent years, the opponents of women’s rights have focused on pressing for more legal restrictions at the state level, aimed at making abortions more difficult to get. A study released Jan. 5 by the Guttmacher Institute found that states enacted 92 provisions last year seeking to chip away at access to abortion.

These include bans on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy; waiting periods and mandatory counseling laws; mandatory ultrasound examinations prior to an abortion; and denying insurance coverage for abortions.

Abortion, a simple medical procedure, is rarely available in hospitals across the country, and has become increasingly restricted to specialized clinics.

Some state governments and local health boards have sought to tie these clinics up in regulatory red tape with baseless and onerous regulations.

In Maryland, prosecutors used a 2005 fetal homicide law for the first time to charge two doctors with murder for providing late-term abortions.

But anti-abortion forces have been unsuccessful in their efforts to change the broad social attitudes on the fundamental right of women to choose. Unable to turn back the clock, some rightists on the fringes have resorted to acts of individual terrorism abhorred by the vast majority. On New Year’s Day a clinic in Pensacola, Fla., was firebombed.

From the outset, it has been public mobilizations—from marches on Washington to clinic defense—that have had the biggest impact.

Last July, Dr. LeRoy Carhart, an abortion provider who worked closely with the late Dr. George Tiller, called a week of demonstrations outside his Germantown, Md., clinic to counter mobilizations against it by the rightist outfit Operation Rescue. For nine days, supporters of women’s rights defended the clinic.

The picketers, including this reporter, were greeted with a steady stream of solidarity in the form of honks, waves, pizzas, water, and volunteers for the picket line.

The action helped educate those who joined in or just passed by. Among them were new generations of fighters who weren’t alive to see the movement it took to win this fundamental right, but could see firsthand the need to mobilize to defend it today.
Related articles:
Supreme Court rally defends right to abortion  
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