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Vol. 73/No. 34      September 7, 2009

How right to choose abortion was won
Lessons from 1970s point to importance of mobilizing to defend it today
Below we reprint excerpts from the article “The abortion struggle: What have we accomplished; where should we go from here?” It appears in Part III of the three-volume collection Communist Continuity and the Fight for Women’s Liberation: Documents of the Socialist Workers Party, 1971-86, an Education for Socialists booklet. The volumes can be purchased at a steeply discounted price through the end of September. (See ad on this page.) In the article, Betsey Stone and Mary-Alice Waters describe how the historic 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion came about. The authors also take up the debates within the women’s movement over the place of the abortion rights struggle and the vanguard role played by the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC). Copyright © 1992 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

The January 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion was a landmark victory in the struggle for women’s liberation.

It was the first major advance recorded by the new wave of struggles by women in the fight against the institutionalized domestic slavery to which women have been relegated by class society.

The abortion rights victory opened the door for millions of women—especially working women, Blacks, Chicanas, Puerto Ricans—to begin to control their own reproductive functions, their own bodies. It went a significant way towards establishing a fundamental human right for all women—the right to choose whether or not to bear a child.

Freedom from enforced motherhood is a precondition to women’s liberation. Only with the right to control their own bodies can women begin to reassert their full human identity as productive, not only reproductive, beings….  
Behind the Supreme Court victory
The Supreme Court decision was brought about by a combination of factors… .

First, the decision was a product of the increasing disparity between the actual position of women and the possibilities provided by today’s technology and wealth for freeing women from a narrow existence of domestic drudgery. As a result of psychological conditioning and economic coercion women continue to be channeled into the role of wife-mother-housekeeper. They are systematically molded for this socially prescribed role by law, by custom, by religion, by the dominant ideology of the ruling class. They are taught it is their “natural” place. While women today have more options than ever before in terms of jobs, education, and participation in productive activity, they are still restricted at every turn by the institutionalized forms of sexual discrimination and oppression which are the basic underpinnings of class society.

This disparity between what is and what could be became abundantly clear in the debate around the issue of abortion. The use of birth control devices and the pill are now widespread in the U.S., and are recognized as a legal right in most states. Under modern medical practice abortions are safer by far than childbirth. But for simply exercising the right to control their own bodies, women have been branded as criminals and condemned to risk their lives at the hands of backstreet abortionists.

This and similar contradictions gave rise to the women’s liberation movement in general and the struggle against the reactionary abortion laws in particular.

The impact of women’s liberation ideas and the fight carried out by large numbers of women was another major factor behind the Supreme Court decision. This was manifested in the fact that the concept put forward by large numbers of women’s liberation forces—that abortion should be a woman’s right to choose—was incorporated in the Supreme Court decision.

The ruling was also influenced by the general radicalization with its challenges to traditional attitudes and values. The rise of the Black movement, the antiwar movement and other struggles for social change helped create an atmosphere that spurred changing views on abortion.

The influence of the radicalization, and the development of the feminist movement in particular, was reflected in the polls that showed a rapid change in attitudes relating to abortion between 1968 and 1971. In 1968, the polls reported that only 15 percent of the population believed women had a right to abortion. Abortion was still largely a secret ordeal that many women went through but were afraid to talk about. By 1969, the percentage supporting abortion rose dramatically to 40 percent. By 1971, it was 50 percent.

The rise of the women’s liberation movement helped bring about the first partial victory in the abortion rights struggle: the legalization of abortion in New York state in 1970. The excellent safety record in New York under the new law and the demonstrated demand for legal abortion helped legitimize the procedure and also made it more difficult for the ruling class to take back this limited gain women had won… .

Passage of the liberalized New York abortion law in March 1970 was a turning point in the struggle. At one and the same time it provided an impetus to the abortion rights fight and prompted the reactionary anti-abortion forces, spearheaded by the powerful Catholic Church hierarchy, to launch a campaign to reverse the trend toward legalization. Numerous capitalist politicians including Richard Nixon felt impelled to publicly support this reactionary offensive. Newspaper and magazine articles on the abortion question proliferated; debates raged in more and more state legislatures; meetings, rallies and demonstrations were organized by both sides in the abortion fight… .  
Considerations behind campaign
A national action campaign centered on the abortion issue could rebuff the reactionary right-wing offensive and become the vehicle to enable the women’s liberation forces to break out of a relatively closed-circle existence and begin to organize around the real social and political issues that affected the masses of women. Such a campaign could provide the opportunity to advance beyond the stage of general propagandizing about women’s oppression to organizing a fight to attain a concrete goal of vital importance to masses of American women. It could begin to demonstrate, in practice, that the ideas of women’s liberation are of concern to working women, Black women, Chicanas. It could be a way of involving new layers of women in the feminist movement.

The SWP considered such a campaign to be a realistic prospect because, in addition to our own movement, there were other significant forces already involved in the abortion rights struggle who would welcome the idea of a national effort on this issue. In the spring of 1971, Women vs. Connecticut, a group which sponsored a class action suit against that state’s abortion law, had already called for a national march on Washington demanding repeal of the laws restricting the right of women to obtain abortions.

From the beginning, the feminist component of the abortion rights movement had been the most uncompromising in its stand for total repeal of abortion laws and the right of a woman to choose abortion. One of the dangers of the developing controversy over abortion was that the population-control advocates who were influential at this time in many pro-abortion groups would direct the debate into a losing fight over population control vs. “right-to-life.” Leadership by the women’s liberation movement was needed to shift the debate off this axis and squarely pose the question on the basis of a woman’s right to control her own body. This was particularly important in order to involve Black, Puerto Rican, and Chicana women in the abortion struggle, since most population-control theories and proposals are marked by racist attitudes and assumptions. Clear political leadership by the feminist movement was also needed to fight liberal proposals that women should be allowed abortions only under special conditions, such as rape, incest, or threat to the life or health of the pregnant woman.

The demands embodying a clear, principled position based on a woman’s right to choose were—“Repeal all anti-abortion laws” and “No forced sterilization.” …  
What did WONAAC represent?
Together with other forces, the SWP and YSA helped initiate the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition in July of 1971. The initial organizing efforts, including the first national WONAAC conference, were successful in involving and inspiring hundreds of women with the perspective of united action to beat back the anti-abortion forces and participation in a struggle which could register an important victory for women. At the same time, from its very inception, a debate raged within and around WONAAC between the supporters of a mass-action approach and the sectarians and liberals who saw WONAAC as a threat to their orientations… .

One major debate was over the importance of the abortion issue itself. Many of the women who proposed WONAAC take up other issues did so because they believed abortion was not a matter of concern to most women.

Their arguments took many forms. Just as sectarians in the antiwar movement had objected that the demand for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam was “not radical enough,” that it “wouldn’t stop the seventh war from now,” so too did representatives of these currents in the women’s movement try to say that the demand for legal abortion was “not radical,” or that the capitalist class would easily grant it and therefore it was not worth struggling for… .

The SWP rejected these arguments as did the majority of WONAAC activists. The right to abortion is a basic democratic right of women that must be wholeheartedly championed by any socialist. Under the laws in force prior to the Supreme Court decision statistics showed that one woman out of every four would have had an abortion at some time in her life. Almost every woman had been haunted by the fear of unwanted pregnancy, and the fear of having to resort to illegal, backstreet abortionists.

We pointed out that the right to legal abortion is especially relevant to working women, Black, Puerto Rican and Chicana women since these are the women who have the least access to birth control information and devices, and the hardest time getting safe, inexpensive abortions under illegal conditions. They account for the overwhelming majority of botched-abortion fatalities.

We saw the fight for the right to abortion as a struggle challenging one of the most important ideological props of women’s oppression. Freedom to decide when or if to bear a child is necessary if women are to begin to have any control over the course of their lives. Along with “women’s duties” in the home, vulnerability to unplanned pregnancy has been one of the basic “justifications” for discriminating against women in all areas, including jobs and education. It is one of the fundamental components of reactionary ideology defining women as inferior, dependent beings, whose proper place is in the home.

We believed that winning a victory on this question was possible, and that it would represent a giant step forward for the women’s liberation movement. It would alleviate an important aspect of women’s oppression and represent a defeat for the reactionary anti-abortion and antifeminist forces. It would lay the basis for further struggles by women… .  
Balance sheet of abortion campaign
The most dramatic proof of WONAAC’s correctness was the Supreme Court decision itself. The ruling reflected the social impact of the burgeoning women’s liberation movement as a whole. It was also affected by WONAAC’s arguments and activities. The political concept that WONAAC fought for as the axis of the abortion struggle was incorporated into the decision itself with the recognition of abortion as a woman’s right.

WONAAC’s direct achievements are impressive. It carried out the November 20, 1971 Washington demonstration, the first national action for the right to abortion. It carried out manifold activities in local areas in May 1972. The New York WONAAC demonstration held during that Abortion Action Week was the only visible protest action by the abortion rights movement to offset the nearly successful attempts by the anti-abortion forces to have the New York abortion law repealed.

WONAAC’s three national conferences served to unite large sections of the movement for valuable discussions of political questions, priorities, and exchanges of experiences in the abortion rights struggle. The largest conference in Boston attracted 1300 women. The WONAAC newsletter played an important role in giving national direction and inspiration to the abortion fight as well as providing a forum for discussion.

The coalition organized the successful defense of Shirley Wheeler, the first woman tried and convicted in the U.S. for having an abortion. It spurred the rest of the movement to join in this defense effort.

WONAAC encouraged and helped to draft the Abortion Rights Act introduced into Congress by Bella Abzug. It helped initiate class action suits in several states, including California, Massachusetts, and Michigan. It educated around the questions of availability of birth control, and of the practice of forced sterilization and polemicized against those who viewed abortion as a “population control” issue. WONAAC supporters throughout the country were the major force engaging the “right-to-life” forces in head on confrontation, rebutting their reactionary campaign in debates and literature.
Related articles:
Abortion rights activists mobilize to defend clinic
Nebraska action responds to rightists’ threat
Iowa socialist campaign joins in Nebraska clinic defense  
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