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Vol. 73/No. 37      September 28, 2009

How U.S. rulers eroded
abortion rights after 1973
(feature article / Second of two-part series)
The 1973 Supreme Court decision known as Roe v. Wade was a historic advance for women’s liberation in the United States, granting women the right to choose abortion in the first two trimesters of pregnancy.

Almost immediately after the ruling came down, however, opponents of women’s rights began a drive to overturn it. Women having the ability to control their own bodies strikes at the very heart of their oppression. Without that right they cannot participate as equals in the workforce, in their unions, in politics, or in society as a whole.

Unable to outright reverse Roe v. Wade because of the substantial support for legal abortion, the ruling class has chipped away at different aspects of this right for three and a half decades. The assault has been part of a broader capitalist attack on working people, aimed at the more vulnerable sections of the population, in this case working-class women, especially Blacks and Latinas, and young women.  
Antiabortion Hyde Amendment
One of the biggest blows to the right to choose abortion came in the fall of 1976. Congress approved, with bipartisan support, legislation known as the Hyde Amendment. The measure prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funds to obtain an abortion, except in cases of rape, incest, or a life-threatening pregnancy.

The larger groups in the women’s rights movement, the National Organization for Women (NOW) in particular, failed to sound the alarm before or after the Hyde Amendment was adopted. Many NOW leaders worried that raising abortion was too controversial and could undermine support for Democratic candidates they backed in the elections.

No large mobilizations of supporters of abortion rights were organized to protest the Hyde Amendment. The antiabortion forces won a victory without a battle.

Today only 17 states provide some funding for abortions beyond the special cases the Hyde Amendment allows. South Dakota bans Medicaid funding for abortion even in the case of rape or incest.

The Hyde Amendment has had a major impact on whether or not working-class women have access to abortion, illustrating the differentiated effect of antiabortion legislation on women of different social classes. According to the Guttmacher Institute, Medicaid-eligible women in states that exclude abortion coverage have abortion rates of about half that of those in states that provide coverage.

As a result of the Hyde Amendment and other funding restrictions, many women are forced to seek cheaper, riskier abortion procedures. Rosie Jiménez became the first known victim of the Hyde Amendment when she sought an illegal abortion because she couldn’t pay for the procedure at a clinic. She contracted an infection that killed her in October 1977 at the age of 27.  
Further ground lost
Additional measures have been taken in a number of U.S. states limiting the right to choose abortion. Thirty-five states now require that women under a certain age, in most cases 18, either notify or get permission from their parents before they can obtain an abortion. In these cases, many young women are forced to carry through pregnancies unwillingly because the decision is put in the hands of their parents. The American Medical Association has noted that “the desire to maintain secrecy has been one of the leading reasons for illegal abortion deaths since … 1973.”

Over the past couple of decades there has been a sharp decline in the number of facilities that provide abortions. The number of hospitals performing abortions went from about 1,500 in 1980 to around 600 in 2004. As of 2005, 87 percent of U.S. counties had no abortion provider. In non-metropolitan areas, this figure was 97 percent. The recent killing of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kansas, by an antiabortion rightist resulted in the closing of his clinic. Tiller’s facility was the only place to get an abortion in the Wichita area and one of three clinics in the country that provided late-term abortions.

The scarcity of abortion providers in the United States means that more women are forced to travel long distances to obtain an abortion. In addition, 24 states have mandatory waiting periods, which require women to wait a certain amount of time, in most cases 24 hours, between requesting the procedure and obtaining it. These barriers disproportionately affect working-class women who find it harder to miss work and pay for travel expenses.

The rate of women getting abortions has steadily declined since 1980, now about two-thirds of what it was then.

The progress rightists and capitalist politicians are making in rolling back abortion rights illustrates the urgent need to rebuild a movement that can defend and extend a woman’s right to choose.
Related articles:
‘Health reform’ plan aimed against workers
Measures target abortion rights, immigrants
D.C. protest opposes cops enforcing immigration law
Dominican Republic: antiabortion laws protested  
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