Skip to main content

How Did Abortion Rights Come to This?

Based on “privacy” rather than a woman’s right to control her reproduction, Roe v. Wade was never the "free, safe, legal, and accessible" abortion solution for all women that the Women’s Liberation Movement began fighting for in the 1960s.

Pittsburgh Abortion Rights demonstration, May 3, 2022."we're showing up for abortion rights. Tuesday, May 3rd, at 5:30 p. We are showing up at our City County Building, to say bans off our bodies and demand elected officials take action before SCOTUS , overturns Roe." (Mark Dixon photo, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

From the beginning it left some women behind. It’s time to say good riddance and go for what we really want.

The following article briefly traces some of the limitations of Roe and what proved to be the Women’s Liberation Movement’s perhaps inadequate response—probably inevitable under the broader social and political conditions. It appeared on the Meeting Ground On Line blogzine in 2014 but remains relevant in learning where we’ve been and planning where to go from here.

                           ====

With the recent setbacks to women’s reproductive rights in the Hobby Lobby and abortion clinic buffer zone rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, the old “slow boiling of the frog” strategy comes to mind. You know, the one about how if you put frogs in a pan of hot water, they will jump out, but if you put them in cold water and slowly turn up heat, they won’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late.

   It’s already too late for many women who have found themselves unable to prevent or terminate a pregnancy. It’s estimated that half of the pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended.

   Yes, today’s abortion access situation is still better as a whole than it was before Roe v. Wade, but tell that to the woman who can’t get an abortion because she doesn’t meet the criteria, lives in a rural area or the wrong state, and/or just can’t afford it.

   Even feminists have been heard to say cavalierly that a woman in states with few or no providers can just “get on a bus” and get an abortion. Perhaps, but she may have a very long and expensive ride, may have to undergo counseling that includes the dangers of breast cancer associated with abortion (a lie), the ability of a fetus to feel pain (very questionable) and/or long-term mental health issues (very rare and surely no worse than bearing an unwanted child). She may have to wait at least 24 hours between the counseling and the time the abortion is performed (meaning a hotel or two trips to the abortion facility). In 28 states if she is a minor, she will need parental involvement. Plus the “date of viability” is being pushed back so any delay adds to her problems. And her health insurance or Medicaid may not pay for it.

   States have been passing all kinds of restrictions for many years. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2012 alone, 43 abortion restrictions were enacted in 19 states.

 Here are two helpful digital maps, one showing restrictions by state (just click on the list of underlined restrictions, and the states will color accordingly) and another showing bans in insurance coverage.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

The federal government has made its own cutbacks and legislators have indulged in shaming women who insist that preventing pregnancy is critical to their health care, while having no problem with helping men to “get it up” with insurance coverage for Viagra. Poor and low-income women find themselves foregoing contraception to put food on the table and abortions are denied if they use government-subsidized health care.

   And never mind the 17 attempted murders and 8 actual murders of abortion providers and the innumerable threats and legal limitations put on those who dare to continue their work despite this terrorism.

                                 * * *

So how did we come to this? Why have we been going backward?

   Even before the Roe v. Wade decision, a backlash began in response to New York’s liberalized law in 1970. It didn’t get far back then because the abortion rights movement was still in high gear and had a leading sector demanding repeal of all laws against abortion, i.e., authentic “abortion on demand.” Leadership of the reproductive rights movement had not yet been taken over by the big non-profits who often have a different agenda (like population control or tamping down the radicals) and who take their marching orders from funding foundations and/or the Democratic Party.

   More crucially, the abortion repeal movement was part of a much stronger and more independent and grassroots Women’s Liberation Movement than the remnant that exists today. From consciousness-raising to protests to organizing to lobbying, feminists worked hard and took risks for reproductive control. Some groups, like the underground abortion service know as “Jane” in Chicago and the Self-Help Clinic of the Feminist Women’s Health Center in California, even took matters into their own hands—literally—and learned to perform safe abortions themselves, alarming the power structure.

   With the Roe decision much of the abortion rights activity ceased. While many were celebrating that the ruling had supposedly “made abortion legal,” leading repeal activist Cindy Cisler, along with Jim Clapp, were writing an important paper, “Abortion Ruling: Some Good News…Some Bad News,” discussing how the Court had actually “rejected abortion on demand.”

   They wrote, in part:

Justice Blackman summarized the court’s view of women’s right to abortion by saying, “appellants and some amici argue that the woman’s right is absolute and that she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way and for whatever reason she alone chooses. With this we do not agree…the privacy right involved…cannot be said to be absolute.” Chief Justice Berger put it even more bluntly when he concluded: “Plainly, the Court today rejects any claim that the Constitution requires abortion on demand.” …

But the manifest fury of anti-abortion people will not be appeased by mere attempts to make abortions as scarce, as costly, and as hard to get as the court “permits.” At this writing, January 27 [1973], their best strategists are meeting in Washington and at the state level to circumvent or override the court’s ruling.

It appears that while they may take some forthright steps, such as pressure on state legislatures and on Congress to pass laws and constitutional amendments bestowing legal personhood on fetuses, such approaches may serve only as doomed stalking-horses for more “moderate”—and thus more dangerous—measures that will not put lawmakers so directly on the spot about abortion per se.

For instance, the court itself, in dealing so extensively with what restrictions the state do and do not have to impose, has stirred up state’s rights resentments. …

State and federal lawmakers will be asked to pass legislation returning all regulation of pregnancy and related matters to the people through their state legislatures. This regulation could then become a virtual ban.  

They also warned abortion rights forces against falling into a strategy “often heard from those who don’t mind if some women are denied abortion as long as most women can get them.” In an author’s note added in 1975, they wrote:

The old feminist goal of the right to abortion may thus never be attained; the so-called “right” to “choose” is still the privilege of some women to make some choices some of the time at prices inflated by special legal strictures.

Cisler and Clapp were right on target.

   The first major federal setback after the Roe decision came only three years later when Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which cut off federal funding for abortion. This meant that the women able to access the 300,000 abortions a year previously funded by Medicaid were on their own. Medicaid continued to pay for sterilization, however, creating pressure on recipients to go that route. (Many think the days of coerced sterilization are over, but the Center for Investigative Reporting found it is still happening to women in prison as recently as 2010.)

    State Medicaid funding eventually picked up the tab for some abortion in some states, but the Hyde Amendment had successfully divided women. It was aimed at the politically weakest sector: poor women, particularly women of color, who on their own did not have the financial and social resources to overturn the law.

   Although there was some outcry against the Hyde Amendment, especially in the legal arena, it was nowhere near powerful enough to reinstate Medicaid payments. Many affluent women simply ignored the ruling since it didn’t affect them and continued to claim Roe had made abortion “legal.”

It is often said that “with Roe, victory was declared and everyone went home or on to the next fight.” While this may be true in part, it is not the whole story.

   By 1973, the militant Women’s Liberation Movement that had given strength to “abortion on demand” and “repeal all abortion laws” was floundering. Its radical groups and leadership were being suppressed and replaced by less threatening, establishment-oriented individuals and organizations with “connections.” Some feminists, radical feminists included, went back to focusing on careers and/or family, wandered off into identity politics, or joined in the “self-empowerment” trend.

   As docile, establishment-oriented non-profits with agendas other than women’s liberation began filling the void, even the language changed from “women’s right to control her own body” and “abortion on demand” to “pro-choice”—supposedly a better fit for U.S. ideology. But as we have seen, “choice” has had little power to defend and extend abortion rights.

   Furthermore, a segment of the white sector of the feminist movement, already in a somewhat contentious relationship with Black women, exacerbated the situation by focusing on legality and ignoring the huge problem of accessibility for all, like that created by the Hyde Amendment.

   The next big blow on the federal level came in 1989 with the Webster vs. Reproductive Services decision by the Supreme Court, which gave the states more power in regulating abortion, prohibited use of public employees and facilities (including public hospitals) in performing abortions not deemed “medically necessary” and declined to quash the preamble in the Missouri abortion law (which was being challenged) that “life begins at conception.” This was followed by Casey vs. Planned Parenthood, another ruling in 1992 that gave the states even more rights to impose limitations. These alarmed many more women than had the Hyde Amendment and there were big protests in support of Roe, including massive marches on Washington in 1989 and 1992.

                                  * * *

Roe did not make abortion either legal or accessible to all women, however. The loopholes were big enough to drive a semi-truck through and have been growing ever since. Roe was a limited victory to begin with and the slow, steady anti-reproductive rights pushback has been effective. Like the frog, women need to wake up to what’s been happening. The states leading the backlash are creating pressure for further limitations on women’s reproductive control to succeed across the board, even in the most liberal states and on the federal level.

   Capitalists want control of women’s reproduction because human propagation of workers and soldiers deeply affects the economy. Sometimes they want more population; sometimes they want less; sometimes they want to differentiate by race and class. But above all, they want to be in control. When we aim our analysis and resistance only at the more obvious anti-abortion, religious Right, we blindly miss the center of the target. We must ask, “Who really benefits?”

   Reproductive control is an issue of women’s rights that the powers-that-be need to cautiously turn the heat up on. To bring it to a boil too quickly could spark a revolt that they would rather not deal with, perhaps prompting young women who it affects most into feminist action beyond social media discussions. By nibbling away at still-existing rights by making abortion inaccessible to one segment of women at a time, the courts and legislatures prevent a massive push back from women (a majority of the population) at any point along the way. Women must learn that old union adage that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

   It has become popular to establish or contribute to abortion funds for women who need financial assistance. While this is helpful, it’s only drop in the bucket of what’s needed and does not put power into women’s hands. As Billie Holiday used to sing, “Mama may have, Papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his [her] own.”

   Abortions—and even contraceptives—are becoming more and more for the privileged. True solidarity demands that women stand together for complete control over their own reproduction, including the right to have children as well as the right to prevent or end a pregnancy.

What can be done?

Whether the current trend toward loss of reproductive rights can be turned around depends greatly on revitalizing the Women’s Liberation Movement. That will take the work of many and a refocusing away from fracturing “self-empowerment” and “self-expression” to uniting women with enough collective clout to make a difference. Divisions among feminists abound, much as they always have, but while some seek to understand and settle them justly, others seek to maintain, if not deepen, them. The defeatist ideology of postmodernism reduces everything to individual perception and demands that any idea or theory that might lead to unity be “deconstructed” and “fractured” until it is useless. Without cogent theory and a united movement, we will lose.

   Reorganizing a fighting Women’s Liberation Movement will take some time. Meanwhile there are a few immediate steps that can be taken to at least clarify the situation in which we find ourselves:

  • Don’t say we won the whole loaf when we have only won a small slice–and the rats are chewing away at even that morsel.
  • Stop repeating the lie that “Roe made abortion legal.” Get rid of those signs that say “Keep Abortion Legal” because it was legalized only in limited circumstances. See the article by Cindy Cisler and James Clapp linked above.
  • Legal isn’t good enough. Accessible makes “legal” meaningful.
  • Realize abortion is only one of the issues involved in reproductive control and demand the whole.
  • Fight for reproductive control as a crucial part of women’s liberation, but as only a part. Go for the whole loaf. And both male supremacy and capitalism must be overcome for such control and full liberation to be possible. How to best do this requires new collaborative thought.
  • Hold to the “all women” test. Allowing one sector to be left behind weakens the whole and puts everyone in jeopardy. 
  • Since women don’t get pregnant alone, encourage men to assume more responsibility and speak up for universal contraceptive services. Condoms are expensive and should be covered by health plans too.

                                 * * *

While we fight to put reproduction into women’s control, we need to remember that the right and social ability to have children also needs to be on the agenda. Women spend so much time—most of their lives, actually—trying not to get pregnant, that many forget that sometimes they do want to have children and there are barriers to doing that as well. There is too little awareness that children are a necessity to the whole of society, not just a desire on the part of individual parents. Societal support of childrearing is both crucial and fair: paid pregnancy and parental leaves, public childcare and allowances, universal healthcare, and a major restructuring of the workplace to accommodate the needs of working mothers, fathers and children, for starters—along with continuing pressure on men to do their share, including fighting for changes in public policy.

    Unless work is restructured, men cannot do their full share and women cannot be mothers and enjoy full equality in the workplace. Although capitalism can absorb limited reforms for some, just as it has for abortion, capitalists will never accept the unprofitable situation of everyone working part-time outside the home and part-time inside the home. Therefore those who do the producing (labor) must be in control of production, distribution and exchange, just as those who do the reproducing (childbearing) must be in control of reproduction. This means that in addition to fighting male supremacy in women-only groups, women must work in groups with men who understand their stake in a society re-organized for the benefit of all.

[Carol Hanisch was a volunteer in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement in 1965, and then the office manager of the Southern Conference Education Fund in New York City when she was a founding member of New York Radical Women in 1967. She initiated the idea to protest the Miss American pageant in 1968 and was one of the four women who disrupted the proceedings by hanging a women's liberation banner over the balcony. Carol was an editor of the Redstocking's book, Feminist Revolution; Editor of the journal Meeting Ground, 1978 - 1992; and currently Editor of Meeting Ground On Line.]