From Roe to Right Now: DSA Co-Founder On The Battle for Reproductive Justice
Today’s ruling on Roe v. Wade came in a week of already-crushing Supreme Court rulings on gun rights, Miranda warnings and school vouchers. This piece, already commissioned by DSA Socialist-Feminists as part of our 40th-anniversary coverage, feels crucial now. If you’re not plugged into your chapter’s pro-abortion action plan, now might be the time. Ed.)
The 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade and the subsequent legalization of abortion across the United States did not end debates and activity around the question of abortion. Although that decision was partly the result of years of organizing by women’s groups and by medical groups appalled by the rising number of illegal and often back-alley abortions, it did not settle many issues of reproductive rights, such as access to abortion and that of forced sterilization. In fact, those issues became central to the politics of the second half of the 1970s.
Even before Roe, when abortion was illegal almost everywhere in the United States, there was an organized anti-abortion movement—largely led by the Catholic Church, which coined the term “Right to Life.” In the 1972 election, Richard Nixon adopted an anti-abortion position in order to win over Catholic voters. Following Roe, the so-called Right to Life movement became more active, pressuring Congress to pass anti-abortion legislation. Over time, the Right to Life movement expanded to include Protestant evangelicals, who called themselves the Moral Majority, and right-wing politicians, called the New Right. By 1977, Republicans in Congress passed an amendment to health care and family planning funding, banning the use of federal funds for abortion services. The Hyde Amendment, still in force today, prohibited the use of Medicaid funds for abortion as well as the provision of abortion services by federally funded clinics.
The denial of abortion services to poor and overwhelmingly African American and Latina women was coupled with the continued funding of sterilization services. Sterilizations were often performed in public hospitals immediately after a woman gave birth, when informed consent was virtually impossible. Moreover, mass sterilization of Native American and Puerto Rican women was policy, and the testing of unproven methods of birth control in Latin America left many women sterile. Additionally, women in dangerous occupations, often newly open to women, were forced by employers to be sterilized to keep their jobs.
While opposing the attack on abortion rights, many socialist feminists began to develop a broader definition of reproductive rights that included issues of abortion access and sterilization abuse. This distinguished them from other women’s groups, such as NOW (the National Organization for Women) and population control groups, both of which opposed any restrictions on sterilization. Nevertheless, informed consent regulations were mandated by the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare for federally funded clinics by the end of the 1970s. While these new regulations applied to federally funded clinics, sterilization abuse and drug testing continued at other locations.
In response to the Hyde Amendment in 1977, many independent left feminist groups, such as the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA) and the socialist feminist New American Movement (NAM) began campaigns to overturn Hyde. By its summer convention in 1978, NAM had made reproductive-rights work a national priority, establishing a Reproductive Rights Task Force and publishing a Reproductive Rights Newsletter. In the autumn of 1978, NAM and CARASA began the formation of a national coalition, the Reproductive Rights National Network (R2N2). By 1981, more than 50 independent groups had joined the Network. These included groups from the women’s health movement, the labor movement, and other socialist organizations.
One of the earliest activities of the Network was a march in Akron, Ohio, in the fall of 1979 to protest the passage of a local ordinance that mandated that anyone seeking an abortion view Right to Life information on fetal development, followed by a 24-hour waiting period for abortions. The ordinance also required that second-trimester abortions be performed only in hospitals. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately overturned this ordinance, it became a model throughout the 1980s for other cities and states to limit abortion access and to make abortion more expensive. Ultimately, the Court overturned such limitations as posing an undue burden on women seeking to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
The R2N2 participated in counter demonstrations at Right to Life conventions. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, they fought against the passage of a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As the New Right also tried to pass an anti-gay Family Protection Act (Don’t Say Gay), the Network joined activities in opposition and participated in Gay Rights actions. During this period, the definition of reproductive rights was expanded to include the rights of gay parents, single mothers, and alternative families to be supported in raising and providing for children. Increasingly, there was more focus on the necessary economic and social supports for families with children, including childcare, family leave, and expanded welfare benefits.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president. He courted the support of the New Right and promised to pass the Human Life Amendment. He set about cutting public services to those in need, privatizing as many services as possible, breaking labor unions, and overturning protections for workers and the environment. By 1982, he was no longer interested in the Human Life Amendment or the Family Protection Act, and they were not passed.
By 1984, a number of factors led to the decline and eventual disbanding of the R2N2 Network. Within the Network itself, difficulties in funding led to the inability to pay staff and produce publications. Issues of racism within the organization led to the formation of a separate African American organization. Added to these factors was burnout over the rightward turn of U.S.politics.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s many individual DSA members and R2N2 groups worked with local pro-choice groups to protest the rising tide of clinic violence and the growing number of local ordinances limiting abortion accessibility. As the number of people with AIDS grew and the government ignored this health threat, many feminists joined groups such as ACT-UP.
Today, many of the issues that led to reproductive rights activism in the 1970s and 1980s are back in the headlines. DSA chapters and members are joining with local organizations to protest the possible overturn of Roe. We are also involved in fighting against racism. These concerns are not separable. Socialist feminists once again must defend reproductive rights and must maintain a focus that includes poor people, people of color, labor, and LGBT needs and concerns.
Linda Gordon, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right (New York: Grossman,1976).
Rosalind Petchesky, Abortion and Woman’s Choice (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1984, 1990).
Democratic Left (Winter 2018, 46, 3). Articles by Christine Riddiough and Marion Jones. (The Jones article uses the term “Reproductive Justice” in much the same way that “Reproductive Rights” was used in the 1970s.)