With the class and social movements in decline in the 1980s and their leadership assimilated, the Democrats took their support for granted and capitulated to the right. The Democrats accepted increasing limits on the right to abortion, beginning with the Hyde amendment in 1976 that barred federal funding of abortion. Bill and Hillary Clinton consolidated the Democrats’ surrender, declaring abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare”—the polar opposite of the radical call of the 1970s for “free abortion on demand.”
Even when they had command of both houses of congress, Clinton, Obama, and Biden all refused to make abortion rights the law of the land, made one concession after another to the anti-abortion right, and oversaw the dramatic erosion of abortion rights. As a result, the far right was free to go on the offensive, driving abortion providers out of most counties in the US and laying siege to the remaining ones. Its GOP representatives in state governments placed greater and greater limits on the right to abortion and prepared trigger laws to outlaw it once Roe is overturned.
The mainstream reproductive rights organizations’ strategy has weakened the movement and disoriented its cadre. Its organizations have become “NGO-ized,” dominated by professional staff, lawyers, and campaign consultants. Lacking grassroots, militant membership, reproductive rights groups have accepted the Democrats’ compromises in a desperate attempt to preserve what remained of Roe. As resistance was demobilized, the right was emboldened and stands ready to ban abortion in half the states in the country.
Even worse, the mainstream organizations have opposed new forces with more militant strategies. NOW, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood have all opposed clinic defense—a key arena for building militant resistance—and actively campaigned to prevent such actions from even happening. They refuse to champion a more radical agenda that would win support among working class and women of color—a program of reproductive justice and universal healthcare.
The mainstream organizations and their leadership show no sign of drawing the obvious conclusion that their strategy has failed. While organizations like Planned Parenthood have organized local protests, they have not called for either a national march on the Supreme Court, militant clinic defense, or called for defiance of laws criminalizing abortion. They are instead focused on the elections this fall, in the unrealistic hope that Democrats will win the midterms and pass national legislation making the right to abortion the law of the land.
The Democrats will milk the threat to abortion rights for all it is worth. Indeed, the leaked draft ruling was a gift from heaven for Biden and company, who were otherwise headed for disastrous defeat in the midterms – largely a result of their failure to deliver on their already inadequate promises. While the defense of Roe gives the Democrats something to run on in the midterms, the party cannot stop the ruling and is unlikely to win the fall elections. And even if they did, it is not at all clear that they would deliver on their promise to make Roe the law of the land. Simply put, the party has proved itself unwilling to do anything to defend (let alone advance) reproductive rights, especially federally funded access, since the 1970s.
Now is the time for a new, militant strategy. The majority of people in the US do not want Roe overturned and are shocked and outraged by the draft ruling. This anger can provide the basis for building a movement. Among the first steps would be local, emergency meetings to bring forces together for a new strategy of mass direct action to advance a radical program of reproductive justice. It was this sort of organizing that built the struggles that won abortion rights in the US in the past, and in Argentina, Chile, and Ireland today.
While the old reproductive rights organizations are at an impasse, new forces have stepped forward to organize resistance. These include militant organizations like New York City for Abortion Rights, Chicago for Abortion Rights, National Women’s Liberation, forces on the socialist left, and left-led unions like CTU, which has issued a statement in defense of abortion rights. DSA, the largest socialist organization in the US since the 1940s, could play an enormous role in the process. However, its national “strategic focus” on electoral politics has to this point sidelined organizing class and social struggle, leaving local chapters and working groups to act on their own, without coordination and leadership.
What all these forces on the radical left do today matters. No single organization is positioned to spearhead a national march on the Supreme Court, but the conditions are in place to bring together organizations on a local and, in some cases, state level committed to building a new movement based on a strategy of independent, mass action. The cohering of such forces will be crucial in determining whether a militant mass movement can defend abortion rights and begin the struggle for real reproductive justice – or whether the right will score yet another victory, rolling back one of the few remaining gains of the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.