Camila Valle is an editor, writer, translator, and member of NYC for Abortion Rights.
Sherry Wolf is a longtime revolutionary socialist living in Brooklyn, who has been active in reproductive justice struggles since 1983. She is the author of Sexuality and Socialism from Haymarket Books.
Emily Janakiram is a writer and a member of New York City for Abortion Rights.
Jocelyn Piercy was a member of the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics in the late 1980s and early 1990s and is now a member of the No Pride in Policing Coalition, a queer multiracial abolitionist organization in Toronto.
Holly Lewis is a founding editor of Spectre based in Austin, Texas, and the author of The Politics of Everybody: Feminism, Queer Theory and Marxism at the Intersection.
The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade has opened a new chapter in the fight for reproductive justice in the United States. In the wake of the decision, states have imposed trigger laws and bans that will eventually criminalize abortion in half of all US states. But activists have responded with everything from emergency protests to mutual aid to campaigns to defend abortion state by state, scoring an August 2022 precedent-setting victory in Kansas with over 60 percent of voters rejecting an amendment to the state constitution that would have paved the way for a ban on all abortions.
The US Supreme Court’s decision flies in the face of the wave of victories for choice in recent years—from Ireland and Spain to Chile, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia. Here Spectre hosts a roundtable discussion with Camila Valle, Sherry Wolf, Emily Janakiram, Jocelyn Piercy, and Holly Lewis on lessons for today from international struggles and past victories for reproductive justice.
What key lessons for our moment do you draw from the history of global struggles for choice, reproductive justice, and bodily autonomy?
CAMILA: In Argentina, the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion’s building of its own political infrastructures was critical for its victory. I think there’s a tendency on the Left in the United States, especially around abortion, to counterpose the building of independent infrastructures, which often provide direct material and affective support, such as helping people get abortions, and the idea that we should demand things from the state (that is, our right to abortion codified into law). The experience of Argentina, as well as that of other countries such as Mexico, shows that you can’t do one without the other.
The national campaign for abortion was extremely multifaceted: there was, of course, the legislative aspect that people may be most familiar with—they presented their bill to the government for debate and voting many, many times over the course of years, until it was finally passed and became law—but there was also so much more, and I don’t think we would have the seen that victory without these other components.
Here are some examples. There were networks that distributed abortion pills, that accompanied people through their abortions; there were networks that taught medical professionals how to perform abortions since it wasn’t part of formal training; there were networks of teachers who developed comprehensive sex education curricula; there were artists and journalists and photographers who debuted public exhibitions about abortion; there were mass tablings, marches, workplace occupations, bringing the issue to the unions, going out into the streets; and whole systems in place for mass meetings, assemblies, and more to discuss the campaign, demands, and have political debates.
As Ruth Wilson Gilmore said about abolition: “it requires that we change one thing: everything.” And I think that’s a very useful sentiment, and one that the Argentinian movement really lived up to in its own way. Every single place, every single platform, every single person played a role in raising public awareness around the issue, in raising the organizational level of our side, and in strengthening the fight.
Abortion is so stigmatized in society, it is a source of so much shame and guilt, it is not something we are often taught about. It is kept from us, and we have to take seriously that part of what we have to do is make everything about abortion and abortion about everything. To win a demand like the legalization of abortion on such a scale, the state has to feel that it is in its own interest to concede our demands—that what would happen if they didn’t would be much worse. And part of that is showing that we don’t need them and, actually, if they want to remain relevant, if they want to have any control over the situation, they need to give us what we want.
I think this is fundamentally tied to a certain understanding of how people radicalize, particularly around this issue. People join the movement, and their ideas change through personal experience and collective struggle. People’s horizons about what is possible are raised. The idea that somehow we will be able to do all that without talking about the specificities of abortion and, frankly, without engaging with and helping people seeking abortions—which is an argument I have heard—I think is a failing strategy. It’s not the only thing we should do, of course, but it should be an important part of what we do.
SHERRY: First, younger activists often refer to an unspecified “back in the day” to draw lessons from, so it’s key to grasp, as we mine our past for a way forward, that there was never a heyday of reproductive justice organizing without debates and divisions among different wings. It has always been a struggle riven with different strategies and tactics from left-, moderate- and right-wings that have had to battle it out, occasionally uniting in explosive actions, but more often divided over questions of race, class, and the role of the state.
Second, when the Left has argued and organized for a strategy and tactics of agitation, direct action, and confrontation with antichoice bigots—and created a bridge for new activists to join—our movements made gains and marginalized the bigots. For more confrontational strategies to succeed, our reproductive justice activists must be committed to amplifying the voices and demands of the most oppressed—poor and working class people, Black women, trans people, minors—and building solidarity.
Third and quite central, our movement is in an abusive relationship with the Democrats whose elected leaders—including many who identify as progressives—have been selling us out for decades. Like all abusive relationships, it must end. It’s not merely that the Democrats have stood by or not done enough while the Right imposed restrictions and defunded reproductive health, it’s that Democrats at the highest levels have collaborated in these attacks—from stripping public funding and promoting abstinence to supporting partial abortion bans.
EMILY: Roe v. Wade was not a benevolent decision handed down by the courts to grant reproductive rights. Abortion rights were won by a militant wave of feminist organizing that demanded abortion rights as part of a greater left-wing demand for liberation; and the Cold War-era government fearing this militancy, folded abortion rights into an affirmation of the capitalist state’s primacy in guaranteeing bodily autonomy and the rights of the individual. And abortion rights across the world were won in a similar fashion—not through an undemocratic trick of judicial maneuvering but by an organized mass movement uniting feminist struggles and labor struggles that engaged in mutual aid efforts, walk-outs, sit-ins, and other direct action and civil disobedience.
JOCELYN: In the Canadian state, there was legislation banning abortion for one hundred years until 1969 when, in the face of rising public protests in the US and Canada, such as the Stonewall riots the same year, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau amended legislation around sexual and reproductive rights, famously stating “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.”
However, it is a myth that the state decriminalized either homosexuality or abortion in 1969. “Buggery” and “gross indecency” remained against the law, but an “exception” was added for only two people over twenty-one years of age behind bedroom doors (age of consent for heterosexual sex was generally fourteen and without the other restrictions). The number of people charged for consensual homosexual acts in fact increased after 1969.
Abortions, which of course can be simple medical procedures in the first trimester, were still criminal acts if performed at any time outside of hospitals, and in hospitals, they could only be performed if three doctors (none of whom had ever met the patient) agreed that the patient’s pregnancy endangered their life or health. But only one third of hospitals in Canada ever had such committees of doctors, and many that did exist never approved a single abortion. Some provinces did not provide any abortion services, and others had only one gynecologist willing to perform abortions. Fully one half of women who received abortions in Canada had to leave their own communities, including many who went to the US. Consequently, Canada had a very high rate of second trimester abortions, which are significantly more dangerous than those performed earlier in pregnancy, and young, Indigenous, racialized, poor, and rural women, as well as those without immigration status or with disabilities, continued to experience extreme barriers to access if they could find these services at all.
In 1982, the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC) was formed in Toronto by healthcare workers from the Birth Control & Venereal Disease Information Centre, Immigrant Women’s Health Centre, Hassle Free Health Clinic, and other healthcare workers in Toronto who took the position that women’s unequal place in society was enforced by state repression and policing of bodies, especially racialized and disenfranchised bodies.
We were fighting for decriminalization of reproductive health services and access for everyone, particularly rural, young, Indigenous, racialized, poor, and immigrant women, as well as those who have disabilities and trans folx, all of whom face the most extreme barriers in accessing healthcare and repression of bodily autonomy by state systems. Although the “pro-choice” movement shifted the framework of public debate from “when does life start?” to “women’s right to control their bodies,” the idea of “choice” was stripped clean of power relations and any understanding of how the state and its institutions—medical, legal, social, policing—crush any real choice for the populations they target and repress.
So, OCAC took up the strategy of access instead, consistently demanding that the state be obligated to provide three main things: 1) full access to free contraception and abortion services in one’s own language and community, and not under medical control, given the racist and class-biased assumptions and practices of that institution; 2) support for women to determine for themselves when, if, and how to have children, including access to midwifery services, free childcare and parental leave, affordable housing, employment equity, and an end to the harassment of Indigenous and Black mothers by courts and Children’s Aid; 3) support to live openly as lesbians and transgender people.
We built a broad alliance across social movements that included those most impacted by lack of access to reproductive services. Even mainstream well resourced movements like labor organizations took up these access demands. Also, perspectives generated in different parts of the reproductive rights movement were taken up by the broader movement, such as when the SisterSong Women of Color Collective in Chicago in the mid-1990s argued for a broader approach called reproductive justice that centered and fought for the needs of the most marginalized in the community.
Many Indigenous and Black women experienced forced or coerced sterilization, lack of access to healthcare and child support, police violence, and gender- and race-based violence as barriers in the way of reproductive rights. So these demands, not solely access to abortions, are central to reproductive justice. In OCAC we heard this from Black and Indigenous women and women of color in the International Women’s Day Committee, a broad feminist coalition in Toronto in which we worked. We also learned from how Aids Action Now put the needs of the most marginalized folx with HIV and AIDS at the center of their demands. And with such broad support, we were able to mobilize tens of thousands of people to take to the streets every time our reproductive rights or clinics came under attack.
OCAC’s strategy was to go on the offensive and directly challenge the way state-regulated institutions like hospitals control healthcare and regulate different women’s access to it. To this end we were formed to support Dr. Henry Morgentaler when he opened a then-illegal community healthcare clinic to perform abortions on Harbord Street in Toronto in 1983.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s there were daily battles outside the Morgentaler abortion clinic in Toronto. We linked arms and got sucker-punched in the ribs by police as they tried to confiscate the clinic’s medical equipment following an Ontario judge’s overturning of a jury acquittal of Dr. Morgentaler.
When the antichoice movement organized “operation rescues” to block women from entering the clinic, and police refused to help women access it, the community and clinic supporters took to waking up at dawn (activated via a phone tree back then) to occupy the steps and front entrance of the clinic to maintain access for clients. We organized a longstanding daily program of safe houses near the clinic and community escorts to safely accompany patients past the anti-gay, anti-women protesters into the clinic for their appointments.
In many different ways the clinics became a symbol of women’s resistance to control of our bodies by either the state or the “religious right.” The antichoice movement took to calling us the “lipstick lesbians of the lavender left,” which we happily wore on buttons and t-shirts.
Throughout the struggle the community would gather outside the clinics within minutes of either a victory or an attack by the state or the Right. When Dr. Morgentaler was attacked on the steps of the clinic in 1983 by someone with gardening shears, it was members of the community and movement who protected him. As we learned and demonstrated: We. Keep. Us. Safe.
HOLLY: It makes sense that a system defined by unjust productive relations would also be characterized by reproductive injustice. The capitalist mode of production depends on the unpaid, noncommodified emotional and physical efforts/expenditures of pregnant people to gestate and nurture capital’s next generation of laborers.
If you really want to understand capitalism, you have to understand what the system is demanding from our bodies and relationships. The flip side of that is, you can’t really understand bodies and relationships unless you investigate this material arrangement called capitalism that we’re all living within because it affects everything.
Choices emerge as a spectrum of life possibilities within a given economic system. If someone would prefer not to have an abortion but has one because they can’t afford to raise a child under capitalism, they are not operating in a choice-driven world either.
So reproductive justice covers much more than just abortion rights. It’s also the fight against forced sterilization, the struggle for access to parental leave and prenatal care, the fight against forced surgical intervention on intersex infants and children. But now with the overturning of Roe, I think we’re about to see how abortion access supports the overall reproductive health landscape. Once abortion access is gone, the cascade effect is going to be enormous.
Self-determination over one’s body is crucial, of course; but the term choice was politically tricky long before anti-maskers appropriated it. We saw how antis tried—and failed!—to use choice to confuse the ballot initiative in Kansas. For this reason, we must be really clear: we’re not just fighting for some abstraction called choice or privacy. We’re fighting for abortion rights, for healthcare, for birth control, for reproductive justice, for an end to poverty. Choice is an important concept, but let’s stop using it as a euphemism for abortion. Abortion doesn’t need a euphemism. Abortion is a life-saving and necessary medical procedure.
As far as lessons go, most obviously, the US can learn from the Marea Verde movement. Like the movement in Latin America, we’re also dealing with separate states with distinct laws, prohibitions, and hurdles, even though in the US context, these separate states are still bundled into one legally incoherent nation-state. But I think the big lesson is that Marea Verde protests developed out of organic conditions—specifically, from the long remnants of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, which formed in response to the dictatorship in 1977.
The movement for reproductive justice in the US will develop out of organic conditions here. We don’t have that unbroken lineage of five decades of activism, but we have the knowledge base of older activists from the sixties and seventies, the legacy of ACTUP and clinic defense activism from the 1990s, more recently the BLM movement and the Women’s Strike in the 2010s, and we have our recent lessons from the George Floyd protests. These and the current organizing at Amazon and Starbucks and the unionization of service industry workers are our organic conditions. Clearly the political work can’t be left to NGOs and lawyers, and it certainly isn’t going to be solved by the capitalist party currently in power.
How would you describe the critical strategic challenges that confront the movement for reproductive justice in the United States today?
CAMILA: This is a moment of profound crisis across the board. The climate crisis, the skyrocketing cost of living while wages stagnate and inflation continues, lack of accessible healthcare and affordable housing, attacks on trans and queer people, crumbling public education and transportation infrastructures, billions of dollars being pumped into racist policing and the carceral system. Abortion bans and lack of accessible, affordable abortion and reproductive healthcare will only become more and more integral to this general landscape.
It has always been a pillar of crises of care, and it’s only going to get worse. Pregnancy- and birth-related health effects, such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, postpartum hemorrhaging, depression, and even death, are becoming more prevalent. The surveillance, criminalization, and imprisonment of pregnant people and those who help others have abortions, many of them women relatives like big sisters and mothers, will only get worse. People who already could not or did not want to give birth and raise children under these conditions will now face the reality of mounting obstacles to getting abortions.
The idea that abortion is somehow a “niche” or “specialized” issue—or even a “woman’s” issue—is something we have to work to reframe and reconceptualize on a level of mass public consciousness as well as among the Left. Abortion is everything and everything is abortion. I think that is part of the task and challenge that abortion and reproductive justice organizers face now.
SHERRY: We need to remember that this is not fifty years ago. Tens of millions today have had abortions and the overwhelming majority of the population agrees that abortion should be legal and accessible—along with wider reproductive services. We cannot go back.
And we cannot accommodate to the far right’s desire that we go underground as a movement. That means we need to find ways to organize broad numbers to demonstrate publicly our opposition to and, ultimately, a commitment to defy these unjust laws. We need to learn from our Argentine, Mexican, and Irish siblings how to politicize mutual aid efforts that must be supported to help millions of people in need now.
A depoliticized service model approach to a crisis like this can work against us by accommodating to the deteriorating status quo while exhausting our never-enough resources and neglecting to organize opposition. The demand is too enormous, and we cannot DIY ourselves through bans impacting so many millions of people.
Teach-ins, protests, common days of action, and clinic defenses of course are essential. But we also need to develop meaningful ways for people to collectively and publicly express that this ban will not be normalized, and people are willing to challenge it—from pledges of resistance to spreading information and resources for self-managed abortions and networks of care.
Organized labor must take a stand. Grad students at many unionized universities are discussing days of action and a potential fall walkout for reproductive justice; unions are writing demands to place in contracts that don’t just affect their own members but include communities they serve. If we truly believe that abortion bans are attacks on bodily autonomy, then we need to discuss the broader implications, including the current escalation of legislative assaults and outright violence on trans people and trans rights, especially the dangerous attacks on trans children.
EMILY: The reinvigorated anti-abortion movement is much savvier and has learned valuable lessons that the “pro-choice” movement, led by a constellation of nonprofits and Democratic Party operatives, has failed to effectively counter. The on-the-ground anti-abortion movement has organized widespread networks and reinstated the clinic invasion tactics of the 1990s—this time, however, under the guise of “protecting women” through “civil disobedience” from the “violence of abortion.”
As abortion bans take hold in red states, abortion clinics in blue states will be stretched thin to meet demand from out-of-state patients—not to mention, increasing waves of antis from other states travelling to harass those patients. Abortion itself has been rebranded as “violence against women”—and as systemic extermination of Black and Brown babies—by the Right. This is particularly effective messaging as the logic of “choice” doesn’t really hold up in a world where so many of our decisions are coerced by financial and social circumstances.
The “pro-choice” Democratic establishment is ultimately only concerned with protecting the ruling class; it cannot offer ordinary people liberation or bodily autonomy, of which abortion rights are only one facet. It surely strikes a chord with many people who, disillusioned with the neoliberal promise of “choice,” are told, “The abortion-industrial complex would rather murder the children of the poor and saddle women with the pain and trauma of abortion than provide for them.”
Of course, this social justice-oriented PR campaign falls apart with even minimal prodding. Forced pregnancy is far more traumatic, involves a far greater toll on the body, and is far deadlier than abortion. The ranks of the anti-abortion movement are not actually filled with well-meaning progressives but are deeply seeded with white nationalists and fascists in general. One need only speak to one of these supposedly “pro-woman” antis for five minutes to find out what they truly think about people who have sex for pleasure and choose to have abortions rather than become parents—not to mention their stance on hormonal birth control.
The Right, particularly in areas where abortion bans are most stringent and punitive, has also engineered a world where childbirth and childrearing are dangerous, exorbitantly expensive, and grueling for most people. And of course, bringing criminal charges against seventeen-year-olds for self-managing their own abortions—like in the recent case of Celeste Burgess and her mother Jessica Burgess in Nebraska—seems to run pretty counter to all the faux concern and “pro-woman” rhetoric.
The augmented power of the carceral state to persecute, penalize, and brutalize abortion seekers is perhaps the most alarming development today, particularly in alliance with tech companies, many of which have deep right-wing connections. The case outlined above involved Meta (formerly Facebook) handing over data to law enforcement indicating that the Burgesses had searched for information on purchasing abortion pills.
This tactic has been used by law enforcement before—bringing charges against people based on Internet searches for self-managed abortion resources. But as abortion bans increase in number and stringency, we can expect to see much more of this kind of thing. And the pro-choice Democratic establishment is hand-in-glove with the police. In New York City, Democratic mayor Eric Adams has promised that the NYPD will protect abortion access in the city, even as the NYPD protects and escorts the Archdiocese’s procession of right-wingers as they march to the Bleecker Street Planned Parenthood to harass patients.
JOCELYN: In Canada, I think it is important to recognize what was happening in late 1988 when the Canadian abortion law was repealed and the government attempted to pass new legislation, Bill C43, in 1989/90. During this time there was ongoing widespread outrage and fightbacks against both the right-wing and a repressive state.
This included the Women Against Violence Against Women coalition, formed after the 1989 killing of fourteen purported feminists at École Polytechnique in Montreal. In 1990, we saw the Oka blockade by Mohawks of Kanehsatàke, Quebec, of a golf course development threatening traditional Indigenous land and massive state military retaliation and violence. And the Black Action Defense Committee in Toronto led large public protests of police killings of Black people in the mid-nineties.
Outrage Canada in Edmonton and Lesbians and Gays Against Police Violence in Montreal were formed in response to police violence against the LGBT communities in those cities, and Aids Action Now in Toronto repeatedly confronted the state over the abandonment of those living with HIV and AIDS. During such a time of protest, with movements sharing demands, building momentum, and drawing confidence from each other, the state is forced to respond.
So today, a movement for reproductive justice that supported and formed an alliance with multiracial anti-criminalization groups could be a formidable force for transformational change. We should join the calls to reinvest policing funds into building safer communities for all, including safe reproductive care and full access to free abortion services. We have shown that we can build robust and popular community support systems instead of injunctions to keep abortion clinics safe and accessible.
Further, if we look at recent impactful resistances in the US and elsewhere, movements that have appealed to people across a broad range of struggles have managed to mobilize masses of people and force governments to respond. In the last issue of Spectre, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor described the way the Black Lives Matter-led insurgence in 2020 managed to mobilize those fed up with the deep inequalities in every aspect of life in the US, and Camila Valle described the way the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina in the late 1970s appealed to kin, care, and community in building massive popular support for the struggle against their dictatorship.
So, could we build broad alliances across anti-oppression movements in the US today that speak to a wide range of experiences and demands around bodily autonomy and decriminalization, particularly of those most abandoned by medical and social systems and most targeted by legal and carceral state structures? Fighting the criminalization and regulation of women and trans bodies with an alliance of sex workers, queer folx, antipoverty activists and the abolition movement fighting racist and colonialist policing and prisons could help expose the connections between how laws are used to harass and control different populations.
Others will work within the electoral political system to fight for bodily autonomy for women, but to obtain lasting reproductive justice and care I think we must continue to build a broad mass movement that centers and addresses the ways criminalization and lack of social supports affect the most marginalized women and trans folx, and continue to find ways to support and keep them safe within the community rather than calling for more legislation and policing.
Back in the 1990s in Canada after the abortion law was struck down, attacks from the Right continued. But the mobilization of people who took to the streets to fight for sexual and reproductive autonomy—joined by the strength, heightened public awareness, and outrage of other struggles against injustice being waged across society—persuaded the incumbent and future governments that they would not be able to successfully introduce new legislation in this area. Even conservative governments (like that of Stephen Harper), with many, if not a majority of MPs spouting antichoice politics, could not put forward any abortion legislation for fear of reigniting very broad and highly organized movements in the streets if reproductive or sexual rights came under attack.
HOLLY: The first problem in the US is privatized, for-profit healthcare. As Cami pointed out in her article in Spectre’s Issue 5, the Green Wave emerged within a context of socialized medicine. In other words, in the Latin American context, once you get past the taboos imposed by the church, abortion is just another healthcare procedure in a region where healthcare is presumed to be a right.
There isn’t a consensus that healthcare is a right in the US. In the classical liberal view, it’s an earned reward. In the far right view, it’s a wasteful entitlement gobbled up by the lazy and should be reserved for the nation’s most innocent and pure: sick babies, soldiers on the battlefield, maybe—I don’t know—kindly grandmas. So even among pro-choice liberals, “personal responsibility” talk pervades every debate, which leads the discussion away from understanding abortion as healthcare and gets us into debates about sexual morality.
This kind of moralistic thinking invites all kinds of intrusive questions about who deserves a simple healthcare procedure, which leads to intrusive legislation. All these debates about who deserves an abortion and who doesn’t are ideological gifts to the far right. And obviously, for the far right, no one deserves an abortion.
The other problem with privatized healthcare is that the overall distrust working class and oppressed people have with for-profit medicine makes it difficult to organize solidarity between doctors, clinics, and patients. We know that medical schools have disregarded Black people’s and women’s pain, have discriminated against fat people and trans people. (It also needs to be pointed out that some practitioners have led the charge to change such discrimination.) We’re trapped by medical debt and can’t afford lifegiving care.
And the anti-abortion bigots draw on this in their recruitment literature. Hell, they even say they’re against the “abortion industry.” To that we can only say, “yes, we’re arguing for free abortion, no industry involved.” But the fact that healthcare is privatized in the US gives the far right the ability to dress in radical clothes and say, “oh, look, we’re anticapitalist too.” At this point, the clearest way to even argue abortion rights is to fight for socialized medicine: public healthcare without a profit motive.
The second problem is the national unevenness of the situation. The overturn of Roe is not one national abortion crisis, nor does everyone on the Right necessarily intend it to be. The immediate task of activists in certain states (California, New York, Oregon, Massachusetts, Illinois) should be protecting and expanding abortion access, and preparing for out-of-state abortion seekers.
The immediate organizing efforts of activists in anti-abortion regions is much more complex, and our ability to even communicate is a legal gray zone. In anti-abortion states, there are at least three possible political layers present that are absent in the protected states.
The first layer is, obviously, the absence of abortion, the medical crisis it creates, the financial burden of traveling for non-medication abortion, how criminalization will make medication abortion more difficult to obtain, how there will be a rise in unwanted pregnancies and reproductive health emergencies. This is what most discussions of the fall of Roe are addressing. But there are other layers that may be present.
The second layer is—and this is not necessarily going to be the case in all regions—the redefinition of personhood, the criminal penalties surrounding that, and how that redefinition of personhood will transform the lives of anyone who has a uterus or is perceived to have one. For example, in Texas, legislation exists that allows complete strangers to earn a $10,000 bounty on everyone and anyone who has aided and abetted an abortion, from counselors to rideshare drivers.
Last I read, performing an actual abortion risks from five to one hundred years in prison if the abortion is not, for some reason, deemed necessary to save the life of the gestator—not the health, the life. A fertilized egg is now a person. It has all the same rights that I have. (Pointing out the hypocrisy and contradictions of the abysmal conditions of birth and childhood in Texas has not moved people’s opinion on fertilized eggs being people.)
This “second layer problem” of fertilized-egg personhood is different than the “first layer problem” of the financial burden of having to go out of state to get medical services. The state is literally redefining what it means to be human and outlining new relationships between humans based on organ types. It is profoundly bizarre. It will transform the legal system in states like Texas. I have very little hope that on-again-off-again decrees from Democrats in the Oval Office will change much.
The third layer is an overall hollowing out of reproductive justice in such regions. For example, I’m hearing new ob-gyns are refusing to move to Nebraska because the state is forcing them to withhold medical information from patients who might get sick without an abortion. The overturning of Roe v. Wade is creating ob-gyn deserts already and sucking the last bit of life from the rural reproductive deserts that already existed, which were disproportionately affecting immigrants and Black people to begin with.
With fewer doctors practicing reproductive healthcare in Texas, queer and trans Texans will have even fewer choices than we already do. The cascading effect of Roe’s end is often couched in conceptual, legal losses like “choice” and “privacy,” but the effects are also real material losses, the destruction of real material conditions.
The final problem is the lack of left organizational infrastructure or big picture planning. Simply put, over the past thirty years, the movement placed its hopes solely in the Democratic Party and legal strategies, even though the Democratic Party is weakly pro-choice and largely squeamish about abortion. It was a disaster.
That said, simply yelling at people about how disastrous the Democrats are is also disastrous. Direct service is key. For example, activists in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Carbondale, Illinois, are currently working around the clock to relocate Texas providers to safe zones. We’re only going to build through building.
There is a huge mismatch in the US between widespread public support for abortion rights and the organized power of the antichoice forces. What do you see as crucial elements in rebuilding the movement for reproductive justice and bodily autonomy today?
CAMILA: Anti-abortion forces have been really good at something that the Left and abortion and reproductive justice forces have had real weaknesses around: actually building, in all senses. They have built a base, their own infrastructures, a national profile, reframed the narrative, and so on. They have been very effective in turning the tide, with uneven and overall minimal resistance from our side.
I think our task now as people who fight for abortion rights is to take that seriously and really contend with how we are going to start building. Of course, many of us have been building, but it hasn’t translated into what we could call a mass movement.
This to me is another key lesson from the movement in Argentina: the development, generalization, and integration of demands around abortion within and into the broader left. In the 1980s, after the overthrow of the civic-ecclesiastical-military dictatorship, Argentina went through a process of formal democratization, of which the feminist movement was very much part in its own way, including a sector that was focused on abortion.
In the context of this period of popular participation and activity to rebuild the country, there was a society-wide mobilization of human rights organizations, unions, LGBTQ groups, student movements, and more. By the end of the 1990s, abortion started to develop a different kind of profile, thanks in large part due to these coalitions and collective experiences of political development.
In 2001, the country experienced a profound economic and political crisis that precipitated a new chapter of struggle in Argentinian society—for democracy and against traditional political parties, politicians in general, austerity, and the external debt. During this period, neighborhood assemblies were built, and they functioned both as mutual aid networks and as political organizing spaces.
An abortion assembly was also created by parts of the feminist movement, and it was through this experience that abortion was able to move out of its silo. Abortion activists, who were involved in the abortion assembly, brought abortion to the fore of every single meeting, action, and so on, and established themselves in each one of the other assemblies.
At a certain point, the abortion movement became fully integrated into all the other assemblies and movements, and it was no longer really necessary to have just one specific grouping raise the question of abortion. Abortion became a pillar of all the fronts and all the coalitions—just as you had to be against the external debt, austerity, discrimination, you had to be for abortion. It shows that collective experiences of democratization can help bring marginalized issues like abortion to the fore, both in society more broadly and within the Left in particular.
We should ask ourselves, as people who identify as being on the Left, if we count certain movements, certain organized groups of people who do a lot of great work, as part of the Left, with us? And why or why not? What are the political and strategic implications of this?
The Left needs to become embedded in reproductive justice work. If you want to take the lead on this question, you have to be doing abortion work. You have to actually know what you are talking about. I say that not to chastise anybody, but to point to the fact that there are a lot of organizations that are already doing this work and it won’t be without challenges to integrate the “traditional” left—which for the most part does not and has not organized around abortion—within that.
There will be tensions in that process. Abortion must become more central to the Left. Leftists need to know what mifepristone and misoprostol are, they need to know the menstrual cycle, they need to know feminist history. Socialists have to be able to talk about abortion specifically. It is not enough to be a socialist.
The abortion movement of the 1960s and ’70s in the United States came out of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s not surprising to me that the overturning of Roe and a new phase of struggle around abortion and reproductive justice in this country is coming a decade into the Black Lives Matter movement and only a couple years after the mass uprisings of 2020 sparked by the racist murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. There is a political legacy there that we must pay close attention to.
Our state institutions are trying to control us as tightly as possible, in part as a response to the BLM uprisings, and the general public consciousness against policing, surveillance, state violence, the carceral system, and our supposed democratic institutions in general. The police have lost legitimacy, elections have lost legitimacy, the Supreme Court has lost legitimacy.
There’s a lot there to contend with. It’s on us to make the connections to abortion and bodily autonomy and become organic components of this growing radicalization to fight for reproductive justice and, with it, a profound transformation of society from the bottom up.
SHERRY: When abortion rights hung in the balance during the George Bush Sr. administration with the 1989 Supreme Court decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, five hundred thousand pro-choice supporters traveled to Washington in April to demonstrate in support of the right to choose as the justices were deliberating on their ruling. That helped make a difference in the Court’s decision to preserve abortion rights.
In the aftermath of the mass protests in the lead up to the 1989 Webster decision, which allowed states to restrict abortion but didn’t eliminate them, public opinion shifted even further in support of abortion rights. A majority supported Roe in every region of the country, every age group, both political parties, and even in the Catholic Church.
Operation Rescue’s fringe status didn’t stop the “right to life” movement from taking its crusade on the road—in an effort to blockade and close down women’s clinics during the 1980s. Anti-abortion groups mobilized their forces to harass patients and clinic workers and, and if they could, block the clinics.
In August 1991 when thousands of Operation Rescue supporters hit Wichita, Kansas, as part of its “Summer of Mercy,” groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW), National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and Planned Parenthood argued for relying on injunctions and police to keep the clinics open. No protests were organized, and the Operation Rescue bigots successfully shut down Wichita clinics for weeks. Notably, one of their followers murdered one of the last abortion providers in Wichita twenty years later, Dr. Tiller.
Then, as today, Planned Parenthood clinic operators, who are essentially small business owners—along with heads of NGOs like NOW and NARAL—actively opposed setting up clinic defenses, saying that our efforts would scare women away and create a hostile environment, and that women wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between us and the bigots. It was absurd then, and it’s even more absurd today.
The focus of groups like NOW, NARAL, and Pro-Choice America has largely been to support legislation and politicians who say they will defend reproductive rights, rather than mobilize the forces that would push for women’s demands from below. In 1992, as the Court prepared to hear Planned Parenthood v. Casey, NOW called another massive response in Washington, D.C. But when Bill Clinton came into office the next year, there were no such massive protests for a woman’s right to choose.
Though candidate Clinton promised to pass something called the Freedom of Choice Act to guarantee abortion as the law of the land, he dropped it as soon as he came into office. Rather than challenge Clinton and the Democrats to defend reproductive justice, the middle class women’s groups dropped all pressure in order to give their “allies” the space and time to negotiate with the Republicans. That time and space never came.
From the start, Clinton’s refrain that abortions should be “safe, legal and rare” was, at best, an apologetic defense of abortion rights. His administration continually sought to find what they called “middle ground” with those who opposed abortion. As a result, more legislation restricting abortion was passed during the Clinton administration than during the Bush Sr. years.
But when the Left saw what had happened in Wichita, we were horrified and began organizing in earnest. In the spring of 1992, when Operation Rescue said it was heading to Buffalo, pro-choice activists from around the country mobilized for loud and confident defenses of the clinics. Students from Catholic-run Loyola University were among those who made the long drive from Chicago to New York state to take on the bigots.
I was in WHAM! (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization) an offshoot of ACT UP NY, which organized busloads of queers and others from the city nine hours away. We literally got into hand-to-hand combat with the bigots at the doors of the clinics and in the streets. And I will never forget the sight of gay men in drag—The Church Ladies for Choice, who stood for practical shoes and free abortion on demand—using their purses, shoes, and wit to beat back the bigots.
The Democrats who were running for office wanted nothing to do with us and, once again, NOW counseled its chapters to rely on injunctions. NARAL and Planned Parenthood, the same story. But thousands of regular people saw what happened in Wichita and responded to small grassroots efforts like Buffalo United for Choice and a socialist-initiated Reproductive Rights National Network, R2 N2.
The result: we smashed Operation Rescue.
EMILY: Abortion rights need to be conceived of not as a matter of “choice” and “privacy” and “clumps of cells”—but rather, an integral part of the liberation of the working class. Gestation, birth, and childrearing are of course deeply personal, but they are also labor—the labor of creating new workers to sustain the growth necessary for capitalism to flourish. This labor is coercively placed upon to those assigned female at birth, including cis women, transgender men, and some nonbinary people.
The dismantling of abortion rights in this moment is not accidentally timed. The growing wave of class consciousness and labor organizing, the devastation of the Covid–19 pandemic, along with the galvanized movement to defund and abolish policing, could only be met in one of two ways—greater concessions to the working class, or greater surveillance and incarceration, the growing criminalization of poverty. As such, it will take a mass movement of workers who refuse to produce this labor, especially under such unsafe and undignified conditions, to demand a guarantee of free, legal, and safe abortion.
This mass movement must include mutual aid and direct action as part of an abolitionist politics and to develop the consciousness required to build and sustain the movement. If we are afraid of clinic closures and a return to dangerous back-alley abortions which will kill pregnant people, we need to remember that it is the police who make self-managed abortions so dangerous. Self-managed abortions can absolutely be done safely, especially with the advent of the abortion pill. Self-managed abortions are safer than, for instance, home births.
However, the criminalization of “aiding and abetting abortion” will ensure that safe self-managed abortions become dangerous and traumatic, that information and resources to perform them safely will remain inaccessible, that abortion seekers will have no one to turn to and no one to help them, except for the most brazen and unscrupulous of opportunists. It is essential that every one of us is prepared to “aid and abet” abortion—that we share abortion pills, build abortion funds, develop knowledge of how to safely self-manage abortions. It is essential that we defend our clinics from invaders and refuse to cede the clinic space to the right.
JOCELYN: As many movements have demonstrated, to help mobilize large masses of people there sometimes arise particularly egregious individual cases that ignite people’s outrage at widespread repression. In Quebec in the summer of 1989, a man named Jean-Guy Tremblay was granted an injunction preventing his ex-girlfriend, Chantal Daigle, from getting an abortion, even after he admitted to physical abuse in the relationship. The Quebec Court of Appeal ruled the fetus was “a distinct human entity” and denied Chantal access to an abortion, a ruling which was eventually overturned by Canada’s Supreme Court. But in the interim, Chantal was forced to go to Boston to get an abortion.
Movements must of course already be highly organized and ready to take advantage of these moments but, after decades of work organizing, this case certainly helped galvanize people against the state’s proposed new abortion bill in Canada.
Beyond what has previously been discussed, I think it’s important that our movements build on the work of the social reproduction activists and, coming out of the pandemic, rising public awareness around the impoverishment of health and care work. I think it is also important that we continue analyzing and exposing the economic underpinnings of policing, regulation, repression, and criminalization of certain communities.
In Toronto we have noticed a significant escalation in aggressive policing as we come out of the pandemic, especially of racialized, trans, Indigenous, and homeless folx. Jamie Magnusson and Beverly Bain raise the idea that this heightened surveillance and policing in increasingly privatized city spaces allows value creation to take place and makes the city itself the site of capital accumulation.
For example, during the pandemic groupings of a few dozen homeless folx each had built encampments in Toronto public parks in an attempt to create community, safety, and Covid-free spaces. In the summer of 2021, hundreds of police and security personnel descended on and attacked these encampments and their supporters in an extreme show of force. Supporters were aggressively arrested by police, many needing treatment for broken bones and concussions. Police posted pictures of other supporters around the city to target, harass, and repress support for the use of public space for unhoused people to live and seek safety rather than maximizing the economic value of this and surrounding land.
Furthering the analysis of how criminalizing and controlling women’s bodies—particularly Black, Indigenous, poor, trans, and young bodies, and of those with disabilities—fits into these accumulation strategies might give us a more complete understanding of all that we are up against and how best to expose, challenge, and interrupt these capitalist processes.
HOLLY: There is widespread public support for abortion, but abortion is still generally framed as a scandalous service one pays for quietly out-of-pocket as opposed to a normal healthcare procedure. So, the widespread public support is wishy-washy and full of caveats and exceptions, whereas the opposition is deeply committed. But even if we had a solid majority, the numbers themselves aren’t going to do the politics.
It worries me that sometimes people think the far right can’t win unless it gains a 50.1 percent majority. Capitalists in the US are conflicted about certain aspects of the family. Certainly, most of them probably do not like the end of Roe. But fetal personhood in certain regions, medical disaster zones for pregnant people, reproductive health deserts in the South and Midwest—maybe that will be an acceptable to pro-choice capitalists if it doesn’t affect their bottom line too much. It is not a defeat we can accept.