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In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, defenders of abortion rights face a stark choice in how to respond. While many politicians and organizations have taken up a liberal individualist position on the question of abortion, by emphasizing personal choice rather than collective rights, it’s critical to highlight an alternative approach: Through a socialist feminist perspective, we can understand and speak about abortion as a class issue that impacts working people everywhere. This approach could help reproductive health activists organize a mass movement strong enough to win free abortion on demand, without apology.
When feminism is detached from class struggle, it runs the risk of being distorted and commodified into a neoliberal, “lean-in” version of feminism that merely celebrates individual women’s achievements under capitalism while ignoring actions that ultimately undermine solidarity. Pop star Beyoncé, for example, can be celebrated for — and profit from — a hit single that quotes feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie while also crossing a picket line to host an Oscars after-party in the face of striking hotel workers calling for a boycott.
Socialist feminism, meanwhile, is not about individual achievements but rather building collective power in order to achieve liberation and reproductive justice for all.
A socialist feminist position understands that abortion can’t be framed as an individual “choice” but rather as an inherent right for women and all people who give birth. The word “choice” individualizes a social issue, stripping it of its core value, and frames people as consumers, which can lead to the destruction of basic social rights. Think of the use of the term “school choice” when referring to the take-over of public education by charter networks and other private interests. Or the commonly used talking point against Medicare for All that warns universal healthcare will take away our “choice” of insurance plans.
This is not to say the existence of choices is inherently neoliberal. But the way the word is used by those in power creates the illusion of individual freedom in a world where social circumstances, especially class, largely restrict our choices for us. Is abortion ever really a “choice” if you can’t afford the procedure, or if you have to take off work and travel across state lines to get it? We must reject not only the word “choice” but also the neoliberal framing it invites. Let’s normalize saying what we’re actually fighting for — abortion rights for all.
We should also be clear on why the ruling class — corporate America, the super rich and their bought-and-paid-for politicians — cares about restricting the essential power that women and people who give birth have in a capitalist society: we own the means of reproduction. While right-wing Christian extremists have fought abortion on a religious basis for decades, billionaire political donors like the Koch brothers, who self-identified as “pro-choice,” funded this fight in large part because, as the late David Koch put it in a 2019 interview, “I’m really focused intensely on economic and fiscal issues”.
For the ruling class, abortion is not about morality, but instead it is and always has been about control, labor and profit. As feminist organizer and author Jenny Brown says in her 2019 book Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now, “From the standpoint of the 99% lower birth rates are a phony crisis, but from the standpoint of the establishment, the problem is real. Their profits and capitalist economic growth in general, rely on a continuously growing workforce.” This helps explain why comprehensive sex education and contraception — two resources that would actually prevent abortions in the first place — are also under attack.
Birthing and raising human beings is a costly endeavor that other developed nations with stronger public infrastructure subsidize through universal healthcare, childcare and paid parental leave. The United States, on the other hand, has refused to support would-be parents and instead passes on the enormous cost of birthing and raising people onto an exploited class of care laborers, mostly women, who either perform this labor for free, or pay exorbitant costs from their already low wages to private childcare — an industry that relies primarily on the labor of women of color and often pays poverty wages.
The disproportionate impact the pandemic and school closures have had on women and caregivers, with millions leaving the workforce to care for our families, is clear evidence that the care labor keeping our society running is always expected to come at the expense of women and caregivers’ freedom. (And they wonder why we are choosing not to have children).
On the day of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, 13 states already had “trigger laws” on the books to prohibit abortion following the overturning of Roe. We know from existing evidence about who abortion restrictions impact that coming abortion bans will hurt poor people and people of color first and hardest. Abortion bans are equivalent to class warfare. And we need the full support of organized labor to fight back against these injustices — which includes everything from internal efforts to strengthen abortion access through improving existing collective bargaining agreements to broader political efforts that withhold union support for candidates that are not staunchly in favor of protecting and expanding abortion rights.
A socialist feminist approach also means organizing for full Reproductive Justice, of which abortion is but one aspect. The Reproductive Justice framework, created by Black feminist organizer Loretta Ross, demands that we grapple with the right to abortion and the right to parent with dignity — a right historically denied to women of color through slavery, forced sterilization, incarceration, deportation and other forms of oppression that have disproportionately targeted women and people of color.
When we understand abortion as a social right, and as part of a larger framework of Reproductive Justice, we can then fight for all the social needs that people must have in order to thrive: universal healthcare, universal childcare, robust and well-funded public education, and a system focused on providing care, not cages.
Right now there are countless people whose trust in our “democratic” institutions has been broken and who see the Democratic Party’s meager response of sending fundraising emails and reading poems as not meeting the demands of the moment. These disaffected supporters of abortion rights are looking for a way to take action. What better vehicle than a movement that will fight for the full rights, bodily autonomy and public infrastructure that we deserve?
If you’re looking for who will lead the fight for reproductive justice at this historic juncture, look at the people who have helped lead the way: Socialists feminists. We’re ready to welcome you into this fight.
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Diana Moreno is an organizer with the Queens, New York branch of the Democratic Socialists of America.