Why Abortion Is a Labor Issue

Can unions team with feminists to create an ‘American Spring?’

Linda Gordon

Organized labor should be out there on the protest lines energetically supporting reproductive rights. (Charlotte Cooper / Flickr / Creative Commons)

On Dec. 11, 2012, Michigan passed two right-to-work laws, one for public and one for private employees. As even our president said, right to work” in this case means right to work for lower wages.” These laws do not free workers to reject joining a union, because they already have that right. Instead, the laws abolish the requirement that those who don’t join a union pay the equivalent of union dues, a requirement designed to prevent free riders” — workers who benefit from union contracts without paying their fair share.

This coincidence of anti-labor and anti-abortion legislation is not a coincidence. They are part of the same right-wing agenda. If progressives are to build successful resistance to that agenda, our own agenda needs to include both labor and reproductive rights.

Three days later, the same lame-duck legislature passed the most extreme anti-abortion laws in the nation. These laws define abortion so broadly that it includes even the removal of a fetus that has died as a result of natural causes, accidental trauma, or a criminal assault on the pregnant woman.” The laws prohibit any private or public insurance from covering abortion; charge physicians performing abortion with the responsibility of seeing that any piece of human tissue receive the burial due to a deceased person; and put the burden on the physician to prove that the abortion patient was not coerced. Perhaps worst, the laws place many arbitrary requirements on clinics, none of them health-related, that most of the state’s women’s clinics would be forced to close.

This coincidence of anti-labor and anti-abortion legislation is not a coincidence. They are part of the same right-wing agenda. If progressives are to build successful resistance to that agenda, our own agenda needs to include both labor and reproductive rights.

But unions and other supporters of labor have typically ignored reproductive rights. Some of this hands-off position came from deference to Catholics, but if that was once reasonable, it no longer is. Ninety-eight percent of sexually active Catholic women have used contraception in defiance of the church’s teaching, and plenty of Catholics have abortions. Another reason for ignoring reproductive rights was the traditional maleness of unions, also no longer the case: Today women constitute 44 percent of union members.

But the most pernicious problem has been the way mainstream politicians and media define reproductive rights as a feminist” demand, which then evokes the old labor and leftist view that feminism is a movement of elites. That’s wrong, too: If you ask women not about the label feminism,” but about the issues that make up a feminist program — such as equal pay, equal job opportunity, affordable day care, shared housework, an end to violence against women, and reproductive rights — it turns out that working-class and poor women are the most feminist.

In fact, the Republican war on women” is not targeting only women, any more than the war on labor is targeting only men. All middle- and working-class people, and especially the poor, benefit from a strong labor movement — it’s our best bulwark against a race to the wage bottom. Similarly, being able to control how many children to have and when to have them is something men as well as women need. Access to affordable birth control has become a necessity of modern life, and this is the opinion of the majority of Americans, as well as the majority of religious Americans of all ethnic groups—including religious African Americans, Latino Catholic and Latino Protestants.

The great majority of abortion decisions are made jointly by the men and women responsible for the pregnancy. The great majority of abortion decisions rest on economic considerations: We can’t afford a child, or another child; we can’t survive on one income; child care is too expensive for us; it would be better to finish high school, or college, or graduate school first; it’s too soon after the previous birth; I can no longer rely on my mother or sister or grandmother for help.

In other words, anti-abortion laws amount to class legislation, even if not all of their proponents realize that. As during the 19th century, when abortion became illegal for the first time, the well-to-do always found ways to obtain abortions, by paying private physicians or traveling to countries more realistic about sex and the economy. It’s the working class, the middle class and the young who depend on the clinics that the Michigan law will close. Publicly funded clinics provide one-quarter of all family planning services, and for many low-income women, they are the first entry point into any adult health care. At most clinics, initial visits are free and fees for further services depend on income. The majority of clinics provide immunizations, physical exams, postpartum and prenatal care, and well-baby care. More than 40 percent provide primary healthcare, and many also provide genetic screening, mammograms, infertility counseling and mental health care. These clinics are usually the only source of reproductive health care for the most marginalized groups: drug abusers, prison inmates, those with disabilities and the homeless. And they often serve men as well as women, providing HIV testing and referrals, safe sex instruction, and prostate and testicular cancer screening.

Other abortion decisions are made by teenagers — who don’t have access to contraception, or whose partners pressure them into sex and won’t use condoms, or who think that using contraception makes them sluts.” These are the women who are least well-prepared to be parents at the time.

The best way to reduce abortions is, of course, to make contraception easily accessible and free. (Although most anti-abortion advocates also oppose these measures.) But accidents happen; contraception is not flawless. And neither are people. Sex is an unruly force. That’s why, as all teenagers know, abstinence education doesn’t work.

But there’s an immediate political reason that labor should energetically support reproductive rights: However misnamed, the war on women” angered and mobilized women across class lines. The Republican attacks elicited an outpouring of money and support for Planned Parenthood — when the Komen breast-cancer foundation tried to cut off support for Planned Parenthood, it was forced to take back the threat within days. This resistance represents a growing awareness of the dangers of the right-wing agenda. Pro-choice people tend to be progressive on many issues other than abortion, including domestic spending and foreign policy. But in my experience, not all understand fully the arguments for labor: that destroying unions pushes down everyone’s standard of living.

Here in Wisconsin, the massive uprising against the Scott Walker/​ALEC agenda in 2011 was probably majority female, like the public-sector workers that were its main victims. Then, in his victorious recall election campaign, Walker appealed explicitly to his base of white men, talking up hunting, guns, and projecting a combative, aggressive image, while the anti-Walker campaign noticeably neglected raising any of the women’s issues.” The anti-Walker forces should have prioritized the connections between his anti-union and anti-women’s rights agenda. Union forces simply can’t afford to write off women’s issues” as outside their concern. Building an alliance with feminist groups should be a labor movement priority if we are to produce the American spring” that David Moberg calls for.

Linda Gordon is a University Professor of the Humanities and professor of history at NYU, teaching courses on gender, social movements, imperialism and the 20th-century U.S. in general. She has published a number of prize-winning works of history and won many prestigious awards, including Guggenheim, NEH, ACLS, Radcliffe Institute and the New York Public Library¹s Cullman Center fellowships.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.