What kind of “equality” does abortion promote?

25 May, 2022

Conflicting positions on abortion at the gates of the US Supreme Court.
Conflicting positions on abortion at the gates of the US Supreme Court.

The debate on abortion is once again taking center stage in the United States and everything suggests that both parties are going to turn it into an argument for electoral recruitment. While one side wants to force millions of women to carry their pregnancies to term even against their will, the other defends that abortion promotes “equality” because it allows women to keep their jobs whenever maternity is discriminated against by the employer or is associated with dismissal and because it saves the state millions in day-care centers and assistance systems… thus allowing it to devote itself to fueling the war and increasing the profitability of capital.

While it is obvious that we must defend ourselves against anti-abortionism, we must also confront the feminist arguments that render invisible the discrimination of working women and reduce them to the status of animals in order to hide and justify ignominious conditions of exploitation. We need to confront both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” from our own class terrain. For if we let them we will have neither a life worthy of being called that nor any other choice but to resign ourselves to choose as women workers between being midwives or beasts of burden… to end up being both.

Table of Contents

Why is the abortion debate making a comeback in the U.S.?

Anti-abortion demonstration
Anti-abortion demonstration

Last May 2nd, Politico published a first draft of the position taken by the majority of the Supreme Court in which most of the justices rehearsed arguments in favor of overturning the famous Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973. Complaints about the leak were followed by the conflicting positions of Republicans and Democrats who see the issue as a way to mobilize votes for the upcoming November elections.

What is Roe v. Wade?

Norma McCorvey, left, also known as Jane Roe in the 1973 decision, outside the Supreme Court in Washington in 1989
Norma McCorvey, left, also known as Jane Roe in the 1973 decision, outside the Supreme Court in Washington in 1989.

Roe v. Wade is a 1973 ruling that declared that women in the U.S. have the inalienable right to get an abortion during the first trimester, but that states may prohibit abortion for health reasons during the second trimester, and may prohibit it altogether during the third trimester except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.

In other words, Roe v. Wade allows the various states in the country leeway to restrict access to abortion by guaranteeing a minimum. Overturning the ruling would mean that it would be up to state legislatures to decide whether and to what extent they want to restrict abortion.

The background

Margaret Sanger surrounded by co-religionists
Margaret Sanger surrounded by co-religionists

The Democratic Party’s current position on abortion is well known: women should have the right to have an abortion so that they can freely choose what to do with their bodies and their lives. The “My Body, My Choice” argument is always at the forefront of every op-ed in the New York Times, on CNN and even in protest slogans.

The roots of the argument go back to the feminist advocates of Voluntary Motherhood… but abortion before the 1960s had always been characterized by feminists as morally wrong. Even Planned Parenthood’s own founder, Sanger, condemned abortion as barbaric… although she considered it inevitable in a world where birth control was unaffordable.

Yet it was within Planned Parenthood during the postwar period that we find some of the first pro-choice activists. Planned Parenthood during the 1960s continued its racist and classist policy of targeting its “birth control services” to those it considered “inferior.” That is why it placed its centers in poor neighborhoods, populated largely by immigrants and blacks. During this period, voices began to be raised within Planned Parenthood that considered birth control to be an insufficient means of controlling the reproduction of “inferiors”.

For that reason, prominent members such as Dr. Alan Guttmacher, who saw forced abortion as justifiable to reduce population, supported the legal right to abortion before Planned Parenthood eventually adopted it as its official position in 1969. Guttmacher, a member of the American Eugenics Society, was also a leader of PP-WP, the international (imperialist) arm of Planned Parenthood, which was dedicated to working with international organizations to spread its birth control policy in other countries.

But there was another element, no less classist, that pushed feminism toward abortion advocacy.

Neo-Malthusianism enters the picture

NARAL planning meeting in 1969
NARAL planning meeting in 1969.

In some currents of eugenic politics, such as that of Margaret Sanger, a totem of American feminism, the desire to limit the family size not only of the “inferiors” but of the petty bourgeoisie were ever present. Her argument: if petty bourgeois families grow too large they run the risk of becoming proletarianized.

So there is no contradiction between these two goals, both of which could be found in groups like “Zero Population Growth” (ZPG), formed in 1968. This group, inspired by the neo-Malthusian best seller “The Population Bomb,” could complain on the one hand that Japan no longer resorted to abortion to control its population and, on the other, claim that “middle-class whites” should be given the main population control measures.

The authors of the book, Ehrlich and Harriman, foresaw a much less sophisticated apocalypse than that of the other Malthusian trend in vogue at the time (the “Club of Rome”). They began their argument by giving up “the battle to feed all mankind” and predicted hundreds of millions of deaths in the decade that was to begin.

In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death regardless of any emergency programs undertaken now. At this point nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved by drastic programs to expand land capacity by increasing food production and distributing the available food more equitably. But these programs will only provide a reprieve unless they are accompanied by determined and successful population control efforts.

Since there is no reactionary position in the US without racial derivatives, they advocated stepping up population control efforts among the white petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie as a strategic way of minimizing racial tensions and controversies, arguing that the best way to avoid any suspicion of genocide is to control the population of the dominant group. This is why they also proposed to have black abortion clinic directors and to promote social advancement among black elites because, according to them, “rich blacks tend to have fewer children than rich whites”.

This was not an insignificant group. In fact, the groups and individuals within the population control movement who were most directly involved in the battle to legalize abortion came from the ranks of ZPG.

1969 also saw the formation of NARAL, a “pro-choice” organization co-founded by noted feminist Betty Friedan, which saw abortion as a necessity of population control policy.

Many historians, in recounting the connection between the NOW organization and the population control movement, magnify the differences between Friedan and NARAL’s leadership. They claim that Friedan wanted to defend abortion on the basis of the “inalienable rights of women,” while her fellow NARAL members understood it as part of population control policy.

But these supposedly irresolvable differences did not cause any split. Nor did it prevent NOW and NARAL from pooling their lists of contacts and members to work together. And neither avoided using the other’s arguments.

At no time was there a difference of principles, but different priorities in approaching different environments and social sectors. And for feminism it was of crucial importance to rhetorically equate itself with the civil rights movement.

Why was the neo-Malthusian contribution to the “pro-choice” movement of the 1970s so important? Because for the first time an anti-natalist morality was being massively promoted, especially among the petty bourgeoisie, as a supposed “social good”. Not having children, rather than just planning their number, was presented as something “supportive”, socially “responsible” and good. Neo-Malthusianism provided a new morality theoretically applicable to all social classes which went a step beyond the traditional positions of the petty bourgeoisie and which reinforced the aspirations of the female petty bourgeoisie for social advancement.

How the female petty bourgeoisie changed its position on abortion and began to defend it in the name of “equality”

Estée Lauder was one of the entrepreneurs who opened her business in 1946, taking advantage of the drop in the price of labor resulting from the demobilization of millions of soldiers.
Estée Lauder was one of the entrepreneurs who opened her business in 1946, taking advantage of the drop in the price of labor resulting from the demobilization of millions of soldiers.

The female petty bourgeoisie was more “empowered” than ever after World War II. But in order to rise socially, these women had to fight against the petty bourgeois model of the family… where women stayed at home to dominate the “family sphere”.

The role of petty bourgeois women in the family determined their relationship to the labor market. They could secure administrative or educational jobs when they were single, but once married they had to attend to the responsibilities of the family. This meant that during the Great Depression priority was given to hiring men, and even single women, for positions in academia, law or bureaucracy.

Read also: The postwar period and the evolving role of petty-bourgeois women in the U.S.

Understanding that the reason they could not move up the corporate petty bourgeois ladder was because the prospect of marriage-bound motherhood foreclosed their employability, abortion represented for feminism of this era what birth control represented for Margaret Sanger: “liberating” the married petty-bourgeois woman from the role of mother and opening the door for her to enter the middle-management market in competition with the men of her class for managerial positions. Their marital status would no longer hold them back.

Margaret Sanger criticized abortion at a time when the role of the petty-bourgeois woman was still very much rooted in the traditional model of the family, centered on reproduction and nurturing. But the needs of the war economy and the anti-natalist morality of the population control movement had undermined the petty-bourgeois centrality and sanctification of motherhood. The moral condemnation of abortion was weakened.

Let us be clear: the main argument that feminism of the 1960s made to fight for the legalization of abortion, that women should have full control over their bodies in order to be equal participants in society, had a class origin alien to women workers.

Its origin was, as we have seen, a way of overcoming an obstacle which operated against petty-bourgeois women in the competition for “professional and managerial careers”… but which, in principle, did not affect working women who, married or single, mothers or childless, had no other career ahead of them than to go every day from the factory or the services to the home and from home to work.

Moreover, when abortion was advocated for working women, as the population control movement regularly did, its aim was to encourage them to have abortions “voluntarily”, convincing them that abortion was the only “option” available to them to “escape poverty”. In other words, abortion was the way to maintain purchasing power, not to fight collectively with other workers for higher wages capable of covering all family needs.

What feminism meant and means when it links abortion to equality is clearly seen in the arguments it makes now, decades later, taking stock of the consequences of Roe v. Wade, to argue against the eventual overturning of the ruling by the Supreme Court.

Abortion continues to function as a lever of equality. Pregnant people are still denied job accommodations, despite a 1978 law that supposedly protects them from discrimination. Women still experience an “economic maternity penalty.” The financial effects of being denied an abortion, according to a major study cited by economists, are “as great or greater than those of being evicted, losing health insurance, being hospitalized, or being exposed to flooding” as a result of a hurricane.

Beware the Feminisim of Justice Alito, Emily Bazelon

The equality that feminism claims is provided by abortion is the equality that comes from accepting discrimination against mothers and pregnant women in the workplace. Discrimination that, moreover, is not the same for one class and the other. Among other things because the extension of precarization and the service sector have added to poverty a new concern among women workers: unemployment.

What for the corporate petty bourgeoisie today may mean “choosing” between losing a promotion or having an abortion, for the working woman may well mean “choosing” between becoming unemployed and probably living in poverty for a long period or giving up motherhood. An effect that is multiplied if instead of individuals we consider family units of one class or another.

The “egalitarian” argument

1970 abortion referendum campaign in New York. The poster on the right reads, 'The poor deserve safe abortions too. '
1970 New York abortion referendum campaign. The sign on the right reads, “Poor people deserve safe abortions too.”

The quotes above are not isolated opinions. It is an argument that has accompanied the feminist argument for abortion since the 1960s in the U.S. without ever waning or being set aside. In fact, as we have seen, it is still very much present in the current debate.

Before the Roe v. Wade ruling, several states began to legalize abortion. In the campaign to legalize abortion in New York, civil rights arguments were used. But feminism also used the classic Malthusian arsenal (“the way to avoid poverty is to have an abortion”) and a new, even more perverse argument. According to feminism, because of sex discrimination in the labor market, “abortion was a necessary means to equalize competition.”

Because the effect of the (anti-abortion) laws is to force women, against their will, into a position where they will be subjected to a whole range of de facto types of discrimination based on the condition of motherhood…

She is suspended or expelled from school and thus deprived of her opportunity for education and personal development. She is fired from her job and thus denied the right to earn a living and, if she is single and has no independent income, she is forced to live in the degrading situation of welfare. If she has preschool children, employers may refuse to hire her despite the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it unlawful for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge a person… because of his or her sex.

If such a wide range of disabilities are allowed to be associated with pregnancy and maternity status, that status must be one of choice.

And it is not enough to say that the woman chose to have sex, because she did not choose to become pregnant. As long as she is forced to bear such an extraordinarily disproportionate share of the pains and burdens of childbearing (including, of course, pregnancy and childbirth), then depriving her of the ultimate choice as to whether she will in fact bear those burdens violates the most basic aspects of our American ideal of fairness guaranteed and enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Voices that shaped the abortion debate before the Supreme Court’s ruling. Linda Greenhouse and Reva B. Siegel

After Roe v. Wade: pro-life vs. pro-choice

Ellen McCormack, pro-life Democrat, 1976
Ellen McCormack, pro-life Democrat, 1976

Following the Roe v. Wade ruling, an anti-abortion movement developed and organized around several groups. These groups were not only formed by authorities linked to the various churches in the United States. They were not merely a religious reaction, much less from conservatives.

In fact, many working men and women from all walks of life, races and beliefs, especially those most affected by the imposition of birth control clinics in their neighborhoods, broke with the Democratic Party after it officially endorsed the feminist position on abortion.

Republicans, for their part, understood that they could capture voters by exposing exactly what turned working people away from the Democratic Party, namely the class-based nature of birth control and the pro-abortion movement. They understood this as early as the 1970s, during the Nixon presidential campaign.

At the same time, the Republicans know that it is an issue that mobilizes many voters… and that is why they have organized not only to impose restrictions on abortion state by state, but to try to challenge the Roe v. Wade ruling. They are well aware that their anti-abortion campaigns form an important part of their hegemony in certain states.

That is why Republicans, in their arguments against Roe v Wade or abortion in general, talk openly about the eugenicist roots of the anti-abortion movements. They have done so since the 1970s and continue to do so now.

Democrats argue against them by saying that Republicans, despite claiming to be pro-life by being against abortion, demonstrate their hostility to life through their policies… whether by cutting funding for daycare, social programs, or schools. And even though the argument is correct, in the end Democrats claim that the best way to reduce “the economic costs” of an unexpected new child and keep it from overwhelming the family budget is to abort.

A brief filed with the Supreme Court made the same type of arguments saying that daycare costs (adjusted for rising inflation) are too much for a woman earning $15 an hour to bear; that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) has lowered wages by making employers reluctant to hire women; that half of working women lack paid leave; and that black women were the ones who “benefited most economically” from the legalization of abortion.

Put another way: Democrats argue for abortion by showing that it helps maintain a situation of brutal exploitation and widespread discrimination.

And while abortion is argued as a way to reduce the costs of the state (the overhead of exploiting workers) and a way for corporations to continue paying wages insufficient to support a family, no one should forget forget that both parties don’t blink an eye in funding and perpetuating the war in Ukraine with billions of dollars.

The struggle to defend the needs of workers, which are universal needs of the species, cannot come from either party.

And while the Republicans can correctly point out the inhumanity of individualist logic under the slogan “my body, my choice”… they simultaneously promote that same reactionary logic when it comes to appeasing the angry anti-vaccine petty bourgeoisie, no matter what, and seek to force millions of working women to carry pregnancies to term against their will.

Neither the Republican “pro-life” barbarism, nor the barbarism prepared and made invisible by the “pro-choice” arguments of the Democrats

A state worker receives fruit at a Washington food bank
A state worker receives fruit at a Washington food bank

Just as we cannot accept that the state could force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term against her will, neither can we accept the idea that giving up having children, and in the event having an abortion, is an acceptable way to deal with the arbitrariness, abuse and impoverishment to which we are subjected.

The media’s focus on Roe v. Wade is one of the ways they appease us into accepting the conditions they impose on us. They want us to see ourselves as isolated individuals and not as workers. They want us to accept the idea that we consume too much and that it would be unsupportive or irresponsible to demand that our needs be met. They want us to believe that we have to fight against the barbarism that the Republicans pretend and forget the barbarism that the Democrats hide and prepare to aggravate with their arguments.

And, above all, they now want us to follow them to the polls, to support the Democrats to “save us” from the infamous consequences of overturning Roe v. Wade. They want us to look the other way while they whip up and fuel one imperialist slaughter after another and reflate the profits of capital invested in corporations at the expense of our basic needs.

What to do if Roe v. Wade is overturned?

1 Stand up for the needs of working women.

Neither pregnancy nor unwanted motherhood are individual facts, they are social facts in both their causes and their consequences. Precisely because we deny that the fetus is “property” of anyone and that pregnancy is something abstract and independent of class situation, we cannot admit that the state, nor anyone else, could force someone to carry out a pregnancy against her will, neither because the law stipulates it nor because her salary cannot pay for a decent clinic.

But for the same reason we cannot accept a choice between being fired and having an abortion or between impoverishment and abortion… and on top of that we are told that in this criminal alternative abortion is a “free decision” and an “egalitarian” way out.

Those who say so, like feminists and Democrats, confess what they understand by a “free and egalitarian” society: a slave camp in which we endure the most extreme violence and coercion in order to keep the machinery of our own exploitation running… and they live off what they extract from us.

We have nothing in common with them, not even in confronting the abortion bans that are coming. Their cause will never be ours, even if we are apparently against the same thing, for them it is just a moment in the reaffirmation of the system that creates the problems, for us a step towards overthrowing it if we are able to organize as workers on our own ground while defending ourselves.

We call to organize strikes and work stoppages of the entire workforce every time a female worker is fired or her contract is not renewed because she becomes pregnant and to demand a wage supplement for all workers, male or female, depending on the number of children they have.

2 To defend the “right to life” in what it really means for the workers: the preeminence of real human needs over the needs of capital with all its fetishes, its political apparatuses, its state… and its ideologies.

The right to life is not defended by coercing and forcing a pregnant woman to develop a pregnancy she does not want.

The right to life is defended by collectively confronting the president and Congress, who foment and fuel wars that kill hundreds of thousands of people on other continents, while ignoring the basic needs of workers at home; the states and municipalities that support a police force that is as dangerous and antisocial as any gang of the lumpen; the companies that take advantage of inflation while wages go down and worsen working conditions, basic security and hiring; to the trade unions, which defend the profit of the companies above any other consideration while they acclaim the war vowing social peace to militarism; etc.

The right to life is defended by fighting against a system that is more and more openly antagonistic to human life. And that, today, means organizing and helping to organize our comrades at work and in the neighborhood to stand up, as a class, as soon as possible.

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