Less than two weeks ago, in an unprecedented leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion—in Dobbs v. Jackson Mississippi Women’s Health Organization—appeared the press. Drafts can change, but the language leaves no doubt that the ultra-conservative majority intends to overturn the landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade. The ruling would make abortion illegal in at least 26 states, which includes 13 states that have trigger laws designed to go into effect if Roe falls. This is a devastating blow that would return abortion from a federally protected right into a state’s rights issue, with the gravest consequences for poor and working-class women, trans, queer, and nonbinary people who can become pregnant, and people of color, who will be disproportionately unable to bear the time and cost of traveling out of state to obtain abortions, or will be forced to do so illegally.
For the Democrats, this is a godsend. They have failed to deliver on most of Biden’s agenda, but they will try to milk their unearned reputation as the “pro-choice” party for everything it’s worth to galvanize their base ahead of the midterms—a strategy that still might not be enough to prevent a Republican takeover. This week, Democrats staged a last-ditch effort to enshrine abortion protections into law ahead of the Supreme Court’s finalized decision, knowing that the bill would fail in the Senate, which it did. Yet, even when Democrats have previously had the votes to protect these rights, they have always found ways to shoot themselves in the foot (as in 2009, when Obama and Democratic majorities failed to enact any of their promised protections for abortion and battled anti-abortion Democrats in their own party in 2010, ultimately leaving the Hyde Amendment that bans federal funding for abortion intact under the Affordable Care Act).
Thankfully, as the protests we’re beginning to see attest, a significant number of people are horrified and outraged by the leaked draft and have concluded that mass mobilization in the streets is necessary to defend Roe. Over the last week, the emergency protests—many of which were called on short notice—have been large in many cities, although not massive—with several thousand showing up in Chicago, New York, and even Houston, Texas (one of the ground-zeros of this fight).
It is significant that we are seeing the first large-scale protests of the Biden presidency. There is already a flurry of activity among activists and greater numbers of people turning out to organizing calls and demonstrations as compared to the last few years or even the last few months, which suggests a new sense of urgency. The threat of a right-wing Supreme Court overturning Roe is something liberals have warned about for decades to rally Democratic voters, and large liberal organizations like the Women’s March and Planned Parenthood have called a National Day of Action for May 14, which has the potential to be very large, given the pull these organizations have, but also because of the stakes of this fight. The moment we all knew was coming is finally here.
Understanding our history for the future of the movement
A key task for the revolutionary Left is explaining how we got to this moment, where the Right is finally poised to deliver on its promise to overturn Roe. How is it that, at a moment when 69 percent of people in the U.S. support Roe, that the court felt it could proceed, anyway?
First and foremost, this exposes how little democracy exists in the U.S., where nine unelected, lifetime appointees interpreting a slavery-era constitution get to determine the fate of the entire country. The U.S. has never been a genuine democracy, and its institutions have always been structured to protect the interests of propertied white men. But that doesn’t mean the law has ever been immune to social pressure—as when Roe was won in the first place (a decision that was written by a Nixon appointee!) in the context of a mass women’s liberation movement.
Today, the dominant explanation on offer about why Roe is under attack centers primarily on the Republicans’ capture of the Supreme Court and the party’s decades-long legislative strategy at the state level of whittling away at access to reproductive rights. The impact has been that abortion had already been rendered all but inaccessible in large swaths of the country well prior to the court’s pending ruling. There is no doubt that the GOP and its increasingly far-right arm is pursuing an agenda that is openly anti-worker, anti-woman, transphobic, xenophobic and racist—all issues that converge in the fight to end legal abortion.
The result of overturning Roe will not be to end abortions, but safe and accessible abortions. While abortion pills have been a gamechanger, and abortion itself is a relatively safe procedure—far safer than childbirth—laws like Texas’ SB8 (which empowers private citizens to sue people seeking abortions and anyone who assists them in doing so) and Louisiana’s HB813 (which would allow prosecutors to charge people who obtain abortions with murder) are designed to criminalize people for accessing these safer means of terminating an unwanted pregnancy. This will further empower anti-abortion vigilantes, the police, and the state as a whole to target already oppressed populations. While it’s extremely important that people continue to donate to abortion funds and share information about abortion pills, this alone is not nearly enough to defend abortion rights in the context of a state crackdown. Having an abortion—medical or surgical—in more than two dozen states, could very well mean needing to break the law. And the fear of being targeted and punished will drive people to seek less safe options when they want to end an unwanted pregnancy. A recent study estimates that a ban on abortion could lead to a 21 percent increase in pregnancy-related deaths. And lack of access to abortion always impacts Black, poor, and working-class people the most. In this context, how we build forces willing and able to take on the far right and respond to the crackdown will be crucial for whether people feel safe to access care or not.
That said, this is an incomplete picture of how we got here. First, the GOP’s legislative assault on our rights has been accompanied by an effective, grassroots offensive that mobilizes forced-birth zealots to regularly harass patients and abortion care providers outside clinics. The antis include far-right extremists. Second, while it’s abundantly clear that the Republicans are at the front line of attacking our bodies, part of our assessment also has to include the ways in which the Democrats and the existing liberal NGOs, Planned Parenthood, and abortion providers have not only ceded the moral high ground on actually defending abortion unapologetically; they’ve also actively demobilized the majority that supports abortion rights, rather than using our power in numbers to wage the fight. They have attacked the tactic of clinic defense, asking people to limit their activity to calling their legislators, donating money, or voting, while counterposing legal battles waged in the courts to direct and mass action in the streets.
The problem is that this strategy has, time after time, subsumed the goal of free, accessible abortion in favor of what is seen as more pragmatic demands like “safe, legal and rare,” coined by the Clinton Administration. Planned Parenthood, following suit, has repeatedly downplayed language on abortion, choosing to focus on the other reproductive health services they provide instead. This has become the default approach, while Republicans have gone on the offensive. The Right has transformed the terrain, not through elections alone, but by connecting their protests outside of abortion clinics across the country, and their violence against abortion providers, to candidates that rely on them as a base. This is the exact inverse of the Democrats’ strategy, which relies on watering down the demands, being open to pro and anti-choice candidates alike, and selling out our rights any time they are seen as divisive.
Unfortunately, these debates extend well beyond liberal circles. The Left overall has echoed the strategy of focusing on legislative and electoral avenues tied to the Democrats as the vehicle through which we can reverse this trajectory. For example, while Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is the largest socialist organization in the country and is mobilizing nationally, its leadership and strategy seem unchanged since before this leak: Focus on winning legislative demands and abolishing the filibuster, not organizing people to fight in mass numbers, no matter who’s in office. For example, the NYC Chapter of DSA brought leaflets to an abortion rights protest that said, “The Republican Party and Supreme Court are undermining our democracy.” Meanwhile, Sanders and AOC are urging for legislation to codify Roe. Some parts of the Left argue that the Democrats will attract more votes if they actually stand for something. But this assumes that the key to defending our rights is legislative battles and amassing more Democrats in office. We can’t expect to impact politics on high when we don’t have a ground game in cities across the country, and if we aren’t engaging the people around us about why we need to do more than just vote to defend our bodies and our rights.
As with every issue, the Left is broadly facing a situation where most existing organizations remain primarily oriented on elections and lobbying as a strategy, or are tied to NGOs and the Democratic Party. While the Democrats know this is an opportunity for them—and are about to start sounding a lot more radical than they have at any time since Trump took office—movements and street protests will always pose a double-edged threat for parties that support the status quo. On the one hand, activation of a base is necessary for an agenda to defend abortion to pass—or at least to reach the Democrats’ main goal of defending a majority in Congress. On the other, struggle can create spaces for demands and militancy to develop beyond where liberals think they should, which is why we repeatedly see calls for “patience,” “respecting the laws,” and “allowing ‘democratic’ institutions to be the arbiters of change from liberal circles in response to mass struggle. The reality is that the Democrats have done next to zero on this issue and are unlikely to deliver without real pressure from below. There is an urgent need to link existing networks and expand organizations that can develop different strategies to defend reproductive rights.
The egregious attempt to overturn the precedent of Roe v. Wade is more than an attack on our bodies, it’s also an undeniable sign of the balance of forces tipping in the direction of the reactionaries. Having succeeded in undermining the legal guarentee of access to abortion on a local level in state after state, the Right is now attempting to codify this reality into federal law.
The leak should be a wake-up call about how much ground those of us who support reproductive justice have lost since 1973. What do we have to do to reverse the balance of forces again? Because we can be sure that those who will pay the highest price are the poorest, most oppressed among us.
For socialists, our goal can’t just be to defend Roe—it has to be to make abortion accessible and available and free—which it already isn’t. No matter what, our side needs a ground game. Without mass disruptive action against the far right, without ongoing campaigns, without struggle, there is no progress. The absence of such a movement explains how the majority of people can support abortion rights, but it is still under frontal attack. We need to rebuild a reproductive justice movement that takes this strategy as our starting point
No matter how many Democrats win (or lose) in 2022 with promises to defend Roe, it is the balance of forces on the ground that needs to be transformed (the way the Right has succeeded in doing over decades) in order for us to stop this madness. While the state of the existing movement may not be enough to save abortion rights in this moment, this is a crucial moment to reassert the essential role that struggle, disruptive action, and solidarity play in transforming the possible. Mass movements are the essential terrain on which we need to build grassroots organizations that can develop a different strategy.
From there, we must create open, democratic spaces where activists, new and old, can come together to discuss what tactics will advance this strategy. Should we be calling for national abortion legislation? If so, how viable do we think something like this is in the context of a Supreme Court that has shown itself willing to side with fetuses over actually living people? Do we need a strategy that more explicitly targets the Supreme Court as an archaic institution that has no mandate, as activists successfully did in Chile? How do we highlight individual stories and connect them to the broader political situation? These are strategy discussions we need to organize with the left of the movement, while also collaborating and mobilizing around demands with a much wider array of reproductive rights organizations. Broad mass calls for protests, however symbolic they sometimes feel, provide crucial opportunities where different forces can come together to march under a shared banner, while openly debating strategies and bringing in new activists who are looking to get involved in different ways. Protests should be gathering points for a movement in motion, not bookends to electoral seasons.
This is a moment in which new organizers and new organizations can be brought into the fight, and seeds can be sown around a strategy and a timeframe that matches what we’re up against. So many people are eager to get involved right now—evidenced by the turnout to the NYC4AR action where activists prevented the procession of the antis for the first time since they launched their campaign harassing patients at a local Planned Parenthood. If Roe falls, there will be an immediate need for emergency response networks and mutual aid for those who no longer have access to legal abortion. And whatever happens in politics on high with the Dobbs v. Jackson Mississippi Women’s Health Organization decision, we will need to organize for abortion rights. For those who agree that our rights will only be won and expanded through a struggle-oriented strategy, we urgently need to cohere and clarify our arguments within the broader movement. Roe v. Wade puts the stakes in perspective for us all.
What You Can Do
- Go out to the demonstrations on May 14th
- Write a report/analysis piece to submit to Tempest where we can learn from experiences and arguments on the ground
- Get involved with local groups that are doing abortion rights organizing, or get people in your city together to have a conversation about starting one
- Donate to abortion funds
- Get ready to fight like hell, no matter what happens!
Featured Image Credit: Photo of women’s rights demonstration, November 13, 1989, from Duke Chronicle Vol. 85 Issue 55, modified by Tempest
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Haley Pessin is a socialist activist based in New York. Natalia Tylim is based in NYC and has been active in various efforts to defend bodily autonomy for many years. Both are members of the Tempest Collective.