The suffering of US women under the iron heel of abortion is intensifying, especially for women of color. This makes it imperative to closely examine possible paths forward. As a teenager during the 1960s I witnessed two political paths that remain imprinted on my mind.
LBJ and 14 (b)
Even before classes began in 1963, I had organized the first high school Young Democrats chapter in Texas. By 1964 Houston Young Democrats were attending rallies for presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson, carrying signs reading “All the Way with LBJ – Repeal 14 (b).”
During the height of union activity several decades earlier, congress had passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA, 1935) which guaranteed private sector workers the right to form unions. During the beginning of the Cold War and strike waves of 1945 and 1946, congressional Republicans (with the aide of multiple Democrats) passed the Labor Management Relations Act (1947). It placed limitations on union activity, most importantly Section 14 (b). The odious 14 (b) allowed states to pass “Right to Work” laws which prohibited unions from requiring dues as a condition of employment. Workers could benefit from union activity without paying dues, thereby seriously undermining unions.
“Repeal 14 (b)” became the rallying cry. Unions told members “Vote for Democrats.” Despite LBJ’s winning the presidency and having Democratic Party (DP) control of the senate and house, 14 (b) was not repealed. Nor was it repealed during several subsequent administrations having a DP president and majority in both houses of congress.
Unlike gatherings of 1964, today 14 (b) is so ancient that if you ask high school students what they think about it, you will get blank stares. DP power brokers have successfully dumped repeal of 14 (b) into the dustbin of history.
A Most Reactionary President
Four years and a presidential election later Republican Richard Nixon was swept into office and was re-elected in 1972. Carrying 49 of 50 states, Nixon’s re-election was one of the largest landslides in US history and showed overwhelming support for war against the Vietnamese people. Despite endorsement of his right wing agenda, more progressive actions occurred during Nixon’s reign (1969-1974) than during any presidency since (including those of Dems): end to the Viet Nam War, start of the Food Stamp program, decriminalization of abortion, recognition of China, creation of Environmental Protection Agency, passage of Freedom of Information Act, formal dismantling of FBI’s COINTEL program, creation of Earned Income Tax Credits, formal ban on biological weapons, and passage of the Clean Water Act.
When I recount this to my good DP friends, the response is something like “You can’t credit that to Tricky Dick – he was forced to give in to the tremendous upheavals of his time.”
Bingo! That is exactly the point. Nixon had to act as he did due to enormous social pressure. During a 10 year period, a generation of progressives had been exposed to two fundamental truths:
1. Electing a DP president with DP control of the senate and house can be accompanied by a failure to attain vitally important goals that people want, need and were promised; and,
2. Mass movements with large scale disruptions can win progressive victories during the lordship of a vile president who despises each of those goals.
Logic of the Goose
If the Dems win a majority of both houses of congress in November, 2022, a powerful force will make it highly unlikely that they will decriminalize abortion. This will be true whether the decriminalization would come from passing the Women’s Health Protection Act (the easiest route, but vulnerable to a supreme court trashing), expansion of the number of supreme court justices (almost forgotten about), or a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right (apparently unimaginable to the DP).
However, doing any of these would mean that abortion would cease to be a major issue in the 2024 election and make the re-election of Joe Biden virtually impossible. Winning in 2024 is vastly more important to the Dems than a setback in 2022.
As the Washington Post noted, the DP has finally found an issue that might help them at the ballot box. But securing abortion rights in 2022 would remove it from the 2024 agenda. Abortion rights are the Dems’ golden egg and they are not about to hatchet Mother Goose.
The task of DP politicians is NOT to bring better lives to people – it is to get elected. If promises to improve peoples’ lives were kept, then the ability to make the promise evaporates. The true role of DP is to promise without delivering, while somehow getting people to believe the promise.
Each election cycle Dems scrounge around for a golden egg so they can chant their eternal refrain “Vote to get goosed or the Republicans will win!” Dems yearn to have their cake and eat it too. They must dangle abortion rights in front of voters’ eyes – not actually win abortion rights.
Historical Reality of the Goose
As every psychologist should know, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So, in addition to the Logic of the Goose, the history of the Dems regarding abortion helps chart their course.
During the last 50 years the Democrats could have written Roe vs Wade into law during the administrations of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama; but never did so. As a US Senator, Joe Biden helped Clarence Thomas get on the US Supreme Court via his attacks on Anita Hill.
When Hillary Clinton ran for president, she chose anti-choice senator Tim Kaine as a running mate and said she was “ambivalent” about abortion. Obama botched opportunities to replace Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the supreme court.
This is what Margaret Kimberley of Black Agenda Report wrote about him: “During his 2008 presidential campaign Obama promised to pass and sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would have enshrined abortion rights into law, and remove it from the purview of the courts. But he did no such thing. On April 29, 2009 he gave a press conference on his 100th day in office and said, ‘The Freedom of Choice Act is not my highest legislative priority.’ Obama had majorities in both houses of Congress and a veto-proof majority in the Senate. Not only was this legislation not his highest priority, it wasn’t a priority at all. He never attempted to get it passed.”
While the US waited for the supreme court diktat overturning Roe v. Wade, Molly Shah expressed irritation that “there is currently no cohesive national campaign from either the Democratic party or large reproductive rights organizations to fight back.” DP house leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, supported re-election of anti-choice Texas rep Henry Cuellar over an abortion rights challenger.
Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Stories of the plight of American women began showing up within weeks of the court decision:
+ “A Texas woman’s water breaks at 18 weeks, leaving the fetus’s chance of survival “as close to zero as you’ll ever get in medicine.” Yet she must wait until she is hemorrhaging profusely and burning with fever — that is, not dead but almost — before the doctors agree that it’s legal to perform an abortion.”
+ “A Wisconsinite bleeds for more than 10 days from an incomplete miscarriage because the emergency room staff fears that performing the standard-of-careuterine evacuation will be against the law.”
+ Ohio minors who became pregnant as a result of rape had to leave the state for care.
+ Ohio women could neither legally end their pregnancies nor safely receive cancer treatment due to their pregnancies.
+ Fetal health issues render some pregnancies non-viable, yet laws prevent abortions.
+ Women whose “debilitating vomiting” that affects “their health, their ability to go to work or school, or their ability to care for their children” are unable to getneeded abortions.
+ Patients threaten to commit suicide including one who said she would “attempt to terminate her pregnancy by drinking bleach.”
+ Abortion should be the treatment for about 2% of pregnancies which are ectopic (the fertilized egg has implanted outside the uterus, endangering the patient).
Since the 8th amendment to the US constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” (which is “unacceptable due to the suffering, pain, or humiliation it inflicts on the person”) it is not exactly clear why it fails to apply to those whose only crime is becoming pregnant.
Abortion bans have even more severe consequences for those who commit the crime of “being-pregnant-while-Black.”
+ “Black women are three times more likely to die from childbirth-related causes than white women.”
+ In Louisiana, 65% of abortions are performed on Black women.
+ Black women comprise 12.8% of US women, but account for 22.3% of those living in poverty, which is a major cause of maternal death.
+ Many patients cannot travel out of state for an abortion “due the cost of travel, child care responsibilities, and difficulty getting time off of work, just to name a few.”
Knowing that women of color are three times as likely to be criminally charged with abortion, it is reasonable to ask …
+ Will white judges be more likely to conclude that women of color are less competent than white women to determine if they should have an abortion?
+ Will women of color receive longer sentences for abortion (like what happens with marijuana and cocaine cases)?
+ Will some medical staff be more likely to overlook pregnancy dangers in women of color?
Abortion rights have a unique significance for Black women. During slavery, masters offered bounties for hunters who returned escapees to the plantation. Today’s more repressive states reinvent this tradition by offering bounties to anyone who squeals on those associated with an abortion.
… as if They Depend on It
At this critical time it is necessary to defend abortion rights as if women’s lives depend on it. Because they really do.
More and more are realizing that rights have been won by disruptive actions rather than joining cheer-leading squads for unreliable politicians. Rather than being benevolently handed down to women, abortion rights were won through “through mass demonstrations, teach-ins, takeovers and sit-ins.” Judith McDaniel recalls disruptive actions such as …
+ Suffragists chaining themselves to the White House fence.
+ ACT UP protesters chaining themselves to the desks of pharmacy executives.
+ African American students in the South sitting at lunch counters.
Reviewing multiple social reforms, Paul Street concludes that “None of these things were won simply by voting and/or Supreme Court benevolence alone. They were more fundamentally won through mass popular resistance and disruption: strikes, marches, sit-ins, sit-downs, occupations, work stoppages, movements and movement cultures beneath and beyond the big money major party time-staggered big media candidate-centered electoral extravaganzas that are sold to us as ‘politics.’”
A funny thing happened when fact-checking for 14 (b). When I googled “Repeal of Taft Hartley Section 14(b)” the first link that came up was this very solid resolution by the American Federation of Teachers. Scrolling to the bottom revealed this date: 1965. Think about that – 1965. The date suggests that within two years of electing LBJ and his DP gaggle in both houses of congress, the union movement had backed down from insisting that 14 (b) be repealed. Oh yes, there are routinized statements now and again calling for its repeal, but nothing approaching a thunderous call for its repeal as a condition for unions to continue to support the DP.
With the watchdog snoring, the Dems back-stepped to a state-by-state defense against Right-to-Work legislation. Does this foretell an “abortion-rights-in-some-states-only” strategy for today? The DP seems to have given up on (or never initiated) a mass mobilization for increasing the number of supreme court justices, or a law guaranteeing abortion rights throughout the nation, or (too controversial to even consider) a constitutional amendment for protecting women’s lives.
Though making a lot of racket at election time, post-election Dems will move to a cooling off period so women can adjust themselves to losing a basic right. But the iron is hot and this is no time to cool off. Not six weeks after the court’s Day of Infamy, Kansas voters resoundingly defeated an anti-abortion amendment to their constitution. Between 2010 and the 2022 court decision, the number of Americans saying all abortions should be banned fell from 15% to 8%. During the same time period, those agreeing that abortion should be legal in all cases climbed from 18% to 33%.
Vermont residents will consider the Reproductive Liberty Amendment, stating: “that an individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty and dignity to determine one’s own life course and shall not be denied or infringed unless justified by a compelling State interest achieved by the least restrictive means.”
Missouri’s residents also enjoy the right to amend the state constitution. It elects right wing politicians yet simultaneously passes progressive legislation. Missouri voters have repeatedly rejected Right to Work legislation and have approved shutting down puppy mills. Missouri voters gave the nod to medical marijuana and approved Medicaid expansion. This means that 5-20% of Missourians vote for progressive agendas while not voting for Democratic Party politicians.
(If you are registered to vote in Missouri and would help gather signatures for an abortion rights amendment to the state constitution, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 314-727-8554.)
The current struggle for abortion rights reminds us of the immense efforts for women’s suffrage, which was a roller-coaster battle requiring ongoing civil disobedience. Soon after the creation of the US, women lost the right to vote in New York (1777), Massachusetts (1780), New Hampshire (1784) and all other states except New Jersey (1787), which revoked the right in 1807.
Women’s right to vote was first gained in Wyoming Territory (1869). Women lost the right to vote in Utah (1887) but regained it in 1896. Women’s suffrage won in Washington state (1910), California, (1911), Oregon (1912), Arizona (1912, Kansas (1912), Alaska territory (1913), New York (1917), South Dakota (1917), and Oklahoma (1917). Women won partial suffrage in Illinois (1913), North Dakota (1917), Indiana (1917), Nebraska (1917), and Michigan (1917). The 19th amendment (guaranteeing women’s suffrage throughout the US) was passed by Congress in 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920.
Two lessons stand out: rights which are taken away can provoke intense struggles to regain them; and, rights can be won at the state level as a critical step toward winning them at the national level. Working for a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing abortion rights can be a double-edged sword. The dull blunt edge can drag the movement into an abyss (like Right to Work) where it will be stuck for eternity if it abandons the goal of a national victory. The sharp edge cuts through the Gordian Knot as it walks the suffragette path of mass civil disobedience.