The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade has reopened a much-needed debate over the road forward to advance the fight for women’s equality. It’s well worth discussing why that ruling was made in 1973, and its lessons for today’s fight by working people to defend ourselves and our families from the impact of the capitalist crisis, and for the fight for women’s emancipation.
The 1960s and ’70s saw important developments that changed the face of U.S. politics forever. Key was the mighty Black-led working-class movement that overthrew Jim Crow segregation.
That disciplined and determined struggle transformed social relations in the U.S., changing how working people viewed themselves and inspiring millions around the world. It laid the foundations for the movement of hundreds of thousands that protested the rulers’ war in Vietnam, including growing numbers of U.S. soldiers.
These struggles affected the thinking of millions of workers across the country. Space to fight for social and political rights was expanded. This, coupled with growing numbers of women entering the workforce, led to a new wave of actions taken by women to begin challenging their second-class status.
In 1960 women were 38% of the U.S. workforce, with earnings averaging 60% of what men made. Efforts to get better-paying jobs met a brick wall. Many colleges barred women and fewer than 10% of the country’s doctors were female.
In 1969 some 210,000 women entered New York City hospitals due to complications from botched, illegal abortions. Thousands across the country died.
The fight to decriminalize abortion arose as part of broader developments. Opposition developed to the U.S. government’s forced-sterilization programs that especially targeted women who were Black and Chicano. Washington-led population-control policies resulted in millions of men and women being sterilized around the world. In 1976 the U.S. Department of Health reported that over 37% of women in Puerto Rico had been sterilized.
In 1965 affirmative-action laws prohibiting job discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin were won, and expanded in 1967 to bar discrimination by sex. The number of women in the workforce began climbing, and so did their paychecks. Women demanded and got better-paying jobs in auto plants, steel mills, mines and railroads. They worked with male co-workers and broke down anti-women prejudices, strengthening the unions in the process.
Under pressure, walls blocking women from many universities came down — at Dartmouth, Princeton and Yale, and finally Columbia University in 1983.
Modern contraception began to become available, but laws restricted its availability. Then, in 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not ban its use.
Women’s rights fighters pressed for legal, safe abortions as part of these broader struggles. They were beginning to make some ground in the fight to win a majority to recognize that a woman’s right to decide whether to carry a pregnancy to term is necessary for advancing women’s equality.
Demonstrations for legal access to abortion, against forced sterilization, and in defense of the right to contraception broke out, with marches in cities from New York, Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. Countermobilizations against women’s rights also took place.
Just as the issue was becoming a national debate, crucial to settling the issue, the Supreme Court majority stepped in and adopted the Roe ruling in January 1973, overturning laws in 46 states that restricted women’s access to abortion during the first three months of pregnancy.
The decision was hailed by millions at the time, including by the Militant. But it soon became clear that the ruling was a deadly blow to the just-begun fight to win support to repeal all laws restricting abortion.
Roe wasn’t based on the fundamental constitutional right to equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, but on privacy issues and medical criteria of “fetal viability,” something opponents of abortion rights have used over years to chip away at women’s rights and to claim that they are “pro-life.”
Following the 1973 ruling, the middle-class leadership of groups like the National Organization for Women derailed the budding movement. For them defending women’s rights meant pulling women off of the streets and into the Democratic Party, with no interest in the ties between abortion and the other issues facing workers and their families. They reduced the fight to defend women’s rights to pushing to elect Democrats to save the flawed Roe ruling.
Restrictions imposed since Roe
By the time the ruling was overturned, state governments had loaded on more than 1,300 restrictions to Roe v. Wade. In 2017 there wasn’t a single medical facility providing abortions in 89% of the counties of the United States. The end of Roe hasn’t led to a huge plunge in actual access to abortion. It highlights what has already been conceded since 1973 and what needs to be fought for in the years ahead.
Unlike laws permitting same-sex marriage and access to contraception — which continue to gain wider and wider acceptance — access to abortion doesn’t hold overwhelming support. Opinion on it remains deeply divided.
The Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade allows for reopening the much-needed debate to clarify how best to advance the interests of the working class and of women. There can be no road to women’s emancipation without addressing the broader social crisis bearing down on the working class, and defending the family, a refuge workers are more and more turning to.
Men and women are increasingly using our unions today to take up the fight for jobs, improved wages and working conditions, and an end to brutal work schedules — all things that are key for workers trying to start a family, or to hold one together. That includes the fight for affordable housing and child care; to federally funded medical care for all; for cost-of-living raises built into all union contracts and social programs; and access to adoption and family planning, including contraception and safe, secure abortions.