Sun, May

Only Mass Protests Can Save Abortion Rights


ROE V WADE - As the ridiculously right-wing United States Supreme Court stands poised to defy majority public opinion by reversing its 1973 Roe v. Wade (hereafter “Roe”) decision and thereby stripping away women’s half-century constitutional right to an abortion,

it is important to reject the approach of Democratic Party “elites” and leading establishment “pro-choice” organizations. They are engaged in advance surrender. They are giving up on Roe without a major fight in the streets, schools, workplaces, and public squares. That is unconscionable.

These misleaders justify their advance capitulation to a “post-Roe America” with six basic interrelated narratives. Below I list and criticize each these appeasement narratives.

+1. “A judgement reversing Roe is inevitable. Look at the Court’s composition. Look at Sam Alito’s draft decision backed by four other justices. There’s nothing really that can be done to stop it.”

False. If millions take to the streets and engage in mass demonstrations now, with the critical understanding that it is much harder to win back a lost right than to keep an existing one, the Court can possibly be swayed by their realization that a decision reversing Roe will cause irreparable damage to its institutional legitimacy and lead to the unprofitable mass disruption of business as usual. The Court is ultimately a capitalist ruling class institution that does not want to contribute to societal destabilization. The leaking of the right-wing woman-hater Alito’s draft decision killing Roe (a document that attacked numerous other liberal precedents) three weeks ago is a great opportunity to organize such disruption. At the same time, the need to destabilize US society and confront and further de-legitimize the right-wing Court will only intensify if the five lying far-right Supremes (Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Coney-Barrett) follow through with the autocratic action promised in Alito’s draft. Movement building now helps develop our capacity to “shut shit down” later in militant opposition to a Supreme Court that is at lethally and absurdly far to the right of public opinion on this and other matters (the Court is also poised to insanely permit open gun carry a New York-based case that has become all the more horrifying in the wake of the recent racist and openly fascist mass shooting in Buffalo, New York).

+2. “Look at the bright side: the reversal of Roe will work to the pro-Roe Democrats’ advantage in the November 2022 Congressional and state level mid-term elections.”

Seriously? Besides sounding like cynical embrace of Roe’s reversal, this is magical thinking. The party in the White House has lost U.S. House seats in all but two mid-term elections since 1932 (1934, when the Great Depression and the rise of the New Deal expanded the Franklin Roosevelt Democrats’ House majority, and 2002, when 9/11-fueled hyper-patriotism helped the Republicans expand their House majority). Right wing gerrymandering and voter suppression and the preposterous right-leaning malapportionment of the US Senate (more on this below) will combine with rampant inflation (the main thing explaining the currently higher-than-unusual percentage of US Americans who say that “the country is on the wrong track”) and the predictably dismal and uninspiring presidential performance and related low popularity of the vacuous and bumbling neoliberal Joe Biden to make a Republifascist take-back of Congress a near certainty this fall. And how much difference would it make if the Dems were to miraculously defy the historical odds and keep the House and the Senate? Even then it is almost unimaginable that they and their president would act to expand the Court to reinstate abortion rights. That’s not how the deeply conservative Biden and his party are wired. He and his other centrist Dems have long sought bipartisan “common ground” with the Republicans on the abortion and many other issues.

To repeat, it is much harder to win back a right after it has been taken away than it is to keep it while it still exists.

+3. “…and Blue [Democratic Party-run] states will remain legal for abortion. The reversal of Roe will send the abortion issue back to the states. Yes, that will be the end of abortion rights in 25 or more states, there’s a lot of blue states that support women’s right to an abortion. All is not lost.”

Wow. So too f#*king bad for women and girls in half the country. Too bad, so sad, for the vast swath of the US female population stuck in revanchist red (Republican-run) states, where social policy runs far to the right of national majority opinion (which has consistently supported women’s right to an abortion by at least 2 to 1 since Roe was decided in 1973). Gosh, whatever were these females thinking by living in places like Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas?

Many Dems seem to think the war on abortion rights is just a red state thing. It isn’t. It’s a national movement with many advocates and forces in the blue states. And with the path to full Republican (patriarchal white nationalist) national power across the “checks and balances” trifecta (legislative, executive branch, and judicial) being cleared by the dismal, dollar-drenched neoliberal Democrats, the coming stagflation, and the vast right-wing voter suppression and election cancellation industries, moreover, the Republifascists are going for a nationwide abortion ban in 2025. The likely future return Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently pretty much said this out loud.

+4. “Big rich blue states like New York, Illinois, and California will respond to the reversal of Roe by ramping up their capacity to function as sanctuary states for abortion seekers. They’ll expand their abortion facilities and raise funds to run a modern-day underground railroad for red state women and girls who need abortions!”

Busing, flying, training, and driving and lodging women across untold millions of miles in a time of escalating energy, hotel, and medical costs: this is a vastly expensive and exhausting undertaking that will not meet the need, especially when it comes to disproportionately nonwhite poor women and girls. It will involve a massive transference of money and energy from the activism required to reshape policy to the provision of direct services within an overall system titling towards revanchist patriarchy and neofascism. And oh, by the way, red states are already moving to make it illegal for women and girls to leave their home states for abortions and for people in other states to help them get abortions. The woman-hating Christian fascist anti-abortion movement is a dedicated national force with plenty of blue states allies. It has no intention of letting an underground abortion railroad flourish.

+5. “Medical abortion pills mean that the right can’t really stop abortions in the red states.”

Is that so? Red state legislators and governors are already scheming to make abortion pills criminal. Texas has already banned sending abortion medications by mail. The reversal of Roe would likely lead most if not all red states to do the same. A triple-branch Republifascist nation (a distinct possibility in 2025 thanks in no small part to the dismal Dems) will launch an effective War on Abortion Drugs. Mifepristone, (which blocks a hormone needed to continue an early pregnancy) Misoprostol (which contracts the uterus to expel an early pregnancy) are not full or magical solutions.

+6. “Voting is how people get heard in our great American democracy. When you have the vote, you have the power. If you don’t like the Court’s decisions, you can vote.”

This is laughable on numerous levels. On one issue after another, majority opinion is trumped and defied in the American “electoral democracy.” Part of the explanation for this is the controlling influence of concentrated corporate and financial wealth, which translates into political power through numerous means including but hardly limited to the funding of campaigns. Another part of the explanation is the undemocratic, minority rule nature of the US constitutional electoral set-up, which drastically overrepresents the nation’s most revanchist, white, and rural sections and states through a slew of interrelated institutional mechanisms including the anti-democratic presidential Electoral College, strictly time-staggered elections, an absurdly bicameral legislatures with a strong upper chamber (the US Senate) whose powers include the approval of presidential Supreme Court appointments, a profoundly undemocratic Senate apportionment regime that gives every state two representatives regardless of population size[1], absurdly lifetime-appointed and unelected judges on the absurdly powerful Supreme Court (currently occupied by a revanchist majority absurdly far to the right of the populace thanks to the lethal fascist Donald Trump’s appointment of three absurdly reactionary jurists who were absurdly approved by an absurdly Republican Senate). The power of judicial review (strongly implicit in the original Constitution and established as common law in Marbury v. Madison [1803]) gives the Court full autocratic power to declare legislative and executive acts constitutionally null and void.

One of the open secrets of US-American “democracy” is that the USA is not a democracy and (by the way) was never intended to be.

Those who tell you that your voice is heard and that majority voices make US government policy via the franchise (the vote) are either liars or fools. Those who tell you to direct your political energies into voting under the US system are trying to mislead you. Name the modern social reforms that matter and merit applause and defense in American history: the outlawing of child labor, Social Security, the federal minimum wage, union organizing and collective bargaining rights, workers’ compensation, subsidized housing, the end of formal segregation in the South, occupational safety, environmental and consumer protections, and yes, the right to an abortion. 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 [2]: 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” – the only politics that matters. The franchise itself – the right to vote – was won through mass popular disturbance.

Let’s be candid about one of the key roles of the nation’s not-so leftmost major capitalist political party: to keep the people off the streets and out of the public squares, the places where gains are actually won through mass action.

The right to an abortion, without which women cannot be free, was won through mass women’s resistance led by militant feminists, not simply by voting. The same will be true when it comes to saving women’s abortion rights. It is essential therefore that thousands and indeed millions come out into the streets, starting with the mass school and job walkouts being called by Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights (RU4AR) at noon in two days (on Thursday, May 26th). For details and reflections more eloquent than I can provide here, see this.


+1. The racially and ethnically diverse and liberal-progressive New York City borough of Brooklyn is home to 2.6 million people, nearly one million more people than the combined total population (1.67 million) of North and South Dakota, two states that each have (like all US states) two Senators. If Brooklyn were a state with the same populace-to-US Senator ratio as North Dakota, it would have 6 US Senators. If liberal and progressive, multiracial and multi-ethnic California (home to 39,237,836) had the same populace-to Senator ratio as super-white, rural, and far-right Wyoming (pop. 578,803, less than 5% of the total population of Los Angeles), it would have – wait for it – 135 US Senators. If Brooklyn were a state and US Senators were apportioned there with the same populace-to-Senator ratio as red Wyoming, it would have none 9 U.S. Senators. Think about all that. And then think about this: due to “a growing population shift from the agricultural interior to crowded corridors along the coast,” the US Constitution critic Daniel Lazare noted five years ago, it had by 2018 become mathematically possible to “cobble together a [Republican] Senate majority with states that account for just 17.6 percent of the popular vote.” The US Senate is loaded with giant de facto “rotten boroughs” that abhorrently inflate the power of the nation’s most reactionary sections. This (and much else in the US set up) is abject, Monty Python-esque mockery of the core democratic principle of one person, one vote.

+2. Some critical texts and writings here: Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States; Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail; The American Social History Project, Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s History (two volumes); Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality; Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astride Henry, Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of Women’s Movements; Noam Chomsky, “The Disconnect in US Democracy;” Howard Zinn, “Election Madness.” 


(Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022). This article was featured in Counter Punch.)