The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

What Happened in the 48 Years since Roe v. Wade?

Dec 6, 2021

Excerpts from The Class Struggle magazine, January 22, 2006.

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court issued Roe v. Wade—the ruling that has stood ever since as the symbol of women’s freedom, banning Texas, and de facto the other states and the federal government, from “unwarranted” intervention in a woman’s decision concerning abortion. In the words of Margaret Sanger, who had been arrested a number of times in the early 1900s for providing women with information and means of birth control, it seemed that women finally had gained the right to “own and control their own bodies,” without which “no woman can call herself free.”

These legal decisions did not appear because of the good will of Democrats, as so many Democrats later would imply. Roe v. Wade was decided by a 7 to 2 majority. Of the seven justices who ruled for women, five had been appointed by Republican presidents. The two “no” votes came from one Republican appointee and one Democrat, Byron “Whizzer” White, who was put on the bench by his buddy, John F. Kennedy.

Nor were these decisions, appearing within a short 14 months of each other, the result of “activist judges,” as the opponents of abortion and many Republicans pretend. Rather, the decisions were a de facto recognition of the widespread mobilizations of the 1960s and early ‘70s, which were battering down many of the reactionary limitations put on the population, especially the black population and women.

Not trusting their fate to the “good will” of either judges or Congress, women’s organizations continued to mobilize.…

Few in the women’s movement at that moment imagined the ferocity with which religious forces would soon act to eliminate those rights, both legally and de facto. Nor was it yet so obvious that American society was quickly moving to stand on more reactionary ground. But the anti-war movement was over; the black mobilization, under the blows of a repressive state, was receding, encouraged to do so by a whole new layer of black politicians. With the economy in crisis and recession, both public and private employers began to attack their workforces to impose concessions, and unions were taking a big step backwards. This left the struggle of women fighting … isolated and more open to attack.

Trying to Impose a Religious Agenda on Secular Society

While the Equal Rights Amendment was the original focus for fundamentalist religious forces, the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision on abortion provided the goal around which they really mobilized….

The ink had barely dried on the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, when the churches went knocking on the politicians’ doors. The very first one to open up to them was Democratic Senator Frank Church, known for his supposedly liberal stance on many issues. Within days of the decision, he proposed an amendment to a funding measure, which the Senate quickly passed, and the House ratified with the support of most Democrats and Republicans. In the euphoria following Roe v. Wade, that measure may have seemed innocuous to many people, but it has since proved to be the basis for the single biggest limitation set on abortion. It allowed medical providers (including not only doctors, nurses, and other support personnel, but more importantly, the owners of hospitals and clinics) to “opt out” of performing abortions or sterilizations if these medical procedures violated “their moral or religious beliefs.” Very quickly, 46 of the 50 state legislatures passed similar “refusal” statutes. Such a limitation has never been set on other medical procedures—at least until a similar “opt-out” was extended to pharmacists whose “moral” standards are violated by dispensing birth control medication.

The ultimate consequence of this one proposal is that abortion is simply not available for most women in the country, at least not unless they travel great distances—and when they do that, they then run into other obstacles, including residency requirements, waiting periods, etc.

In the year 2000, 87% of counties had no abortion provider, with none at all in 97% of the country’s rural counties, and the situation is undoubtedly worse today. In that same year, eight states had five or fewer abortion providers for the whole state. Today, in Mississippi, there is only one clinic in the whole state that provides abortions, with doctors who come in from outside Mississippi, and that’s in the northern part of the state.…

In the … years since Roe v. Wade, the legal situation regarding abortion has become a patchwork of restrictions, which taken all together severely restrict access to legal, that is, safe, abortion. The single biggest of those restrictions was the so-called Hyde amendment—which forbade Medicaid from paying for abortions for women without financial means. In 1976, the last year before the amendment took effect, 300,000 low-income women obtained abortions through Medicaid. In the first two years after it went into effect, Medicaid paid for only 3,000 each year. And while Republicans were its major sponsors, it had to pass through a Senate that was controlled 60—37 by the Democrats, and a House, controlled 291—144 by them.

Only two months after the Hyde Amendment took effect, it claimed its first victim: Rosie Jiminez, a 27-year-old mother and low-paid factory worker who needed supplemental welfare aid as well as Medicaid. Denied payment for an abortion under the new rules, and unable to come up with the money for a legal abortion, she went to a “back-alley” abortionist, and died for her efforts, leaving a child behind. She was not the last poor woman to fall victim to Mr. Hyde….

If these religious forces succeed in imposing their agenda on the whole of society, they will take us back to the period before Roe v. Wade, when, according to figures supplied by NARAL (the National Abortion Rights Action League), there were almost as many abortions performed annually as there were in the years after the Court’s decision. Legal or illegal, there have been around a million abortions performed year after year, but with this difference: over 90% before 1973 were illegal, most of those performed under unsafe conditions. Obviously, estimates of illegal abortions can only be educated guesses. But what has been documented are the 350,000 women a year who arrived before 1973 in hospital emergency rooms as the result of botched abortions, and the number of women who died each year, ranging from nearly 1,000 to as many as 5,000.

Pretending to speak for “life” is nothing but a cynical ploy by religious zealots who are ready to leave a trail of dead female bodies in their wake….

Religious Ideology in the Service of Oppression

Despite differences stemming from the times in which they were born, all the modern religions are misogynist by nature. It’s not an accident, but rather an expression of the needs of the class societies in which they were born and evolved….

Like all the fundamentalist tendencies, Christian fundamentalism in this country seeks to control through religion not only the opinions, morals, and private behavior of its own adherents, but the entire political and social life of the country, that is, secular society. In the words of Randall Terry, they want to “conquer this country” and impose by force patriarchal relations between human beings. Christian fundamentalism, like the other fundamentalist tendencies, is essentially political, offering itself in service to a repressive state against the whole of society.