Fifty-one years ago, the nine unelected judges on the U.S. Supreme Court — facing enormous pressure from a growing women’s rights movement that was part of a larger people’s movement — decided Roe v. Wade in favor of a woman’s right to abortion. In 2022, the Supreme Court’s nine unelected judges revoked this fundamental right.
Roe was fought for and won in the streets 51 years ago. Roe legalized abortion in all 50 states, based on a legal argument for privacy; it was a victory won by the mass movement for women’s and worker’s rights. The Supreme Court’s decision in 2022 to overturn Roe has only increased obstacles to a basic healthcare right. In 21 states, abortion has been banned outright or restricted. Right-wing states and politicians have also expanded the criminalization of people receiving, providing and aiding abortion care.
One thing is very clear: women’s rights, abortion rights and all democratic rights won by the people are not guaranteed in our political system. A political system that puts decisions in the hands of a few, rather than the vast majority, is simply not a system that can guarantee a right as fundamental as abortion, nor is it a system that can achieve true reproductive justice.
The landscape for abortion rights has changed in many states
Right-wing attacks against Roe v. Wade and abortion access began as soon as abortion was legalized in all 50 states in 1973. The all-out right-wing assault was characterized by a city-by-city and state-by-state campaign to legally undermine and restrict the right to abortion. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in 2022 was the culmination of this assault.
People-powered efforts to protect or enshrine abortion rights in state constitutions are actively countering the judicial and state government attacks on abortion rights across the country. Most recently on December 7, 2023 Ohio residents enshrined abortion rights in the state’s constitution by an overwhelming majority at the ballot box. This measure successfully stopped the right-wing’s aim to pass 30 pieces of anti-abortion legislation that would have been a series of direct attacks on working class people’s right to reproductive justice.
In Kansas, a statewide vote was won in August 2022, again by an overwhelming majority and powered by people organizing together for justice. While they continue to battle anti-abortion lawsuits and legislation, Kansans are seeing the benefits of protecting abortion rights through the state statute. In October 2023, District Judge K. Christopher Jayaram suspended, in accordance with the new statute, some restrictions that have been in effect for years. For example, medically unnecessary but state-mandated waiting periods in Kansas prior to receiving an abortion had been in place since 1997; these have now been struck down.
The referendums that have won on every ballot show exactly how out of touch the right-wing judicial institutions are, from state courts to the Supreme Court. The referendums prove something we already know—abortion rights are popular. Real gains can be made by continuing to organize for abortion rights. But most importantly, the legal wrangling over the future of abortion rights in the United States shows us that the only answer to the ongoing war on women is to fight back and speak out about just how undemocratic the U.S. political system is.
The fight against patriarchy is a fight for power
The struggle for abortion rights is historically rooted in fighting the patriarchal system’s efforts to control women and our decision-making power. With every abortion ban comes attacks on women’s — and all abortion seekers’ — right to make decisions about our own bodies. These attacks include waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, mandated burials or cremations, required signatures and more measures that erode women’s power and dignity.
The Democratic Party gives lip service to a limited view of women’s rights but in reality uses them as a bargaining chip in an elite political power game. They benefit from putting a few select women in positions of power, but they are fundamentally opposed to working class women’s power over our own lives. Democrats had many opportunities to make abortion an actual federal right. They did not.
The referendums which now protect abortion rights in Ohio, Kansas, California, Vermont, Michigan and Kentucky as well as those on the ballot for 2024 show clearly that it has taken struggle and organization of working class people to fight when both political parties failed them. Organizing has secured victories for access to abortion rights and will be the only way forward for further gains of bodily autonomy for women and LGBTQ+ liberation. Again and again, the people vote for abortion rights.
Kate Cox and the struggle for abortion rights
When a majority of the unelected, unaccountable Supreme Court judges revoked our right to control our bodies, they impacted our futures. Kate Cox’s case in the state of Texas is an important recent example. Prior to the fall of Roe, Texas had adopted heinous legislation like SB 8, which attacked those “aiding and abetting” abortion seekers. It was also the state that led the charge on a six-week abortion ban, which really is one tiny measure less than an all-out ban.
In this repressive context, Kate Cox had to appeal to the courts for medically necessary abortion. Cox, a mother of two, learned that her fetus had developed a fatal genetic condition which would not allow it to survive and which could threaten her future fertility.
While one judge ruled to allow the exception to Texas’s abortion ban, her request was later blocked by a higher court, forcing her to travel outside of Texas for an abortion. According to Liberation News, aggressive and ultra-conservative Attorney General Ken Paxton led the case against Cox’s and has been relentless in his abuse of Cox and her medical team ever since. Clearly, the intention is to make Cox an example so that any potential abortion seeker is intimidated enough not to exercise basic bodily autonomy.
Right-wing courts must never have the ability to take away any person’s bodily autonomy, let alone ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence that supports the need for abortion access for all. Successful referendums to protect abortion rights at the state level prove that reproductive justice is not only necessary–these rights are widely demanded by the working class. Anti-choice politicians are in the minority, and working people can and will defeat the repressive and undemocratic U.S. political system.