The right to choose is just one aspect of a much larger issue of reproductive rights--women’s right to control their own bodies and reproductive lives. Although in recent decades the battle has centered around the right to abortion, this includes more than the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy--but also the right to have children in the face of racist sterilization programs that targeted African Americans, Native Americans and disabled people in the U.S. throughout much of the 20th century.
Latinos were often obliged to sign consent forms in English instead of Spanish, and were frequently sterilized without their knowledge. By 1968, one-third of all women in Puerto Rico--still a U.S. colony--were permanently sterilized. Today, racist sterilization programs continue to target Black and Brown women and men in poor countries around the world in the name of "population control."
Reproductive freedom is also about abortion rights for poor women. Even when abortion is illegal, wealthy women have--and have always had--the money and private doctors to obtain abortions, while poor women face the choice of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term or risking their lives with unsafe, illegal abortions.
Large numbers of poor and working-class women die when abortion is illegal. According to the World Health Organization, 78,000 women around the world die from unsafe abortions every year.
And in the U.S., before abortion was made legal in 1973, large numbers of women died from complications from abortion. In New York City, Black women made up 50 percent of all women who died after an illegal abortion, while Puerto Rican women were 44 percent.
Since the 1970s, many of the same states that denied Medicaid funding for poor women’s abortions have been perfectly willing to sterilize them, free of charge. These are the reasons why reproductive rights--the right to choose whether and when to have children--is not just a women’s issue. It is also a class issue, a racial issue and an issue of global justice.
Crusade of the bigots
Right-wing organizations with names such as the Moral Majority are neither morally superior, nor are they anywhere near the majority. They represent an extremely well-funded minority--with "friends" in high places, like Congress and the White House.
To be sure, these right-wingers--including George W. Bush--couch their opposition to abortion with pious phrases praising "the sanctity of life" and the "sanctity of marriage." But they are hypocrites. Newt Gingrich, for example--a leading spokesperson for "the sanctity of marriage"--is now on his third.
Their crusade is political, not moral. Morality is personal. Those who oppose abortion should be able to follow their own consciences--and at the same time allow other people to follow theirs.
No one in the pro-choice movement has ever suggested that anyone personally opposed to abortion should be forced to have one. Yet the goal of the anti-abortion crusade is to impose--by law--a very conservative set of moral values on the rest of the population.
The rise of the Christian Right
The Christian Right has its origins in the New Right of the 1980s, which did not even pretend it was religiously motivated. The agenda of the New Right should dispel any myth that it believed in the sanctity of human life. Its agenda included support for the death penalty, support for nuclear weapons and massive cuts in social spending for the poor.
Right-wing Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.) even sponsored the Human Life Amendment--which would have banned abortion under all circumstances, without exceptions for rape and incest victims, or even if the woman would die if she gave birth. So much for respecting human life.
The New Right was formed to oppose all the gains made by the social movements of the 1960s--not just the women’s movement, but the Black Power and gay liberation movements. The New Right in the 1980s brought together Protestant fundamentalists with old-time segregationists.
It is no coincidence that at (now deceased) Strom Thurmond’s December 9, 2002 birthday celebration, Trent Lott--who fights daily to carry out the Christian Right’s agenda in Congress--praised Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign, whose centerpiece was opposition to integration. "We’re proud of it," Lott said. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."
The New Right’s--and now the Christian Right’s--opposition to abortion has its origins in this context. These right-wingers oppose all aspects of women’s rights, and believe that the growing numbers of women in the workforce--along with abortion--are undermining the "traditional" nuclear family.
It could reasonably be argued that the "traditional family" ideal--the breadwinning husband and the stay-at-home Mom--never actually existed, since many working-class women have always worked outside the home. But this ideal--of the "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave it to Beaver" variety--was a centerpiece of the reactionary era of the 1950s. And that is exactly the era to which the forces of the Christian Right want to return.
In the 1980s, the hallmark of the New Right was not merely opposition to abortion, but also to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that would have established women’s constitutional equality with men. Phyllis Schlafly’s Stop ERA organization campaigned as ardently against the ERA as the National Right to Life campaigned against abortion.
In the 1990s, the Christian Right supported Bill Clinton’s so-called welfare "reform" that threw millions of poor families, women and children into deeper poverty, and pushed for teen abstinence programs. Today, the Christian Right is not only behind Bush’s support for a gay marriage ban and his attacks on abortion, but also his $1.5 billion program to promote marriage in poor Black areas--where it believes the traditional family is most threatened by single motherhood.
Whose family? Whose values?
It is worth asking why the Christian Right is so attached to this rigid ideal of the traditional family when only 9 percent of all U.S. families fit this model. Why can’t their idea of "family values" change to reflect the real changes in people’s lives?
The vast majority of women today are in the workforce, and half of all marriages end in divorce. And the demand for gay marriage is a result of the fact that many same-sex couples are choosing to live together and raise families.
The Christian Right can’t adapt to these changes because the ruling class relies on the heterosexual nuclear family--not as a "moral" institution, but an economic unit that is central to capitalism. And while politicians such as Bush and Lott act as spokesmen for the Christian Right, Democrats Bill Clinton and John Kerry also tout "family values."
It was no accident that Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and promoted teen abstinence as president. He was attempting to appease the Christian Right. Republicans and Democrats alike represent corporate interests--and uphold the nuclear family as an institution that is central to capitalist society.
Preserving the institution of the nuclear family--and, most importantly, women’s unpaid labor within it--is of material benefit to the system. Whether they work outside the home or not, inside the family, women perform labor--housework, cooking, laundry and child care--that is free of charge, and therefore invaluable to the continued existence of the capitalist system.
The dead end of electoralism
Turning back the clock is the political program of the Christian Right. States across the U.S. have passed hundreds of laws curtailing women’s right to choose--imposing 24-hour waiting periods, requiring teenagers to obtain the consent of their parents even in abusive families and refusing state funding for poor women’s abortions even if they have cancer or diabetes.
In November, the attack on abortion reached the federal level, when Congress passed a ban on the intact dilation and extraction abortion procedure (which right-wingers deliberately mislabeled as "partial-birth abortion")--without so much as a clause to protect the health of the pregnant woman. And the Senate’s March 25 passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act makes it a second crime to harm the fetus of a pregnant woman.
But we have to ask the question: How has the Christian Right been so successful at shifting the political climate? The answer is simple--the anti-abortion crusade has relentlessly pursued an activist strategy that promotes the false impression that women choose abortion for "frivolous reasons," and "selfishly" delay abortions for the sake of convenience.
But if the Christian Right has been campaigning relentlessly to undermine the right to choose--rallying by the thousands and protesting outside abortion clinics--the same can’t be said for the pro-choice movement. Instead of mounting an unapologetic defense of women’s right to control their own bodies, pro-choice leaders have increasingly spent the bulk of their time and money campaigning for pro-choice Democrats.
Yet in November, 63 House Democrats and 11 Senate Democrats--many of them "pro-choice"--voted in favor of the misnamed "partial birth" ban. And in March, 47 House Democrats joined forces with Republicans in voting for the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. These results demonstrate the bankruptcy of the pro-choice movement’s electoral strategy.
We also need to ask why the pro-choice movement didn’t hold Clinton accountable when he broke his campaign promise to pass a Freedom of Choice Act--and when he threw poor women off welfare. Clinton voiced no disapproval as right-wing lawmakers passed state laws across the country mandating parental consent or notification, and a host of other restrictions on women’s right to choose.
During Clinton’s first term as president, Congress had the most anti-choice voting record in its history. Yet Clinton’s only attention to the abortion issue in his second term was to promote sexual abstinence among teens to lower the country’s abortion rate. Clinton’s presidency showed why politicians can’t be relied on to defend abortion rights--no matter what their campaign rhetoric.
What kind of movement?
If the electoral strategy has been a failure, what kind of movement is needed to turn things around? The grassroots movement for gay marriage is showing the way forward.
In recent months, thousands of gay rights activists around the country have resurrected the strategies of the civil rights movement and refused to take "no" for an answer when demanding marriage licenses. Suddenly, the right to same-sex marriage--which seemed impossible just a few months ago--is within reach.
That is how rapidly the political climate can change when a grassroots movement starts to fight back. We can also learn a lesson from the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s--the movement that won the right to choose in the first place.
At the time, Richard Nixon--an anti-abortion right-winger much like George W. Bush--occupied the White House, and the U.S. Supreme Court was packed with conservative appointees. Yet the first state to make abortion legal was California in 1970--when none other than Ronald Reagan was governor.
Between 1969 and 1973, tens of thousands of women and men held hundreds of protests across the U.S., making women’s right to choose a central demand for the women’s liberation movement--along with equal pay, child care and an end to discrimination. Today, we need activism to build the kind of movement that can link the right to choose with full reproductive rights for all women. This can become a movement that will settle for nothing less than full equality.
Real people are living lives that are completely out of sync with the so-called family values of the Christian Right. And one out of every three women today has an abortion. That means most people know someone who has needed one.
We are the majority, not the Christian Right. The pro-choice movement should be fighting against everything the Christian Right stands for. Such a movement--that defends the right to abortion without apology--will find millions of people on its side.
Sharon Smith is a columnist for Socialist Worker and author of
Women’s Liberation and Socialism, a new collection of essays that will
be published by Haymarket Books. This article first appeared on the SW