“A mass liberation movement will develop as more and more women begin to perceive their situation correctly,” wrote Kathie Sarachild in 1968.1 In consciousness-raising sessions, starting in 1967, women compared experiences and discovered that many of them had had abortions—and that fear of unwanted pregnancies cramped everyone’s lives. In New York, the movement dragged abortion from the shadows of the personal into the sunlight of the political when a women’s liberation faction that would soon name itself Redstockings disrupted a government hearing about reforming abortion legislation, instead demanding full repeal of all laws restricting abortion. After drawing lots for the task, Sarachild led off the disruption. Redstockings then set up their own hearing to testify about their (still) illegal abortions. Feminist lawyers sued to vacate the New York law. Inspired by the speakout, they opened their depositions to the public, inviting the world to hear how abortion restrictions plagued women’s lives.2 The District Attorney denounced it as a “circus.” The threat that the state law might be struck down by the courts helped push New York’s state legislature to legalized abortion up to twenty-four weeks, but only if performed by a doctor.
By 1970, when New York legalized most abortion, the demand for repeal had spread all over the country. There were abortion referral services on most campuses, and a national clergy group with three thousand members referred people for abortions across state lines and overseas, eventually facing arrests. In California, women demonstrated self-abortion techniques at public events, seeking to get arrested to challenge state law. Abortion was an issue the more liberal feminists of the National Organization for Women and the radicals agreed upon—and it was one of three demands of the 1970 Women’s Strike March, which stunned even the organizers with its size and broad appeal.
These organizers strategically used the word “abortion”—not “choice,” which was coined later in a misguided effort to appeal to a larger audience. But the original movement wasn’t aiming for donor-friendly rhetoric and soft appeals. They wanted free abortion on demand.
These histories have been overlooked in recent weeks by some centrist commentators, whose insistent faith in the Constitution and the Supreme Court disregards the fact that Roe v. Wade was always a compromise, a bulwark against the more ambitious Women’s Liberation threat to abolish abortion restrictions altogether. Meanwhile, in the face of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, feminist radicals (including my own group, National Women’s Liberation) have responded by critiquing the contemporary reproductive rights movement for failing to follow the bold playbook established in the 1960s. It is true that the strategies that made our struggle for abortion successful in the years before Roe—its mass character and straightforward appeal—have been abandoned in favor of appeals to judges, legislators, and foundations. But rather than follow the Sixties strategy exactly, or scrap it altogether, we need to update the Women’s Liberation Movement’s understanding of the issue. Successful though the movement was, it was shaped by a political-economic order that has since undergone a radical reconfiguration.
Many of these shifts on the path to Dobbs have been well documented, from the anti–New Deal coalition’s construction of the evangelical right to the decades-long plan to pack the courts with right-wing judges. Receiving less consideration, but just as consequential for reproductive rights, has been an ongoing and dramatic shift in our birth rate. In the decades since the baby boom, the birth rate has declined, and has now reached a record low. As a result, the value of reproductive work has become more visible and embattled than it was in the 1960s, when ruling-class men often complained that working-class women were having too many children, filling the welfare rolls and overpopulating the planet. Now, amid a destructive tide of renewed traditionalism around gender and the family, the ruling class would prefer us to increase baby production—and it is becoming clear to all that abortion is part of a larger labor struggle. It is once again necessary to “perceive our situation correctly.” This time around, defenders of the right to abortion are up against the entire capitalist class.
As is often the case with successful movements, several economic and social contingencies primed the late 1960s to be a moment of progress for reproductive freedom. One was the prolonged postwar baby boom, unprecedented in history and a source of significant political anxiety. By the late Sixties, there was bipartisan agreement that high birth rates were leading to overpopulation and radicalism overseas, and crowding and crime at home. As a result, many Republican politicians supported birth control and abortion legalization. The New York repeal bill was introduced by upstate Republican Assembly member Constance Cook, and when the New York legislature tried to reverse itself in 1971, Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller vetoed their retreat, preserving legal abortion in New York. In 1975, President Gerald Ford opposed the Hyde Amendment to cut abortions under Medicaid. (Candidate Jimmy Carter, meanwhile, supported it.)
Another factor was the US’s cold war–fueled competition with the socialist bloc over which system better constituted “freedom,” including freedom for women. While women in the US went underground and paid extortionate prices for bad care, women in socialist societies had free abortion in their public hospitals—first in the Soviet Union, then in Korea, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, China, Vietnam, and Cuba.
Finally, employers wanted women workers. Vietnam war spending and deployments had led to tight labor markets—below 4 percent unemployment from 1965 to 1969. Women were cheaper workers, but pregnancy and childrearing got in the way: it was normal practice to fire the pregnant, and employers were certainly not going to pay for childcare or maternity leave. Much more advantageous, from a boss’s perspective, to allow birth control and abortion.
It is not to discount the astonishing power and organization of the Women’s Liberation Movement to acknowledge that these factors split the power structure and weakened barriers to abortion and birth control. But these contingencies are no longer operative. Fifty years after Roe, our birth rate is the lowest it has ever been—partly because neoliberal policies have made raising children an expensive, anxiety-laden task. There is no longer cold war competition over the global terms of freedom—US foreign policy has ceased to be under any pressure to appear democratic. The decades-long crushing of unions, and with them family-supporting wages, means there’s no question that women must work. And the feminist movement is weaker after forty years of neoliberal counterattack.
Many liberal commenters, and even some on the left, think the abortion issue is a way for economic elites to excite an evangelical base and wedge working-class Catholics away from the Democratic party—a cynical scheme for the rich to get the poor to vote for them. But this misses the root of the abortion fight. At its base, it has always been a struggle over the work, risk, and expense of bearing and raising children. Since the the birth rate has shifted, capital has understood this fact with devastating clarity.
As birth rates have dropped over the past fifty years—from a postwar peak of 3.6 children per woman to 1.64 today—capitalist think tanks have fixated on two concerns. The first is that capitalism requires growth, and since its inception a main driver of growth has been rising population. The second is the age structure of the population—fewer young workers and more retirees means fewer laborers to support non-working populations. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle warn of “a demographic time bomb . . . shaking the sustainability of our savings for retirement, the viability of the entitlement system, and our ability to create robust economic growth.”3
Capitalists as a class have always sought to avoid contributing public resources to the raising of children or support of the retired. They’d prefer us to show up in the wage market ready to work without any prior investment, and to die as soon as we’re no longer profitable as workers, whether from smoking or black lung or Covid. This is the logic behind attempts to raise the retirement age and permit more child labor. The struggle of the working class has always been about how much of our time is stolen over a day and over a lifetime.
In the post–World War II period, bolstered by labor victories overseas, US unions briefly wielded enough power to compel employers to set aside money for both the beginning and end of life. Workers negotiated defined benefit pensions and a “family wage,” high enough for one person’s forty-hour workweek to support two adults and their children. While these were privatized and sexist methods of funding childrearing and retirement, they nonetheless meant that employers were forced to put in resources towards previous and future workers. (The anti-communist poison pill was that these provisions were tied to the job, meaning they could be quickly abolished when capital figured out how to restore its power.)
As employers understood, dependence on our jobs for what should have been universal guarantees weakened and fractured the working-class movement in the United States, and radically affected the shape of US family life. In the final decades of the twentieth century, a loss in family income sent both spouses to work, and employers were able, in effect, to extract an additional forty (or more!) hours of work a week from a couple compared to a union job in the 1960s. That missing forty hours is why it’s so hard to raise kids today, and a large part of why fewer people are deciding to do so.
In Europe, where labor movements and labor-based parties have more power, the response to falling birth rates has mostly been to increase spending on childcare and paid parental leave, along with child allowances. But in the US, where employers own both political parties, even unpaid family leave has been met with screeches of horror. As a result, our paltry twelve-week unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act covers less than 60 percent of the workforce. (Compare this to a paid year off in Australia, or sixteen months to be split between parents in Sweden.) Programs like universal childcare or paid family leave that would require employers to put in taxes and cede some control over workers are dead in the Senate. Having systematically stripped away every conceivable safety net for working-class families, capital and its allies on the right now face a paradox: the only remaining grounds on which to encourage Americans to have children is to limit the availability of abortion and contraception.
If attacks on abortion were mostly concerned with morality, political wedging, or simple sexism, then it might be winnable as a simply a feminist issue. But they’re part of the neoliberal assault on living standards and public goods, and so they have to be fought as part of a broad left front.
Dropping birth rates have spotlighted the reality that childbearing and rearing is a difficult, essential job for which adequate time, social support, and compensation should be provided. Where those supports are not provided, contraceptives and abortion allow us to slow down or strike. In the absence of reproductive control, we are forced to keep up production even under historically unacceptable working conditions.
We should mobilize for free access to abortion for all—but we shouldn’t settle for legal abortion as a partial solution to immiserating conditions. It’s essential to confront the neoliberal framing of childbearing as an individualist project that should only be undertaken by families who can afford to. “Giving low-income women more control over their own fertility . . . promotes economic security, educational attainment, income mobility and more stable environments for American children,” writes Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, prescribing birth control when what is required is higher pay, union jobs, affordable housing and education, and universal health care and childcare systems.4 “Children brought into the world before their parents were financially or emotionally ready for them are likewise disadvantaged before they’re even born, no matter how loved they are,” Rampell adds, insulting the half of the country that doesn’t have $500 for an emergency.5
We should tell these neoliberal ghouls where to stick it, of course, but mostly we need to organize a broad front to fight for all the things we need. Threats from the left have inched the Democratic establishment forward on childcare and family allowances. In December, the Food and Drug Administration removed some of the red tape restricting the abortion pill, while several states have added laws to protect abortion rights. Every Democratic Senator besides Joe Manchin has now gone on record for the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would expand abortion access in states that have accumulated oppressive laws.
With a fresh understanding of what is at stake in the fight over reproductive control, we can recruit new people to this fight. Many have only been exposed to scolds like Rampell, and they think that’s what feminism is about. But abortion is a crucial part of our right to strike against unjust reproductive working conditions. It’s time to recruit a mass movement on this basis.
Two of these lawyers published a book in 1971 containing these testimonies, Abortion Rap, by Flo Kennedy and Diane Schulder. ↩
Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick, Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution (Threshold Editions, 2013). ↩
Catherine Rampell, “Want to Fight Poverty? Expand Access to Contraception,” Washington Post, September 24, 2015. ↩
“Report on the Economic Well-Being of US Households in 2014,” Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, May 2015. ↩