The model of mobilization to protect the right to abortion beyond the vote
Beyond voting for candidates who support the right to abortion during an election period, what should be done? The historical experiences of the feminist struggle against abortion between the 1960s and the 1990s offer alternative strategies. feminists originally won reproductive rights through mass mobilization in the streets combined with widespread clandestine provision of abortion and other health care. These actions forced the Supreme Court to affirm a constitutional right to abortion in 1973.
Roe vs. Wade officially protected the right to abortion, but the decision was frequently challenged. The 1976 Hyde Amendment prevented many poor women from receiving care by prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion. Then, in the 1980s, a growing militant anti-abortion movement pressured the government to impose new state and federal restrictions. Right-wing extremists bombed clinics and murdered abortion providers. Operation Rescue, founded in 1986 by Randall Terry, promoted the slogan “If you think abortion is murder, act like it’s murder” and tried to physically shut down clinics. In response, feminists have mobilized in multiple ways. But it is the lessons of anarchists within the feminist movement in particular whose actions can inspire and guide mass mobilizations today as we face the potential end of deer.
Feminists have mobilized to protect abortion rights from right-wing attacks through a combination of protests, legislation and court cases. These strategies provided the basis for the 1992 Supreme Court decision in Family planning c. Casey which confirmed in substance Roe vs. Wade but opened the door to further restrictions provided there was no “undue burden”.
On the other hand, anarchists (anti-state socialists) within the feminist movement rejected voting and legal reforms in favor of grassroots radical activism. Instead of the slogan “we are pro-choice and we vote”, anarchists often marched behind a banner reading “we are pro-choice and we revolt!” »
Following the lead of second-wave feminists, anarchists framed abortion as a matter of bodily autonomy and women’s liberation. The radical conception of reproductive freedom had been subsumed by Roe vs. Wade in a liberal framework that viewed abortion as an individual choice and a right to be protected by the state.
In opposition to this strategic retreat, the Revolutionary Anarchist Federation Love and Rage (1989-98) supported in its draft political declaration that “our freedom will not come by passing more laws but by building communities strong enough to defend themselves against anti-choice and anti-queer terror, rape, battery, child abuse children and police harassment”. Instead of asking the state to protect abortion, Love and Rage advocated for “women-controlled health care and abortions” modeled on Chicago’s Jane Collective, which performed more than 10,000 abortions then illegal between 1969 and 1973.
As the 1990s approached, amid renewed right-wing attacks on abortion rights, the anarcha-feminists of Love and Rage built a grassroots infrastructure for performing abortions and ensuring reproductive health more broadly. They sought to build self-reliance on their own terms by organizing self-help groups in which, explained San Francisco activist Sunshine Smith, “women learn the basics of self-cervical examination, make the pelvis the on top of each other and learn how to do menstrual extraction.”
In 1993, just after the Supreme Court upheld the right to abortion while authorizing new restrictions in Family planning c. Casey, Love and Rage hosted a nationwide “Wimmin’s Health Tour” in which they encouraged women to form their own bands and take control of their health. Anarchists believed that this type of infrastructure was key to bodily autonomy and helped lay the groundwork for building revolutionary dual power: radical institutions that challenged state hegemony. If women controlled their own bodies and institutions, they would no longer depend on the state to protect their rights.
Love and Rage also clashed with anti-abortion activists on the streets. Anarcha-feminists took lessons from the global militant protests of the 1980s – particularly the use of tactics developed in West Germany and the anti-fascist street fights practiced by Anti-Racist Action – and applied them to the struggle against Operation Rescue.
Activists from the West German anti-nuclear and squatter movements had begun to dress all in black and march together to protect their anonymity and allow for more militant collective action. Black bloc tactics spread across the United States, including in defenses of abortion clinics, and later came to public attention during the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle. Anti-Racist Action, which formed in Minneapolis in the late 1980s and quickly spread across the country, kicked neo-Nazis out of punk scenes and fought them in the streets. They argued that anti-abortion activists were a key part of contemporary fascism and decided to apply anti-fascist street tactics to Operation Rescue.
In 1993, Operation Rescue attempted to hold a summer boot camp in Minneapolis to recruit activists to block abortion clinics. They wanted to repeat the success of their 1991 “Summer of Mercy” mobilization in Wichita. Unlike Kansas, however, the anarchists defended the clinics against them, blocked them in their church, vandalized their equipment, and eventually drove them out of town. Reflecting on experience, a local anarchist named Liza wrote that “It seems that no matter how hard activists fight, we rarely win. Except this time we were victorious. We fought against these fascists. … We have seen the demise of Operation Rescue in the Twin Cities, partly because of our unprecedented aggressiveness and opposition, and partly because their movement is losing, largely.
By shielding clinics from the bailout and building their own infrastructure for women, anarcha-feminists sought to secure reproductive freedom just in case. Roe vs. Wade was overthrown. Like Sunshine Smith remarked After forming medical self-help groups and abortion infrastructure in the Bay Area, “we learned that when the time comes, we can and will do home abortions. We become physically aware of the government’s invasion of our bodies. We are now able to push back the state of our womb because we acquire the knowledge that allows us to control our own body.
With parallel strategies undertaken in the courts and on the streets, feminist activists successfully defended abortion both in the Supreme Court and in the anti-abortion movement during the 1980s-1990s. Yet abortion activism has remained on the defensive since reproductive rights were first won nationally in 1973. Even the framing of “pro-choice” activism – rather than self-reliance of women or the right to abortion – reflects a retreat from the strategy of women’s liberation.
The government has continued to reduce access to abortion for huge swaths of the population, particularly the poor, people of color, rural populations and residents of states that have passed legislation that severely restricts the right to abortion. The anti-abortion movement has continued to escalate its violence against abortion providers, including 2009 assassination of George Tiller and the mortal Mass shooting in 2015 at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. Now the Supreme Court can threaten the right to abortion itself.
Anarchist and feminist traditions of mass mobilization, self-help health infrastructure, and grassroots struggle offer alternatives—or at least a radical complement—to voting. Reverse Roe vs. Wade will not stop abortions; it will only make them more dangerous and less accessible. Like anarcha-feminist Liz Highleyman argued in 1992“the day abortion is made illegal again may come sooner than we think. We must be ready to take charge of our bodies and our lives.”