Bringing Back the Butcher


Bringing Back the Butcher
From the Weekly People
July 9, 1977

Working women got an object lesson in how durable democratic rights are in the U.S. last month when the Supreme Court "clarified" its stand on abortion and effectively denied them to millions.

It was only four years ago that the court first departed from the longstanding hypocrisy that had made abortion a crime even though safe operations could always be purchased by the rich. Then the court held that the decision to have an abortion rightfully belonged to the woman involved, not the state. For the first time, millions of poor, young and minority women were granted a reprieve from the butcher mills of the illegal abortionists.

But in line with a dangerously repressive trend, the court has now redefined its earlier ruling in a way that threatens to push the right to abortion back into the realm of abstraction. It ruled that while women theoretically retain the right to terminate pregnancy, the government may discriminate against those who exercise that right by denying them funds, and public hospitals may even prohibit the use of their facilities for such operations.

The class bias in such a decision is transparent. It is the poorest working-class women who depend on funding like Medicaid and on public facilities to make their right to abortion a reality. It's they who will now be turned away. Once again under capitalism, a democratic right is only as good as the ability to buy it.

Like most of the attacks on abortion rights, this one too came wrapped in high-sounding pretensions. The Court recognized its earlier finding that women should be free to choose between bearing a child or ending a pregnancy. But this time it held that legislatures may "make a value judgment favoring childbirth over abortion, and ... implement that judgment by the allocation of public funds."

The suggestion that denying abortions to the poor reflects this government's "value judgment favoring childbirth" is a choice piece of hypocrisy. Between 1966 and 1974, the federal government boosted its family planning budget from $51 to $250 million, and a considerable part of that sum went to pay for sterilization programs. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare freely pays 90 percent of the costs of sterilization for "low income women."

Among minority women, especially Puerto Ricans, the government has aggressively promoted sterilization campaigns, finding them easier and "more efficient" than other birth control methods. A report from the island's Population Studies Department says that over 40 percent of all Puerto Rican women from families earning less than $5,000 have been sterilized.

A government that finances and promotes sterilization, particularly among minority women, but denies them elective abortions, is making a "value judgment," all right, but not in favor of "childbirth." It's making the kind of racist judgments that have always led minority women to see the most vicious implications in the government's family planning practices.

The case also further exposed the moral pretensions of the "Right to Lifers." The court ruled strictly on the narrow issue of dispensing public funds and never questioned the legitimacy of abortion per se. But while the ruling's only practical effect was to impose a class bias against poor working women, the Right to Lifers nevertheless hailed it as a "victory" for their cause, a cause whose absence of consistent principle becomes more evident each day. Perhaps its leaders sensed that the partial denial of rights was only a steppingstone toward more comprehensive repression.

Politicians in both the House and the Senate, and throughout the state legislatures, welcomed the ruling and immediately announced plans to pass measures cutting off abortion funding. Many of these hacks, who regularly ignore the needs and interests of the workers in their districts, have taken to citing "pressure from constituents" and "many cards and letters," as a way of explaining their support for regressive steps on the abortion issue. In fact, this "popular swell of opinion" is the well-financed, coordinated alliance of rightist forces who've been behind offensives against the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights, busing and other issues involving democratic rights.

But there is yet another factor aiding the growing attacks on the women's movement, and that's the narrow feminist reformism of too many of its sectors. The women's movement, in general, has placed far too much emphasis on legislation and lobbying to redress the oppression of women. And, unfortunately, there are signs that even defeats like this one aren't forcing a rethinking of strategy.

One glaring example of the bourgeois feminist illusions that persist came in Connecticut, one of the states whose administration asked the Supreme Court to end abortion funding. There, State Senator Betty Hudson bemoaned the ruling, declaring, "It just reinforced in my mind more that we need a woman on the Supreme Court."

Hudson overlooked the fact that the Governor of Connecticut, Ella Grasso, is a woman and a favorite of liberal feminists. She was one of the first politicians to order the suspension of welfare abortion payments after she and her lawyers won their case.

The idea that "women legislators" or "women judges" hold the key to women's rights has been disproved time and again. Women's oppression is rooted in capitalism, and its class and social structure. It's time that a working-class movement of both men and women against these underlying causes became the starting point of the struggle for women's rights, and against the wave of repression now under way.


"All women, without difference of social standing, have an interest -- as the sex that in the course of social development has been oppressed and ruled, and defiled by man -- in removing such a state of things, and must exert themselves to change it, in so far as it can be changed by changes in the laws and institutions within the framework of the present social order. But the enormous majority of women are furthermore interested in the most lively manner in that the existing state and social order be radically transformed, to the end that both wage slavery, under which the working women deeply pine, and sex slavery, which is intimately connected with our property and industrial systems, be wiped out." -- August Bebel, "Woman Under Socialism"