The Abortion Issue: A Socialist View

A Socialist Labor Party Statement
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The Abortion Issue: A Socialist View

There are some issues in capitalist society, which though not the defining, central issues of the class struggle, nevertheless become the focus of sharp political debate and mobilize large numbers of people to action. One of these issues is abortion, and even if it were not necessary for socialists to address themselves to every pressing issue before the working class (which it is), the abortion issue comes wrapped in a cloud of moral arguments that deserve attention.

OPPONENTS OF ABORTION

Opponents of abortion, at least those who aren't motivated by perpetuating the interests and neanderthal notions of the Roman Catholic Church, sincerely claim to be guided by a noble moral principle, "the sanctity of life."

There are those who are consistent in their pacificism and who avoid the hypocrisy that defends "the rights of the fetus" while supporting imperialism, capital punishment and a capitalist system that murders working people in a thousand different ways. There are also some who object to being painted with the same brush as the rightist, bourgeois forces which are consciously organizing and financing the effort to overturn the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion several years ago.

Certainly there are contradictions within the anti-abortion movement, just as there are within the anti-ERA movement and the anti-busing movement. But socialists would be forgetting the most elementary nature of politics if they forgot to look at just what class forces were supporting what side of any issue. This isn't a mechanical formula for "choosing up sides," it is a necessity because politics is not an abstract moral debate between right and wrong. It is the reflection of class struggle and class interests, and this can never be forgotten.

MATERIALISM VS. IDEALISM

Nor can socialists begin analyzing any issue in class society from the standpoint of "pure morality," for to do so is to forget the class nature of morality itself. It is to substitute religious idealism for the socialist approach of historical materialism. "Just as society hitherto has moved in class antagonisms," wrote Frederick Engels, "so has morality always been a class morality." To ignore this is to give up any attempt at scientific socialist analysis and look down from the sky with Utopian moral absolutes, absolutes which will be confounded at every turn as long as class society lasts. While those following socialist materialism and those guided by moral absolutes may occasionally find themselves in agreement, they are bound to part ways on many points.

To follow the lead of an abstract "eternal" morality, whether it be pacifism, the "sanctity of life" or anything else, is Utopian and impossible for the working class, which must struggle with life as it finds it. What's more, such a view helps prolong the very class system that must be overthrown if human morality is to have any chance at all to progress. It does this by promoting idealist and moral illusions about how society can be changed. For example, socialists stand in opposition to imperialist war and capital punishment, not on pacifist grounds, but because these are class questions. They are ways in which the ruling class murders working people to defend and uphold its system. Does this mean that socialists ignore the moral dimensions of these issues? Quite the opposite.

PROLETARIAN MORALITY

The fact that the proletariat stands in opposition to such barbarism is a reflection of its progressive nature, of the fact that its interests are the ones representing the next higher stage of society and will bring a higher level of human morality. But to begin with absolute ideals is to turn the class struggle into a moral crusade and to forget its real historical basis. Even the proletariat's higher morality is restricted by the environment of class society and cannot completely transcend it. It is still a class morality, and though as a majority class it represents the interests of the overwhelming portion of society, it too is not absolute perfection.

As Engels explained, "that morality is most secure which possesses the most elements promising duration, which represents in the present the revolution of the present, that is to say the proletarian morality of the future.... A really human morality, standing above class antagonisms and the memory thereof, will first be possible in a stage of society in which class antagonisms have been surmounted, and in practical life, also forgotten."

CONTRADICTIONS OF UTOPIANISM

The attempt to follow Utopian morals within class society runs into contradictions at every turn. For example, those who oppose legal abortion on the grounds of protecting the "sanctity of life," are not only overlooking the essential class fact that the rich can and do get safe medical abortions without fear of prosecution while the poor cannot. They must also close their eyes to the perverted form which the translation of Utopian morals into bourgeois law must inevitably take.

The practical consequences do not stop at forcing the poor to give birth to satisfy their moral code. They include condemning poor women to the butcher mills of the criminal abortionists. Though all the statistics are uncertain, the period of restrictive laws in the U.S. saw as many as five or six thousand deaths from illegal abortions each year, and countless injuries. In the early sixties, approximately half the maternal deaths among black and Puerto Rican women in New York were due to illegal abortions. As long as one stays in the real world, it's obvious that no law will end abortions. There were up to a million illegal abortions annually in the period of restrictive laws. To ignore the consequences of that illegality is not to uphold the "sanctity of life," it is to perpetuate the hypocrisy of bourgeois law which means different things for different classes.

Even if one were to target abortion as an evil to be eliminated, it cannot be done by capitalist law, with its class enforcement and corruption. It can be done by reducing unwanted pregnancies, which means eliminating poverty, replacing inadequate and dangerous methods of contraception, and above all by the revolutionary transformation of a social system that is based on treating human beings as commodities.

To look at a society which keeps millions in poverty, that makes the raising of children an economic calculation with a cost many can't bear, that restricts the knowledge and means of contraception, and to proceed to give lectures to the oppressed on the "sanctity of life" does not address the real social situation of the working class.

SOCIAL AND HISTORIC CURRENTS

But there is still another dimension to the question, which is even more significant than the endless arguments about the morality of abortion. This has to do with the historic and social currents that are forcing this issue and which are largely responsible for its prominence. Ironically, there are two such currents and they originate from opposite sides.

Though the anti-abortion movement is supported by many right-wing capitalists, a large segment of the capitalist class is in favor of liberalized laws. The weight of this element was reflected in the Supreme Court decision and its motives are both material and ideological.

The drive for legalized abortion is partially motivated by the "neo-Malthusianism" which reappears in every period of social disintegration. The fear that a collapsing society will be unable to sustain the growing population and that "the masses are multiplying too fast" is directly tied to the fears of impending disaster which mark every revolutionary age. Since the capitalist class reels in horror at the rational solution to any population problem, namely the establishment of a planned socialist society which could deal with it in a humane, democratic way, the bourgeoisie welcomes anything that will restrict the growth of the working class and the poor, especially in a period of stagnation when its system has no use for millions of people.

The other current pressing for legal abortion is a more progressive one. Ever since the development of capitalist production began to break the chains that kept women in the kitchen and the nursery, and draw them into the sphere of production, women have sought ways to gain control over their social role as mothers. They sought to break out of their subservient position in the family, to devise new patterns of child-rearing, and to seek full equality as far as that is possible under capitalism.

Abortion is one of the few methods to which women had access in this social process and many have paid a brutal price for that fact. Perhaps in a socialist future, when the effort to control human reproduction is seen as one more step in the historic effort of the human race to coutrol natural processes, abortion will be seen as a primitive method, surpassed by safe, adequate and planned contraception. But to expect women to renounce on moral grounds what limited methods they have available, and to instead wait placidly for the future, is to ignore everything history and class struggle have been about.

Unlike the capitalist class, working people do not take life lightly. But they cannot put off their struggle for survival while academics debate the nature of the fetus. To reduce the question of decriminalization of abortion to such an abstract moral posture, is to forget that in the final analysis, all moral questions are settled in the practical struggle to build a better and more humane world.