by Karyn Pomerantz, 5-20-2022
Overturning a woman’s right to abortion is the latest effort to keep women powerless, providing free domestic labor in the home and under the control of the male-dominated state.
It is not the first attack. Seventeenth century witch hunts stigmatized and murdered outspoken women. Slavery turned black women into child and wealth generators for plantation owners. Throughout capitalist history, women have been demeaned and impoverished, especially black, indigenous, and Latinx women, in order to make extra profits. This article documents how capitalism oppresses women and argues that abortion supporters must broaden their demands to address the broader role of sexism under capitalism.
How Capitalism Exploits Women
Under capitalism, a small class of wealthy owners of corporations and financial institutions reap huge profits from the working class. While capitalists pay all workers less than the value of what they produce (exploitation), they pay women even less than men overall with black and Latinas paid even lower wages than white women. For example, Latinas earn 35 cents for every dollar a white man makes. In addition, women are often concentrated in service, healthcare, retail, and hospitality jobs that pay poorly, have inconsistent hours, little job security, and offer little chance for advancement. It is now considered progress to pay some “essential” workers $15 an hour, while others continue to earn much less!
Extreme unemployment and poverty push some women into trading sex for a place to live or enough money to live on, some from a very young age. Some women and girls are trafficked and forced into lives of prostitution. These transactional relationships have led to high rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases among women. (strive.lshtm.ac.uk/resources/transactional-sex-what-it-and-why-it-matters).
Effects of COVID on Women’s Lives
During COVID-19 lockdowns, many women left their jobs because they had to stay home and care for children no longer in daycare or school. Disproportionate employment in service jobs like restaurants caused excess women to become unemployed. These job losses reveal the usual disparities with men and with white women, who suffered less oppression (but still suffered):
- Women lost more jobs (5.3 million) than men (4.6 million) (CNN Business, 12-2020)
- Job losses in the US were worse for Asian (19% of jobs lost), black (17%), and Latin women (21%) while white women lost 13%, still a substantial proportion.
- Globally, women lost 64 million jobs and $800 billion dollars in pay (CNBC, 4-2021)
Many so-called essential workers were further endangered by exposure to Covid-19. Because they worked in risky in-person jobs, lacked health care, and endured the stress of racism, black, Latin, and Native American women suffered 2-3 times the number of deaths than white women (Annals of Internal Medicine, 12-2021). Black women also experienced 3-9 times the number of deaths during and after childbirth, further exacerbated by the pandemic (Aljazeera, 2-2022). Without the availability of abortion and affordable health care, many more will die and encounter dangerous medical conditions.
Women fulfill the social reproduction needs of society: reproducing and raising the working class. They bear the children who the capitalists need as workers and soldiers, raise the children, run the households, and care for elderly and sick relatives. These tasks are vital to society yet go unpaid. Childcare is only feasible for families who earn high incomes leaving most working-class families on their own to provide childcare.
The loss of abortion rights will keep more women, especially poor women, pregnant and at home to ensure that they provide domestic labor at no cost. More pregnancies mean less time and energy available for activity and activism outside the home.
Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State wrote in 1884:
“… to emancipate woman and make her the equal of the man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labor and restricted to private domestic labor.”
Socialist Evelyn Reed argues that the fight for abortion allows women to escape from the domestic realm. She appeals to men to join this movement:
“The exploited (male) worker, confronted by the even worse plight of his dependent housewife, cannot be complacent about it – he must be made to see the source of the oppressive power that has degraded them both (Women: Caste, Class or Oppressed Sex. https://www.marxists.org/archive/reed-evelyn/1970/caste-class-sex.htm Viewed May 13, 2022).
How Does This Relate to Abortion?
The fight over abortion addresses many issues. For a large group of mostly white abortion activists, the pro-choice movement is a battle for individual rights. Making abortion legal is their sole demand, ignoring issues of affordability and accessibility that exclude black, Latin, and all poor women from choosing an abortion. It’s ironic that their slogan, “my body my choice,” is the same used by people opposed to vaccinations and masks. “My body, my choice” reflects the individualism that permeates American society. It elevates the needs of individuals without considering the needs of the larger society, including marginalized people who cannot get an abortion even when it is legal.
Pro-life advocates oppose abortion by declaring their support for the right to life yet oppose social safety net programs that ensure the health of living children. The same politicians who oppose abortion oppose expanding Medicaid or nutrition benefits for poor children, free child care, or an increase in wages (https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/12/17/views-of-the-economic-system-and-social-safety-net/).
Loretta Ross of SisterSong argues that abortion must be seen through the lens of reproductive justice. Reproductive justice entails improving the conditions of working class lives and acknowledging the more oppressed status of black and brown women. In terms of sexism, it means ending intimate partner violence, incest, and rape. Changing all these conditions along with access to abortion would expand the options women have regarding sexuality and reproduction, whether that is remaining childless, maintaining a pregnancy, or adding more children to the family.
The fight for abortion must also be placed in the framework of access and utilization of health services. Many women who cannot access abortion live in rural areas where over 100 hospitals have closed in recent years, and 800 risk closures due to financial problems (The Advisory Board, 3-2022). From 2004 to 2014, hospital obstetric care closed in 179 rural counties. There were no abortion providers in 87% of counties in 2008. Furthermore, physicians in rural areas were less likely to provide abortions than doctors in cities (https://www.acog.org/clinical/clinical-guidance/committee-opinion/articles/2014/02/health-disparities-in-rural-women). While 20% of people live in rural areas, only 9% of physicians practice there, often due to hospital closures, making it harder or impossible for women to obtain healthcare let alone abortions. Over 20 million people lack health insurance despite the Affordable Care Act that enriches pharmaceutical and insurance companies.
With abortion bans in over 20 states, only women who have the resources can travel to states that allow abortions, as wealthier women traveled to other countries when abortion was illegal in the United States.
Racist Assaults on Women and Families
Racism has always colored the debates on abortion. Some called abortion genocide to reduce the population of black people. It is easy to see why people would believe this. US rulers have manipulated the reproduction of black women since slavery when plantation owners raped women to produce children for their labor pool. The owners also practiced early family separation as they sold parents and children to different plantations. Early settlers practiced genocide and family separation against indigenous inhabitants; only 230,000 native people remained at the end of the 19th century, down from the estimated 5-15 million when Columbus arrived (https://www.history.com/news/native-americans-genocide-united-states). Their children were captured and raised in residential schools where their jailers used abuse to destroy their culture, including language and dress.
Forced sterilization programs targeted black, indigenous, Latinas, and disabled women primarily in the South to maintain a whiter America. Throughout the 20th century, they sterilized approximately 70,000 predominantly working-class women of color living in more than 30 states. Black, Latina, and Native American women were specifically targeted. From the 1930s to the 1970s, about 1/3 of Puerto Rican women were sterilized (https://bpr.berkeley.edu/2020/11/04/americas-forgotten-history-of-forced-sterilization).
Contraception has also been used as tool for population control. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, wanted to minimize the growth of immigrant families. Immigration quotas also limited the number of “non-white” people from living in the US.
However, the argument of abortion equals genocide cannot be used to fight against reproductive health. Abortion is one option women make for many different reasons. Of more concern is the lack of healthcare, especially for millions of poor women of color. Illegal abortions will place more women at risk of dying from complications of self induced abortions or maternal health risks.
Don’t Rely on Politicians and the Supreme Court
Capitalism, whether represented by Democrats or Republicans, will never fund the changes that we all need to live healthier lives. While Congress and Biden, controlled by the rich, can provide billions of dollars to Ukraine to confront their Russian competitors, they will not appropriate the money needed to prevent COVID-19 deaths, improve living and working conditions, reduce climate change, improve food production and access, and universalize free healthcare. Under Biden, Congress refused to pay for extensions of mortgage relief, raise unemployment benefits, or (recently) provide free COVID tests, even though Democrats control both houses of Congress.
Some Democratic politicians also oppose abortion, such as Hillary Clinton’s running mate Timothy Kane (https://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/tim-kaine-abortion-predicament-225053). Don’t put your faith in liberal politicians to change these conditions.
It is also an illusion that the Supreme Court was or could ever be a friend of working-class people. In the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court argued that enslaved people “had no rights where the white man was bound to respect and could be bought and sold whenever a profit could be made by it.” Later, it endorsed Bakke’s claim of reverse discrimination when unsuccessfully applying to medical school, denied indigenous people ownership of their land, and opposed Chinese immigration (https://multiracialunity.org/2020/11/07/the-racist-history-of-the-u-s-supreme-court-part-2/).
Organizing for Abortion
Argentina provides a model of organizing for reproductive justice. Mass organizations associated the need for legal abortions with other injustices women face, such as pay disparities and gender-based violence. They included demands against racist inequities of poverty, precarious employment and housing. They organized in the slums, schools, unions, and soup kitchens among men and women, thereby increasing their numbers and enhancing the relevance of their campaign to more people. Activists mobilized workers to join their movement and drew thousands into demonstrations, focusing on building a movement in the street that overturned the abortion ban (The Guardian, 5-2022).
Revolutionary Organizing: What Do We Fight For
The history of abortion shows how capitalists can end any of the reforms we win. As long as they control society, we cannot ensure any improvements. The only solution to meeting workers’ needs is a communist society where the working class has power. No one profits from anybody’s work. People contribute what they can and take what they need according to abilities and commitment.
It is a society where people prioritize social needs rather than individual desires. For example, if the population is devastated by war women could be encouraged to have children and have the resources and support to care for them in more communal ways. Workers would be organized to help each other to find solutions to their problems. For women, this means establishing communal kitchens, shared childcare with each other and men, and access to jobs that are not traditionally female.
In the early Soviet Union, abortion was free and legal, reflecting the “Leninist doctrine that no woman should be forced to bear a child she did not want” (Heer DM. Abortion, Contraception, and Population Policy in the Soviet Union. Demography (1965) 2 (1): 531–539 https://doi.org/10.2307/2060137). In addition, they also established communal forms of child rearing and household work. The early Chinese Communist Party legalized divorce, outlawed prostitution, and provided jobs for sex workers.
It is important for activists to fight not just against the attack on women’s reproduction and all the other atrocities covering the planet, but to get rid of capitalism which engenders all these ills. As inter-imperialist war, climate change, pandemics and fascism accelerate, there is no longer time to work incrementally. Instead of encouraging voting between one capitalist and another, we should unite our class, revolt in the streets, mutiny in the Armed Forces, and strike to disrupt business as usual. Instead of being discouraged by the reversion of earlier revolutions to capitalism, we must analyze their mistakes and determine to do better. The alternative is the loss not only of rights but of life itself. It is worth the try.
Shah, Molly. Capitalism Has Always Wanted to Control Our Bodies. Real News Network, May 3, 2022. https://therealnews.com/capitalism-has-always-wanted-to-control-our-bodies Viewed May 13, 2022.
“From witch hunts and chattel slavery to today’s attacks on abortion rights, the control of reproductive health has always been a baked-in feature of capitalist society.”
Reed, Evelyn. Women: Caste, Class or Oppressed Sex. International Socialist Review, September 1970, Vol. 31, No. 3. https://www.marxists.org/archive/reed-evelyn/1970/caste-class-sex.htm Viewed May 13, 2022.
Engels F. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884):
“… to emancipate woman and make her the equal of the man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labor and restricted to private domestic labor (https://www.marxists.org/ar.chive/marx/works/download/pdf/origin_family.pdf).