In a brazen act of legalistic maneuverings, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022, thereby demolishing a half-century of precedent governing reproductive freedom. The decree, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, opens the door for criminalizing abortion across the land, and forcing sterilization on people deemed “unfit” for motherhood. It endangers birth control, marriage equality and other human rights. Dobbs means the loss of economic security, independence, and mobility for millions of working-class parents. Indeed, women are barely mentioned in its 116 pages, except as vessels of the “unborn human being.”
Chaos immediately descended on people with unwanted pregnancies as abortion clinics shuttered, especially throughout the South. The ruling also deepened critiques of the undemocratic nature of the Court, the Constitution, and “American democracy.”
A history of competing forces. The ruling of these unelected judges asserts that there is no U.S. “history and tradition” of abortion rights.
On the contrary, abortion was common among Indigenous, enslaved and settler peoples from before 1492 on, as was reproductive healthcare provided by midwives. As Native historian Nazune Menka explains, Dobbs relies on laws in place in the 1600s through the 1800s “when legal institutions only granted sovereignty to white property-owning men.”
Dobbs also whitewashes radical Civil War history and the defeat of the Confederacy. In the Reconstruction Era that followed (1865–77), the 13th, 14th and 15th Constitutional Amendments abolished slavery, declared liberty a birthright, and established voting rights for Black and poor white men. While these amendments didn’t include women, all three were designed to replace slavery’s cruel effects with rights and freedoms to benefit the entire working class in all its hues.
Patriarchal and white supremacist forces eventually erased Reconstruction’s gains, aided by northern capitalist power, reactionary Supreme Court decisions, murderous “state’s rights” actions, and Congressional complicity. By the 1900s abortion was illegal in all states and Jim Crow ruled the South.
It took the Civil Rights upsurge, followed by other powerful movements in the 1960s and ’70s, to restore some of the liberating intensity of the Reconstruction Era. Pressure from the Black Freedom movement weakened segregation in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and a mobilized women’s liberation effort won with Roe v. Wade in 1973.
But as U.S. history teaches, no reform is safe under capitalism. For most of its history, the Supreme Court has enforced the power and privilege of patriarchy, white supremacy, and property rights — against the interests of the working-class majority. Its power flows from the U.S. Senate, another elitist institution which alone confirms lifetime high court appointments. The Court’s stunning June 2022 decisions also weakened the wall between church and state, sided with gerrymandering politicians, undermined Miranda rights against self-incrimination, hobbled federal authority to regulate pollution, fractured Native American sovereignty, and more.
Race and sex interdependent. It’s telling that the Court chose Mississippi for its test case on abortion. Thirty-eight percent of residents are African American. Medicaid funding and Family Leave barely exist. The maternal mortality rate averages 33.2 deaths for every 100,000 women. Risks for Black women are higher, accounting for 80% of pregnancy-related cardiac deaths and nearly three times the rate of white women. Indigenous women are already more likely to die from pregnancy complications, due to federal funding restrictions for reproductive services under the Hyde Amendment, passed by Congress in 1977.
Many original framers of the 14th Amendment — Black and white radical abolitionists — recognized the importance of women’s bodily autonomy and took a much broader view of liberty than the Court. Michele Goodwin, author of Policing the Womb, traces Roe also to the 13th Amendment. Rape and family separation were constant features of slavery, and “Black women were forced to labor not only in the fields, but also subjected to the slavery of sexual subordination and reproduction,” she told Democracy Now! The Reconstruction Amendments, in ending slavery, freed not only Black women but white women. Now the court has re-divided the country “consistent with the patterns of slavery and Jim Crow in the U.S.”
Law professor Peggy Cooper Davis has illuminated contending interpretations of the Reconstruction Amendments, reflective of polarized forces within the Supreme Court and indeed, the whole country. In Neglected Stories, she chronicles Court decisions based on opposing “Reconstruction” or “Confederate” legal doctrines. In teaching this invaluable history, Goodwin, Cooper Davis, Menka and other women of color scholars instruct today’s movement in the critical interconnectedness of race, sex, class and ever-expanding democracy.
Time to battle in unison. The Supreme Court’s unabashedly right-wing politics have awakened a sleeping giant. With its dishonest and self-serving interpretation of history, cherished liberties are disappearing. In this crisis is an opportunity to bring millions of informed and angry activists into a unified movement to fight for and win long-sought liberties.
Historically, working people in this country have fought for liberation: Native Americans struggled for sovereignty; colonists revolted against the monarchy; slaves and abolitionists took up arms against the Confederacy. The working class has continually carried forward this impulse toward liberation, from the 1930s labor upsurge to the desegregation battles and social rebellions in the 1960s and ’70s, to today’s unrelenting battles around immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, and Black Lives Matter.
Democratic Party leaders now urge voters to elect them to save abortion, but these same Congressional politicians have repeatedly proved ineffectual. No single movement or electoral campaign without a radicalized leadership behind it will survive. Headway is made through integrated mass movements led by the most oppressed. Understanding this can help today’s activists take the offense, forge solidarity, and escalate the permanent, ever-widening revolution that has been unfolding since this country’s birth. As abolitionist Frederick Douglass observed so wisely, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Let’s get on with it!
Also see: Unjust laws will be broken