When Rights Are Denied—The Attack on Reproductive Rights Is a Labor Issue

Thanks to the recent passage of Texas’ HB 2 law, most women in Texas will no longer have access to any health services in clinics that perform abortions. All such clinics now must meet the standards of a “qualified ambulatory surgical center” and have at least one doctor on staff with admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. Bringing clinics up to these standards, which have not been necessary for the routine women’s health services most such clinics provide nor for providing safe abortions, is prohibitively expensive for most clinic owners. Already with fewer than 20 clinics, the number is expected to drop to 6 serving the entire state of Texas, and these will be located only in major cities.

What does this mean?

It means that the right to a safe, legal abortion no longer exists for women who cannot afford the travel expense or take several days off away from their families and jobs. Women’s clinics are often the only affordable health providers for lower-income women, so many women are also denied services entirely unrelated to abortion. This has become a pattern across the United States: 87% of U.S. counties have no abortion provider; 25% of women seeking abortion have to travel over 50 miles and 8% over 100 miles. In a state as large as Texas, these distances are even greater.

The Labor Fightback Network stands solidly in defense of all reproductive rights, not only the right of women to safe, legal abortion, but also access to contraception, family planning services, sexual education, quality prenatal care, childcare, and parental leave; the right not to be sterilized against one’s will; and the right not to be discriminated against based on our reproductive status or choices (pregnancy, for example). Without the full range of reproductive rights, there is no true “right to choose;” only “choices” that are coerced by hardship and fear.

Without the ability to decide if, when, and how they will have and raise children, women’s access to all other rights and benefits is severely limited. Without guaranteed or adequate paid healthcare, welfare, childcare, parental leave, etc., and with social norms that still expect women to be primarily responsible for child-raising, having children greatly impacts a woman’s ability to work in paid employment or to attend school or job training. Simultaneously, the lack of a social safety net, the worsening economy, and the declining role of unions to protect our rights and benefits, makes it increasingly hard to raise a family for both women and men. Few women can choose not to work during their child-bearing years. Working families are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Why Are Reproductive Rights Under Attack?

The gains of the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s, including access to legal contraception and abortion, allowed women to enter the workforce in much greater numbers. Women gained economically, reducing the wage gap between women and men and accessing jobs and careers formerly available only to men. From this grew new demands, including family-friendly workplace policies, often driven by union women.

But whenever conditions improve for any sector of working people, corporate profits are threatened. That cannot be tolerated for long. The corporations turn to a divide-and conquer strategy; seeking to pit workers against each other. For example, working women are often blamed for the declining status of male workers, rather than the government for passing pro-corporate trade agreements that eliminated good-paying industrial jobs held mostly by men.

The current war against reproductive rights threatens to turn the clock back to before the 1960s; not only trying to end legal abortion, but even contraception. This assault is abetted by the “culture wars.” Corporations, and the politicians and media they control, have allied with certain very conservative religious groups who want to force women back into a past where most white women were expected to stay at home raising children and women of color to work either directly as their servants or in very low-paid factory, service, and agricultural jobs despite having children of their own.

The right to choose abortion is the most volatile reproductive rights issue. The landmark Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade in 1973 legalized abortion without restriction in the first trimester of pregnancy, but allows states to regulate or ban later abortions, other than in cases of rape or incest or to preserve a woman’s life or health. Just during the period of 2011 to 2013, 200 abortion restrictions were passed; 70 in 2013, mostly at the state level, resulting in widely divergent rights depending in which state a woman lives.

These include outright bans on later-term abortion; cutting funds to facilities that perform abortions (thus eliminating a full range of health services to women who rely on clinics for other medical needs); requiring abortions to be performed in hospitals or only by doctors with hospital privileges; allowing hospitals to refuse to perform any abortions; and forcing women to wait several days, submit to invasive transvaginal ultrasounds, or watch videos with medically incorrect information designed to scare or shame them. Efforts are to underway to outlaw insurance coverage for abortion.

Meanwhile, harassment and violence against abortion providers (including several murders) have resulted in most women in the U.S. no longer having access to abortion services except in major metropolitan areas.

Attacks on reproductive health disproportionately affect low-income women, who tend to be women of color. With fewer financial resources and less access to contraception, insurance, and healthcare generally, poor women have higher incidences of unintended pregnancies and thus a higher rate of unplanned births and abortions. In 2008, for example, 62% of all abortions were for low-income women.

The anti-choice forces are attacking contraception, too, such as trying to pass laws requiring women to tell employers that they are using contraceptives. Already, some states allow pharmacists to refuse to fill contraceptive prescriptions. Since contraception is specifically for the purpose of reducing unplanned pregnancies and thus avoiding the need for abortion, this provides evidence that the overall goal of the attack on reproductive rights is not just about eliminating abortion. Rather, it is about forcing women back into a state where they have no legal rights to control their own bodies at all, thus allowing them to be super-exploited.

What Can Labor Do About the War on Women?

Unfortunately, despite the many organizations that work hard on a state and local level to defend reproductive rights, the women’s movement is fragmented. There is no longer a large, visible, and cohesive movement that can turn out hundreds of thousands, even millions, of women in the streets to demand, win, and defend reproductive rights. Most action today is strictly defensive and not directed at regaining or expanding rights.

Thanks to a lot of effort on the part of union women, organized labor supports women’s rights generally, but unions could be doing a lot more, especially around reproductive rights.

First, while labor cannot substitute for the lack of a strong women’s movement, we can be a reliable ally to whatever movement exists. We can join coalitions that support reproductive rights and organize our members to taking part in demonstrations, lobbying efforts, and clinic defense.

Second, a better approach to political strategy is needed. The predominant political approach of both organized labor and the main groups that work on reproductive rights — relying on the Democratic Party to defend our interests — hasn’t worked. While the Democratic Party does have a better voting record on reproductive rights issues than the Republicans, in many cases, the attacks on women are bipartisan, with Democrats either supporting anti-woman proposals or agreeing to “compromises” that undermine women’s legal rights, health, and economic and social status.

For example, the Obama administration responded to pressure from the hard right to add religiously affiliated institutions to an already compromised exemption for churches to refuse to offer contraception in their employee insurance policies. This policy harms women who work in large universities and hospitals which, while affiliated to a specific religious denomination, may serve and employ people of many differing views. Such compromises encourage the media to give credence to the false ideas that reproductive rights do not enjoy majority support and are somehow an attack on religious freedom.

The politicians of both corporate-owned parties receive their money from the same sources. Ultimately, even those who may personally support reproductive rights will implement whatever is expected of them by their donors, unless we organize a massive enough movement to make them fear losing votes. On all issues of importance to workers, labor needs to focus on mobilizing our members to take action independently of politicians.

Third, labor support for reproductive rights is often compromised by a fear of alienating members with conservative attitudes toward women. We need to do a better job educating our co-workers. Support to the right-wing “moral” agenda is not pro-family; it actually undermines families by working against their economic interests.

Defending women’s reproductive rights is not only fair and just for its own sake, but it strengthens our ability to resist the overall war against workers and our unions. This pro-woman message is reinforced when labor activists continue to fight for improvements for women in union contracts, conduct educational campaigns about women’s issues, defend women against discrimination and harassment on the job, encourage the participation and leadership of women in our unions, urge support or opposition to legislation affecting women, and build caucuses and campaigns to elect leaders committed to women’s rights.

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About elnwebmaster

This is the discussion blog of the Labor Fightback Network, an auxiliary to the laborfightback.org website. It is designed to facilitate discussion among labor activists concerning the critical issues facing working people in the current economic crisis. Readers’ comments are welcome, but flaming is not. Any comments which are racist, sexist/homophobic, or disrespectful on a personal level will not get past moderation.
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