From the January-February 2020 issue of News & Letters
Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now, by Jenny Brown (Verso, 2019), is an important book for it explains how we can win the fight for full reproductive rights by returning to the Women’s Liberation Movement’s original goals and strategies. Feminists began fighting for abortion rights as a mass movement in 1969. For several decades before that, the situation had been similar to that of today. Authority figures discussed the conditions under which they might allow a woman to have an abortion and whether the fetus had rights.
THE NECESSITY OF LEGAL ABORTION
Second wave feminists learned consciousness raising from the civil rights movement and gathered in groups to discuss their own lives, comparing experiences. They learned situations they thought were “personal” were widely shared, having common “political” causes in patriarchy, capitalism, and racism. They discovered abortions, then mostly illegal, were common and dangerous, concluding safe, legal abortion was necessary for women’s freedom, equality, and self-determination. Previously, a few women fought for the right to abortion in extreme cases out of charity for others.
Then thousands joined the Women’s Liberation Movement and marched for free abortion on demand because they understood their personal stake in it. They comprehended laws against abortion as attempts to bring women back under male control and coerce them to produce more workers for capitalism. They viewed abortion rights as inseparable from the right to contraception since women historically have been able to participate more in society when able to control reproduction.
Brown explains how this mass movement exposed a corrupt, unsustainable society, forcing the U.S. Supreme Court to legalize abortion. However, Roe v. Wade is a deeply flawed compromise based on the right to privacy between a woman and her doctor, not “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or freedom from slavery. Its restrictions on abortion allowed the government to control women.
She describes how a liberal feminist emphasis on individualism replaced feminism as a radical mass movement. Some liberal feminists worked with conservatives, describing abortion as a “tragic choice.” Without a mass movement’s support, women were afraid to say they had a right to an abortion as a way to control their own lives. They returned to the ineffective strategy of focusing on exceptional cases rather than demanding a better world for all women.
REPRODUCTIVE JUSTICE MOVEMENT
Even radical feminists began strategizing for things they did not really want, such as a return to do-it-yourself abortions and underground networks. Brown explains this will not help all women who need abortions. Even worse, recent radical feminist history with its important lessons about organizing, strategy, and philosophy was forgotten.
The reproductive justice movement, initiated and led by women of color, is a return to radical, effective philosophies and methods. Women have the right to choose not to have a child, to have a child, and to parent children in safety. This places abortion back into the original feminist framework of demanding full human rights for women and children, including employment and free healthcare, childcare, and education. Brown explains the radical feminist mass movement was successful in achieving these demands in other countries.
She describes how feminists sticking to radical methods won over-the-counter access to the morning after pill. They refused to accept partial victories that would have required a prescription and age requirements. The Irish repeal of anti-abortion laws was partly the result of women describing their ordinary abortions. It was these normal stories, not the extreme cases, and the emphasis on women’s freedom that changed people’s minds to support abortion rights.
Brown says the “historic invisibility treatment” has made people think radical change is impossible. This book shows how mass movements have been popular and successful. With a study of radical history, consciousness raising, speaking out, and organizing, they can be again.