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The Lysistrata strategy: Restoring the right to abortion


Although the Supreme Court recently rejected banning the sale of over the counter medical abortion pills, it’s too soon to breathe a sigh of relief. Since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case that overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, it’s been only a matter of when and not if the court destroys what little remains of a woman’s right to an abortion.

The attack on legalized abortion began shortly after the 1973 Roe decision. Little by little, a woman’s right to an abortion has been whittled away by both Congress and the Supreme Court. These are the two very branches of government the nonprofit abortion-rights groups have put so much faith in as protectors.

Rather than organizing massive disruptive protests and strikes, these groups organized expensive fundraisers to raise huge campaign contributions and fund expensive lawsuits. Those efforts have proven futile.

Instead of organizing disruptive actions with each attack, these nonprofits put all their faith in the political system. With each loss we were assured that we should support “pro choice” politicians. That led to repeated defeat and now the loss of the right to an abortion.

The nonprofits and their advocacy and lobbying failed. We put responsibility for protecting even the limited rights of Roe into their hands and for that we failed.

As the single father of a 19-year-old woman for whom this right is critical, I take this failure personally. I also take it personally as the son of my mother who traveled from New York City, where abortion was then illegal, as a young woman in the early 1960s to have an abortion in Puerto Rico before I was born. I have always admired my mother’s courage. She was a woman who had not yet left the state and didn’t speak a word of Spanish.

I also take it personally for my ex-wife, whom I accompanied to a clinic to have an abortion years after we divorced.

The facts are clear. According to opensecrets.org, these nonprofit advocacy groups have annually spent between $600,000 to $2.4 million since 1998 on lobbying and $51 million in 2020 alone on campaign donations in their failed efforts. Their focus on the political process has now jeopardized the right to birth control established in the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut case.

Their failure was evident right away when the Hyde Amendment was passed by Congress in 1976. It eliminated Medicaid, Medicare and other federally funded coverage for abortions for low-income women.

The nonprofits’ strategy sacrificed the rights of the poor and women of color, what Lux Magazine called the “gentrification of abortion politics.” According to Lux, “We have a misunderstanding of the history of social movements, from civil rights to immigration activism, that symbolic tactics are more respectful than direct action.”

By accepting this divide and conquer strategy and failing to escalate tactics, the nonprofits set up the reproductive rights of all women to be killed by a death by a thousand cuts.

For nearly half a century they have attempted to turn defeat into victory by proclaiming that their political allies saved Roe. This is not true.

Since Dobbs, they can no longer make this claim. It is now past time for the leadership of these groups to resign and these groups to shut down all their advocacy efforts. Yet they continue to make headlines speaking for a movement they have led into the jaws of defeat.

Keep in mind that the most prominent nonprofit of all, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and its affiliates are among the most vicious anti-union employers in the country. Whenever clinic workers have organized around the country, management has responded with union busting. In one clinic after another, they have resorted to predictable tactics such firing organizers, refusing to bargain, shutting down facilities and hiring union-busting firms.

If we are going to restore women’s reproductive rights, we will need to see it for what it is — a class issue. The attack on abortion is an attempt to divide and conquer the working class and perpetuate wage inequality of women despite it being prohibited by the 1963 Equal Pay Act, which has yet to be successfully enforced.

By denying women, and all gender non-conforming people, the right to control their own bodies, women are forced to continue unwanted pregnancies and take on a second unwaged job as mothers. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, women still do much more housework than men.

It is well known that employers use gender and sex differences as an excuse to pay women less, demote and fire. The lack of universal day care and paid family leave in the U.S. provides the boss yet another tool to attack women workers. These policies are a blatant divide and conquer strategy pitting workers against one another.

The attack on reproductive rights is a class issue of gender and sex oppression. Our union leaders have been AWOL in this fight for far too long. It’s time to make it a central focus of the workers movement. Once we do, we will have the power to respond to the relentless attacks on  the rights of women and gender non-conforming people, which is rampant across the country.

To restore this right, our response should be to escalate our tactics by withdrawing our labor until we prevail. In Greek playwright Aristophanes’s play, “Lysistrata,” the women go on a sex strike to stop the never-ending Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BCE. It’s time we take similar action to defend the bodily rights of women and gender non-conforming people from attack.

Robert Ovetz is editor of “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle,” (Pluto) and the author of “When Workers Shot Back,” (Haymarket) and the new book “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few” (Pluto). Follow him at @OvetzRobert


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