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The anti-abortion movement in the United States

July 17, 2019

Edited by Nuevo Curso


The anti-abortion movement, referred to by its followers as the "pro-life" movement, is often explained by leftists as being the mere product of the sexism and religious fanaticism of conservatives. But reducing it to sexism or religious fanaticism prevents us from explaining why it had become a mass movement or why the Republicans, led by Trump, are now more interested than ever in strengthening it.


Catholicism and Abortion


The argument that "life begins with conception" is relatively recent. It only became part of the platform of the Catholic Church in 1869. The Church was beginning to accept that the triumph of liberalism in Europe was unavoidable, therefore, it became a question of negotiating the scope and terms of a secularization that would be imposed on it in the long term. This was during the time when the Jesuits who, between 1870 and 1881, would build 10 universities in the USA alone. The Church sought a reconciliation with the science of the moment - which it identified as the "spirituality" of the bourgeoisie - in order to "make them compatible with each other".


The dominant idea until then in the Church was that the fetus was not a human being until "it was occupied by a "soul" or "ensouled". Pope Gregory XIV had asserted that “ensoulment” occurred after 166 days of pregnancy. "Ensoulment" was believed to have occurred during "quickening", the phase when the mother began to feel the child move in her womb (between the sixteenth and the twenty-fifth week) and that this marked the beginning of life... but the start of the process of fetal formation was something which nineteenth-century science could only place at the very moment of the fertilization of the ovum. The Church adopted this understanding of fetal formation for a whole series of reasons among which the possibility of establishing a universal rule was not the least. But the remarkable thing is that the argument and condemnation of abortion by the Catholic Church is a contemporary phenomenon based on an understanding of "life" lent by science... a product of its first "openness" and adaptation to bourgeois society, not a feudal barricade.


Regulation of the "medical profession" and abortion



The result of this "consulting" of science to the Church to facilitate its bourgeoisification demonstrates the political power that medical discourse was able to acquire. This was a power that would directly benefit doctors.


“In England, according to W.J. Reader, the impulse for protection in the professions came, not from the highest ranks, but rather from the practitioners just beneath them. The elite was quite content with its gentlemanly, informal way of co-opting members to the royal colleges. It was the men at the edges of the elite who most wanted formal examinations and formal standards. This may have also been the case in America”. 

-Paul Starr, "The social transformation of American Medicine: Rise of a Sovereign Profession and the Making of a Vast Industry".


In fact, the American Medical Association was founded in 1847. Its creators were independent, precarious physicians who sought to eliminate competition from "non-professionals", which not only included “quacks”, but also midwives. Just like a typical professional petty bourgeoisie, the association aspired to state regulation as a way of restricting competition and securing some form of monopoly.


“If the AMA owed its impetus to the discontent felt by younger, less established doctors, it nonetheless had a very traditional program. It aimed primarily to raise and standardize the requirements for medical degrees. It also enacted a code of ethics that denied fraternal courtesy to “irregular” practitioners. Several immediate considerations prompted the founding of the association. The call for a convention emerged from discussions of educational reform in the New York State Medical Society, which concluded that local efforts would inevitably be frustrated. If the schools in New York raised their requirements, students would simply move elsewhere, and only the schools and their professors would suffer. Consequently, a national approach was necessary. Second, because of the repeal of licensing statutes, which had come in New York in 1844, only two years earlier, the orthodox profession could no longer look to the state for protection against what it viewed as the degradation of its standards. Instead, regular physicians would have to turn inward and rely on their own system of regulation. This was the impetus for the AMA’s adoption of a code of professional ethics, with its concern for excluding sectarian and untrained practitioners. Denied the state’s authority, the orthodox doctors were obliged to rely on their own”.

-Paul Starr, "The social transformation of American Medicine: Rise of a Sovereign Profession and the Making of a Vast Industry".


It was in this context of competition between midwives, quacks, and precarious, university-educated physicians that AMA took up the cause of the legal ban on abortion. Until then, abortion performed before the phase in which the baby moved on its own was not even considered to be abortion. In fact, abortifacients were big business in the 19th century and were even openly advertised in stores.




Horatio Robinson Storer, the father of gynecology in the United States, got the AMA to fight against abortion, redefining it as the interruption of a pregnancy in any of its phases. The anti-abortionist rhetoric Storer inaugurated aimed to consolidate his own position within the medical world and give the profession public “respectability”. It is the same rhetoric as that of the modern American "pro-life" movement: it reflected petty-bourgeois values of respectability and... its fears of Irish immigration. This element, the fear of massive immigration of Irish Catholics, is not usually highlighted, but it was of tremendous concern to the American petty bourgeoisie at the time, marked by the demographic losses of the Civil War.


“All the fruitfulness of our present generation, tasked to its utmost, can hardly fill the gaps in our population that have of late been made by disease and the sword…Shall they be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question that our own women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of our nation”.


Horatio Robinson Storer



Readers of our article on the "family planning" movement in the U.S. will be familiar with the argument. Storer's and Margaret Sanger's speech are based on the same phobia of migrant workers. The difference is that instead of encouraging the birth control of the "inferiors," Storer encouraged the generous reproduction of the “superiors”. His rhetoric reflected petty-bourgeois fear of "falling" down the social ladder. The shameful motor of the anti-abortion movement was the desire to perpetuate a class that felt it was faced with the threat of proletarianization by “foreigners”. If the "married and honest mothers" who aborted were condemned by Storer, it was not really because of "life was suddenly discovered" in the zygote, but because "upon their loins depends the future destiny" of an entire social class.


But the Catholic Church then adopted the position that "life begins at conception" at around the same time. Storer, who no longer saw the Irish as enemies after working in a Catholic hospital, then went on to encourage their immigration and even converted to Catholicism.


Catholicism and Workers in the United States


By the 1930s, the children of European Catholic immigrants who arrived in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had become a political force in the United States. "Catholics" mostly voted for Democrats among other things because the Catholic clergy, like black Protestant ministers, played the role of the "leading" Democrat in working-class neighborhoods, mediating in conflicts, managing public aid, and gaining influence in both the Democratic Party and the unions.


Their power came from the fact that the vast majority of the masses who had migrated from Ireland and Italy belonged to a peasant milieu heavily controlled by the Catholic Church and had only proletarianized when they arrived in the United States. Subjected to a new social condition, in a massively Protestant environment, Catholicism represented for many a way of maintaining ties with their origins, keeping their own families cohesive and finding minimum support in situations of need. The logic of controlling and enclosing workers within the framework of capital and the state, accomplished through the unions (which the Catholic Church had a significant influence in) and the social assistance that the Church provided, was adopted by those very workers and converted into a "communitarian" politic. 


The "right to life" in the working class


Many trade union leaders who emerged from this environment were linked to the Catholic Church and embraced the idea that the unborn, like the born, had a "right to life". Their arguments, however, were not limited to the "sanctity of life". They asserted that the "right to life" included the right to live "decently". The Church was aware that the "right to life" tended to take on a class content through contact with the new masses of workers. Well versed in the art of "shepherding" the most backwards and immature parts of the proletariat, in 1919 the administrative committee of the National Catholic War Council issued the "Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction " which affirmed the right of workers to form trade unions, demanded a "living wage" and a social security system paid for by the state and industry, against "illness, invalidity, unemployment and old age”.


The "right to life" hinted at and filtered a generic formulation with a contradictory nature: for the Church, it meant first and foremost affirming its control over reproduction, for workers it meant affirming their needs as universal needs. The eugenic program of "population control" and the racist and xenophobic argument of "family planning" reinforced this contradictory association that seemed destined to explode.


The sterilization of poor Puerto Rican women, the predominance of birth control clinics in black working neighborhoods, sterilization being made mandatory in exchange for public assistance in South Carolina... Those who animalized the workers were the same ones who sought to statistically control their reproduction and sterilize them at will wherever there were "too many" of them. It was too obvious that the movement saw the workers as cattle. And it was all too easy for the Catholic Church to take advantage of the opportunity to trap workers: trade unionists, Democratic leaders, and Catholic leaders of all kinds took the opportunity to characterize "population control" as genocide.



After all,the opening of birth control clinics was met with resistance in poor black neighborhoods. Workers, regardless of religion or race, increasingly realized that the population control movement was virulently anti-worker. Those who opened the clinics then turned to "black leaders" to mediate between "birth controllers" and those workers who resisted. At first, those black leaders did everything possible in order to get black workers to accept the birth control clinics. But in the face of the resistance of workers, they had no choice but to protest. The Protestant Democrat Jesse Jackson declared, before changing his position in the 1980s, that


“Politicians argue for abortion largely because they do not want to spend the money necessary to feed, clothe and educate more people…Here arguments for inconvenience and economic savings take precedence over arguments for human value and human life”.


Betty Ford, on the other hand, was a pro-choice Republican feminist whose rhetoric was identical to that of any feminist Democrat today.


As can be seen, abortion had not yet become a partisan issue that had divided Republicans and Democrats in two.


What caused the Democratic Party to become "pro-choice" and the Republican Party to become "pro-life"?


Although feminism had its roots in the petty-bourgeoisie since the beginning, the petty-bourgeoisie is far from being a politically homogeneous class. Some of the petty-bourgeois housewives saw the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the pro-choice platform as threatening to proletarianize them. For example, the campaign of pro-life Democrat Ellen McCormack in 1976 represented this very petty-bourgeois sensibility. They were women who had moved to the suburban neighborhoods and had come from the ranks of the working class or the lower layers of the petty bourgeoisie. They rose up the social ladder by marrying petty-bourgeois men, and for them, the ERA presented a direct threat to their "way of life". From their perspective, being a housewife was a privilege that their working-class mothers had not been able to enjoy during the Great Depression, and, therefore, to become a working woman would signify "going backwards”.




Moreover, like many working-class and farmer mothers and housewives, not only did they find abortion morally reprehensible, they feared the effect that legalization might have on the maintenance of their status as mothers and housewives. They feared that if abortion was legalized, the social consideration of motherhood and its family model would be undermined.


In the 1970s, the unions' ability to organize was further weakened. The democratic strategists increasingly saw their influence as less decisive and more linked to the past. The discourse on the post-68 "generational rupture" sent the unions, along with the Catholic workers, to those who represented the "past". What was new was coming from the university, from the growing corporate petty bourgeoisie (which was beginning to become feminized) and the "new minorities..." That is why the Democratic Party adopted a platform in 1976 that defended abortion and took up the defense of the "Roe vs Wade" sentence that legalized abortion. Many formerly pro-life Democrats then followed suit and adopted a pro-choice stance.


For the Republican Party, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Becoming the "pro-life" party allowed it to suddenly win a base among workers and farmers who have traditionally been mobilized by the Democrats. When in 1980, Jacob Javits – a pro-abortion Republican - lost the race to the Senate to Al D'Amato, a Republican backed by the "RTLP" ("Right to Life Party", created by New York's Catholic Democrats), the die was cast. The Republican Party went from being the party of the ERA and legal abortion to that of "family values”.




Protestant churches, farmers and abortion


Although becoming the anti-abortionist party gave Republicans new options with the Catholic workers of the industrial zones, it was not so clear that the effect would be so widespread among the farmers of the North.


The differences between the North and the South remained strongly marked by the legacy of slavery and civil war, and affected the way in which Protestant churches in the two regions had reacted to the civil rights movement and the end of segregation. In the South, the emergence of the "Christian right" and evangelical resistance to "desegregation" are inseparably linked. In states of small farmers further north like Kansas, however, there existed a tradition of local churches that contrasted with those of the south. These protestant churches were led by an egalitarian clergy, advocates of "free labor" who had once led the abolitionist movement. That tradition had been the cradle of a deeply Christian smallholder "socialism", which had strongly supported the New Deal and continued to give votes to the Democrats.


It seemed impossible to unite the churches of the North and the South in a conservative social movement. And yet abortion did it. The new evangelical right, the Catholics and even the churches of the small farming towns of the North, had been “called” by the Republicans when they became the "pro-life party”. Ronald Reagan did not initiate or give birth to the movement, he only consolidated the changes that had already taking place between the two-party system and their electoral base.


Why is Trump initiating an anti-abortion offensive?




Since his rise, Trump's strategy has been based on the fact that the persistent discourses announcing the "end of the working class" (the "middle class" in American political language)[1], have affected the working class to the point that it feels that it is in real danger of disappearing. The American working class would now, according to Trumpism, be sensitive to the same kind of messages as the desperate petty bourgeoisie.


Trump presents us with trade war as the way to "regain well-paid jobs," anti-immigration policy as the way to "avoid downward competition in wages," and the migrant raids as the way to "drive criminals out of neighborhoods", i.e., stop degradation and lumpenization. Obviously, well-paid jobs have practically disappeared in industry, wages have lost a good portion of GDP, and neighborhoods have degraded unspeakably. But the "solutions" are not solutions, they are not even palliatives. They merely sow more division among the workers themselves, further degrade living conditions and sustenance in exchange for increased militarism and surely more war... but Trump and his strategists believe that, lie and all, it works to trap the working class. And politically, that's their aim.




If arousing the same fears and offering the same kind of "solutions" that the reactionary petty bourgeoisie calls for, catches on among the workers... what could be more electorally and politically profitable than inciting the fear of the "destruction of families"?


Here, too, it departs from a real base in order to come to a deceitful and anti-human proposal. Banning abortion is no gain for workers. On the contrary. But Trump relies on the rejection that feminism rightly provokes. Leftism claims that feminism, a movement that expressed its anti-worker political demands with a eugenic discourse, is not in direct contradiction with the working class and is only rejected by "reactionaries”. It is not true.


It was not true then and it is not true today. Neither where "feminist strikes" have occurred nor in the U.S. where it incubated its divisive and guilt-ridden discourse. What's more, it doesn't even catch anyone by surprise. Large groups of workers in the U.S. resisted "population control" because they correctly understood that the movement expressed a genuine class hatred against them. The intention to curb the reproduction of the "undesirable element" naturally created rejection among the working class. Population control campaigns treated workers like cattle, with contempt for their lives or for their ability and desire to raise families. And that wound remains open. That's what Trump and his clerical allies are taking advantage of.


How do we deal with the anti-abortion campaign from a working-class point of view?


Paradoxically, if it succeeds as a campaign to trap workers, it will have achieved by other means what feminism seeks to accomplish: divide workers in order to mobilize them along with a part of the petty bourgeoisie. So, the question is how to confront Trump and the "pro-choice" movement without strengthening a no less divisive feminism. The only possible answer is by:



Defending the freedom to abort from a perspective that differs from that occupied by feminism: we are not interested in entering into discussions about the "nature of the fetus", the debate over whether the fetus is the "property" of women or of the state. Neither are we interested in swallowing the great lie that feminists repeat. Namely, the notion that "women" are an interclass political subject with identical interests. We defend the freedom to abort, but not from a feminist perspective. We simply cannot permit that the state, nor anyone else, forces someone to carry out a pregnancy against their will.



We defend the "right to life" in the real sense, in what it really means for workers: the preeminence of real human needs over the needs of capital with all its fetishes, its political apparatuses, its state... and its ideologies.


























[1] A discourse that was repeated by many, ranging from the Black Panther Party to Michael Moore










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