Abortion politics in America: 1980-2018

March to defend abortion rights, Washington DC, 1989

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write:  With Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the US Supreme Court, the majority of justices are against women’s abortion rights, and they are threatening to overturn Roe v. Wade. This is the second of two posts about the abortion wars in the United States. In retelling this history we are looking for insights that might help us to fight for abortion rights going forward. The first article [here] was about how Roe v Wade was won in 1973. The Roe v Wade verdict gave women in the US the right to a legal abortion.

In this post we take up the story in the early 1980s. After 1973 anti-abortion campaigns sprang up in every city and state. In the beginning, at the heart of almost all of them was the Catholic Church. The Church as such did not organise the campaigns because of wider anti-Catholic feeling would have made the anti-abortion campaigns vulnerable and narrowed their support. But the Church as an institution, and bishops all over the country, did everything they could to start and then support broader anti-abortion campaigns.[1]

The Catholic Church was as opposed to contraception as it was to abortion. Both were aspects of the Church’s opposition to female desire in all its forms, and a deep conviction that women and men were unequal. This misogyny went along with a consistent policy of protecting male priests who had sex with children.

Where the Catholic Church led in the mid-1970s, by the late 1970s others followed. Evangelical protestants and the newly conservative Republican Party widened the campaign, condemning promiscuity, enjoining premarital abstinence and elaborating what they termed ‘traditional family values’. The spin was meant to counter both the economic pressure on households pushing women into the workforce and the speed with which sexual mores had changed with the pill.

In the years between 1960 and 2000, the American workforce was transformed, so that almost half of workers are now women. Equally, the sexual revolution and the pill transformed intimate lives. So those who were pushing the ‘traditional family’ of a male breadwinner and a female homemaker faced a contradiction. They were appealing to values that were quite contrary to the lives their congregations and likely constituents actually lived.

By 1975 women were joining the workforce in droves, some through necessity, many for choice. And in 1975 being against contraception and sex was a non-starter. But the conservative right and the Catholic Church identified abortion as the perfect place for a pitched battle between the traditional values they were pushing and the feminist advance. The subject of abortion was emotive, the arguments, pro and con, confusing and feelings ran very deep on both sides.

The debates over abortion in America in the 1980s centred on teenage sluts, as if they were the majority of women having abortions. And there was a constant racist undertone to these judgements. In the speeches of Ronald Reagan and other conservatives, the enemy were black teenage girls having babies to get on welfare.

A quick look at the statistics reveals these prejudices for the lies they were. However, the racism worked well for the conservatives. It diverted attention to specifics and away from the ways abortion was being used to attack feminism across the board. Continue reading


Defending Abortion after Kavanaugh (1): Lessons from History 1964-1980

Judith Widdecombe, abortion pioneer in MIssouri

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: Kavanaugh’s confirmation after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony now taints the Supreme Court. And not by chance, a majority of the justices on the court are now expressly against abortion rights.

This is the first of two posts looking to the history of abortion rights in America. Both focus on lessons learned at each stage in the struggle. They are valuable lessons, and lessons we can use in the fight to preserve abortion rights in the future.

We make two central points in this post. Abortion rights were won by a mass movement, not the Supreme Court. Second, the abortion wars continue because abortion has come to stand for women’s equality,  sexual freedom and desire.

This post draws on Jonathan’s ten years of experience in the 1980s as a counsellor working for a feminist abortion clinic in London. Of course that was 30 years ago, and Britain is not the US, but much that he learned then informs what follows.

In the early 1960s, Nancy was in high school in St. Louis, and lived with constant fears of getting pregnant ruining her chances of the life she wanted for herself. She did not get pregnant then, but later supported four close friends through abortions and as they put their lives together afterwards.

Judith Widdicombe

Our story begins in the 1960s, when abortion was illegal in every state in America. Our protagonist is Judith Widdicombe, a nurse who lived in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood and worked the evening shift in the labour ward at a Catholic hospital. Her husband had a delivery route for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Together, they spent one evening a week as volunteers for the Samaritans, a phone helpline for people who were thinking about suicide. [1]

Widdicombe noticed there were quite a lot of calls from women who were not thinking of suicide. But the women said they had been told this was a phone line for desperate people, and they were desperate, because they were pregnant. Could the Samaritans help?

The Samaritans could not, but there were so many of these calls that Widdicombe asked other volunteers if they were getting them too. They all were. So she asked friends outside the Samaritans if any of them knew how to get an abortion in St. Louis. One of them told her about a secret abortion referral service. Continue reading

Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh and seven useful insights about sexual violence

Protest in St Louis, 2 October 2018

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: Last Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford testified before the judiciary committee of the US Senate. She said that Brett Kavanaugh, the nominee for the Supreme Court, had attempted to rape her when she was 15. He denied it.

She told the truth and he was lying. Everyone in the room knew this, including the all eleven Republican senators.

What happened next was something else. The Republican senators rallied to defend the right to rape. Sure, class also mattered, and abortion, and Trump, and the midterm elections. But centrally, they did not want Kavanaugh to pay a price for his sexual violence.

An extraordinary moment of #metoo resistance had provoked that Republican backlash, and they closed ranks fast and hard.

When a system is working smoothly the mechanics of power are hidden. But when there is a breakdown, a ‘breach case’, we sometimes have an opportunity to see how the system works. And the links and deep loyalties that keep inequality in place become visible.

The hearing has offered such an opportunity. It gives us a chance to formulate seven useful ideas about sexual violence. Continue reading

The Rise of Socialism in the United States

Striking teachers occupy the state capitol building in West Virginia, March 2018

Tabitha Spence writes: The American electoral field is witnessing a leftward shift not seen in at least the past four decades. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 bid for president on the Democratic Party ticket sent shock waves throughout the country, as he openly identified as a (*gasp*) socialist, opening up possibilities for the American Left that had been hitherto foreclosed. [This article was first published in the Daily Times in Pakistan.]

To understand the resurgence of the American Left, one needs to look to the country’s largest socialist organisation, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which is rapidly growing. The group’s membership has ballooned from a paltry 5,000 members in November of 2016 to nearly 50,000 members today. Last year, fifteen members of the Democratic Socialists of America won seats in local elections in thirteen different states, in addition to the 20 members already holding elected office nationwide. This year, dozens of DSA members are contesting in the midterm elections, some of whom have already cleared the Democratic primaries and will be facing Republican opponents in November.

The successful victory in the Democratic primaries for congressional seat of a New York district by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is indicative of this trend. The 28-year-old waitress from the Bronx led a remarkable grassroots campaign to unseat 20-year incumbent Jim Crowley, a seasoned congressman with the backing of corporate donors and the political elite within the Democratic Party. A similar campaign is being run in Delaware, where Air Force veteran Kerri Evelyn Harris is challenging sitting Democratic Senator Tom Carper, known for serving the special corporate and military interests that have bankrolled his campaigns over the past fourteen years.

Given the Cold War nostalgia regarding socialism that continues to haunt the narratives of history in public school curricula and the framing of politics by the mainstream media, this is an unprecedented turn of events. Personally speaking, growing up in central Texas and rural Nebraska I had never heard the idea of ‘socialism’ being invoked in a positive light, as it was widely considered to be a dirty word associated with authoritarianism, famine and gulags. Yet a month ago while visiting my family in Texas I became a proud, card-carrying member of the DSA, and many of my family members (the Trump supporters as well as Hillary supporters) are engaging in discussions and debates about democratic socialist policies in a serious way. How did this incredible reversal of possibilities unfold? Continue reading

Pence, Trump and Evangelicals

Mike Pence may well be the next president of the United States. Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale explain the relationship between Trump and evangelical Protestants like Vice-President Pence.  [This piece was first published in Turkish in Cumhuriyet ,August 12, 2018.]

For thirty years, the right wing of the Republican Party in the United States was dominated by politically organized evangelical Protestants. Their politics rested on three pillars. First, they were for sexually conservative ‘family values’ and against abortion, lesbians and gays, adultery and sex workers. Second, they were racists, especially towards black people, Muslim and immigrants. Third, they were pro-business and anti-tax.

Evangelical (‘fundamentalist’) white Protestants are only 17% of Americans. By contrast, more moderate white Protestants are 13%, Catholics are 18%, and 24% of Americans now say they have no religious affiliation. So evangelicals could never dominate politics. But they could dominate the right of the Republican party, using racism to appeal to a wider audience.

Then came Trump. He is different. In the last 40 years of neoliberalism, the US has become the most unequal of the rich countries. To understand his appeal, you have to understand the bitterness among ordinary Americans. In real terms the pay rate of the median man now is the same as it was forty years ago, in the time of his grandfather. Continue reading

Sexual politics and Trumpgate

Students in Concord, California, breaking out of their high school to join gun control protests

The balance of power has shifted and Trump is going. Sexual politics has been central to this, Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write. The turning point, the hinge of history, is Michael Cohen’s guilty plea over payments by him and Trump to two sex workers. That is not a sideshow.

When Trump was elected, the left, the feminists, the anti-racists, the liberals, the Democrats were in despair. Then came the women’s march on 21 January 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration.

Everyone, on all sides, was astonished it was so big. Two things made it big: Trump’s anti-abortion politics and that the president was a pussy grabber (his words). They made it big because a third of Americans have had an abortion, the great majority of Americans love someone who has had an abortion, and every woman has been insulted or groped by a pussy grabber.

Before the march, many Democrats were inclined to follow Obama’s advice and try to work with Trump and influence him over the next year. The march stiffened them. Then, almost immediately, the occupations of the airports to defend Muslim immigrants made the politicians braver. And #metoo has meant a crucial shift in power at work. Pussy grabbers, rapists and abusers are losing their jobs.  Continue reading



Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write:

Trump’s win this morning has left many of us in despair. To prepare ourselves for what is to come, here are some things we need to understand about class struggle, racism and climate change.

First, this vote is a victory for the far right and for racism on a global scale. Second, it is also partly a class revolt against the consequences of neoliberalism. Trump’s appeal to class anger through racism is a tragedy and an obscenity.

Trump’s racism and sexism matter. In this respect, Clinton was the lesser of two evils. Trump’s victory will unleash a right wing backlash on abortion, and it will be a license to arrest, beat and kill unarmed black men. Government repression of every kind will follow. So will persecution of Muslims, immigrants and refugees. Things will get easier for those who would harass, rape and torture.

Trump’s victory will give heart to authoritarian governments and far right racist parties around the world. It will shift the world to the right.

Trump’s victory is also a class rebellion. Almost every bit of mainstream commentary for months has been class blind. But forty years of increasing inequality has created a very considerable economic and cultural class division in the United States. On the one hand there are those who have done well. They are women and men, black and white, gay and straight. They are the head teachers and police chiefs, the fund managers and Soccer Moms, the college educated managers and professionals. Continue reading