The Biggest, Most Disruptive Strike for Abortion Rights Is Coming to the US

It's the first-ever national strike for reproductive justice.
August 2, 2019, 4:47pm
national strike for abortion rights
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

In May, attacks on abortion rights reached a peak. Over the course of a little more than a week, four states passed laws banning abortion in rapid succession, each seemingly more extreme than the last. In response, pro-choice supporters flooded local abortion funds with donations, reproductive rights groups organized demonstrations across the country, and Planned Parenthood launched a new “bans off my body” campaign. But when socialist organizers Jennifer James and Ximena B. took stock of the efforts to preserve abortion rights, they worried the pro-choice movement would still be trounced by its opponents.

No, it’s not time to march, or donate, or canvass, they thought: It’s time to strike.

James and B. both belong to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and they’re two of the authors behind a resolution calling for the first-ever national strike for reproductive rights. They’ll present it at DSA’s national convention this weekend, where a body of 1,056 delegates will debate and vote on it. If the resolution passes, DSA will allocate funding and resources toward building the infrastructure James and B. need to pull off the mass action. If it gets voted down, they’ll spearhead it with the other members of the New York City socialist feminist working group, without the support of the national organization.

“Fuck it,” James said with a laugh when I asked her what happens if the resolution fails. “We’ll do it anyway.”

The strike James and B. have in mind has its roots in the traditional labor strike—the collective withholding of labor from an employer—but theirs will take a slightly different form. Though they plan on organizing a single, simultaneous mass disruption, the strike would also include a series of escalations leading up to it.

James and B. said these smaller actions could vary dramatically from state to state, due to the nature of abortion access: For example, a demonstration in New York, a state with no restrictions on abortion, might take a different tack—or make different demands—than a demonstration in Missouri, a state with one remaining abortion provider.

James and B. are both insistent that the specifics of the demonstrations be decided on in collaboration with local grassroots organizations, who they say understand the needs of their communities better than the New York City chapter of DSA. But some ideas have been percolating: James suggested a mass demonstration where organizers hand out abortion pills purchased online, which is currently illegal due to hotly contested Food and Drug Administration restrictions. (The idea echoes a protest held last August in Seoul, South Korea, which involved 125 women swallowing an abortion pill in defiance of a national ban on the procedure, which lawmakers recently voted to overturn.) She also floated the idea of blocking roads, or causing financial damage to Trump by organizing work stoppages at his and his family members’ many businesses.

“We’re not asking people to go vote, we’re not pushing a legislative campaign—we want to cause a disruption,” James said. “A mass strike is different than a march or rally because it asks people to take risks in order to fight for what they believe in.”

James and B. were inspired by the March 2017 International Women’s Strike, which took place on the heels of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. On that day, women in 50 countries stayed home from work, abstained from unpaid domestic labor, or, if they could do neither, showed their solidarity with the mass strike by wearing red. In the United States, the strike had a series of general demands, calling for reproductive rights for all, environmental justice for all, a $15 minimum wage, welfare system reform, an end to gender violence, and the development of a new anti-capitalist feminism, which the strike’s organizers term “feminism for the 99%.”

Of course, the strike didn’t achieve all of its ends. But B. argues that it made huge strides toward this last goal, by linking the labor rights movement to the movements for reproductive justice. Both she and James see childbearing as labor, and view abortion as people’s unalienable right to abstain from it. And because people’s access to abortion has become increasingly reliant on their ability to pay for one, they believe it’s important to frame abortion as a class issue.

“What the 2017 strike did—besides being disruptive—was bring together labor tactics and feminist politics, which is a combination we think is very fertile,” B. said. “It brings this necessary gender lens to labor organizing, while at the same time pushing the horizon of feminist organizing by making us think about feminism and class issues at the same time.”

The resolution DSA delegates will vote on asserts that large liberal groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL are often beholden to their “capitalist donors,” which “can be antithetical to a militant, socialist feminist movement”—which James and B. say this current moment demands.

In 2017, Women’s March co-chairs opposed the term “strike,” recalled Tithi Bhattacharya, an organizer of the International Women’s Strike who advised DSA members on their new resolution. “They were extremely resistant to the idea of using the word strike because it had a clear message that corporations were not our friends, corporate politicians were not our friends, and that the power to bring about change lies in the hands of ordinary people,” Bhattacharya said. “We refused to dilute our message.”

Instead, the Women’s March called their mass action—which was, in effect, a strike—”a day without a woman.” (The Women’s March did not respond to VICE’s request for comment.)

Bhattacharya believes it’s time to radicalize the feminist movement and specifically the reproductive rights movement, which she says has historically oriented itself around a single demand: legal abortion rights. She says it’s crucial to build coalitions with other movements in order to recognize the different barriers in front of people trying to access their reproductive rights, and how to go about freeing them of those barriers. “When you link up with other movements you’re not just defending your uterus, you’re defending your life,” Bhattacharya said.

When contacted for comment, these groups argued that they are doing just that, and have been for decades. In a statement to VICE, the National Organization for Women, which has organized mass demonstrations for reproductive rights in the past, pointed toward its six “core issue areas,” which include economic justice, LGBTQ rights, and racial justice, in addition to reproductive justice, ending violence against women, and fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment. NOW President Toni Van Pelt said the organization also collaborates with multiple civil rights groups.

Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America also replied pointing out that they have focuses beyond abortion rights: A Planned Parenthood spokesperson said the organization’s strategic partnerships team focuses on four social justice-oriented pillars: immigration, racial justice, voting rights, and economic justice. “At Planned Parenthood, we know that racism, harsh immigration enforcement, economic injustice, and other forms of oppression can create very real barriers to accessing health care, including abortion,” said Bridgette Gomez, the director of strategic partnerships at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Because of these barriers, attacks on access to abortion and other sexual and reproductive health care will hurt low income people and people of color most. That’s why we are proud to work in coalition with other movement leaders on the frontlines of this work.”

And on NARAL’s “supporting policies” page, the group lists immigration reform, marriage equality, and voting rights. "We understand that our primary mandate—fighting for reproductive freedom for all Americans—is deeply interconnected with other issues of justice and civil rights," a spokesperson said.

Still, like Bhattacharya in 2017, James and B. worry about their message getting “diluted” by these larger, more liberal groups. But they’re realistic about the possibility of joining forces with national pro-choice organizations to expand their reach, and amplify their calls to strike.

They're also realistic about the results. James and B. have been encouraged by the feminist strikes in Poland, which helped block a total abortion ban that was proposed in 2016, as well as the recent strikes in Argentina calling to legalize abortion and end the country’s austerity politics—both of which activists consider feminist concerns. Looking to the U.S., James and B. also noted how quickly this year’s government shutdown ended after the flight attendants union threatened to strike if lawmakers didn’t reach a deal.

But it may be that Roe v. Wade falls anyway.

The DSA resolution estimates advocates have two to three years to prepare for a Supreme Court challenge to Roe, and for what comes after. If the conservative-leaning court votes to overturn or severely undermine it, socialist organizers say executing a mass strike will have helped them create the infrastructure the pro-choice movement needs to help people access reproductive care under even more dire conditions. And broadening the reproductive rights movement to include other causes will only strengthen its numbers, and shore up activist efforts to win back the right.

“The goal is to win,” said Cinzia Arruzza, another organizer of the International Women’s Strike. “But at the very least we’ll be in a better position to fight back.”

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