To Defend Abortion Access, Take the Offensive : Strategizing for Direct Action
It is becoming widely understood that the shot callers in the Democratic Party have no intention to stick their necks out to preserve abortion access. For the most cynical of the Democratic politicians, the overturning of Roe v. Wade represents an opportunity to improve their job security by the changing the subject back to electoral politics once again. Yet a coherent grassroots strategy for resisting the criminalization of abortion has yet to emerge. Let’s talk about what such a strategy might entail.
This is especially pressing as today’s Supreme Court is not finished reshaping the legal landscape. They may continue to hand down decisions like the overturning of Roe v. Wade for years or even decades to come.
Intentionally or unintentionally, the leak of the Supreme Court ruling may have functioned to defuse resistance rather than to catalyze it. It gave the general public a chance to get used to the bad news before it was confirmed, ensuring that people who might otherwise have been shocked into action behaved in more predictable ways. Liberal organizations took advantage of the advance warning to organize rallies channeling people’s rage and heartbreak into largely symbolic actions, but there was no comparable effort to coordinate an offensive participatory strategy based in direct action.
What follows is a tentative effort to talk strategy as we embark on the next chapter of a centuries-long struggle. What can direct action offer the fight for reproductive freedom?
First, there are some things that you can accomplish by acting on your own without waiting for anyone else. If you want the wall down the street to express support for people who need abortion access, grab some spray-paint and go out tonight. Likewise, you can stockpile abortion pills and get them to those who need them along with information about how to use them.
Second, there are many ways to extend support to those who will be most impacted by the criminalization of abortion. One of the most fundamental effects of the banning of abortion in half of the United States will be that millions of people who did not previously consider themselves radicals will experience the courts, the laws, and the police as their enemies in an immediate, visceral way. While this may legitimize illegal activity for some who previously had a superstitious faith in the rule of law, it will also have consequences similar to the impact of the laws criminalizing marijuana: in anti-choice states, the wealthy and privileged will be able to access abortion easily enough, while poor people from targeted demographics will suffer egregiously. Drawing on the examples of No More Deaths and similar solidarity projects, we should not underestimate the tremendous amount of effort this kind of organizing will require, nor how difficult it will be to get support to those who need it most. This work is crucial, but is essentially defensive in character.
Finally, movements can use direct action to exert leverage within society, including on those who aim to criminalize abortion. This is what we mean by an offensive strategy: in addition to responding to the negative consequences of the Supreme Court verdict, taking steps to push back against it.
In order to use direct action to exert leverage in this way, you have to:
- Identify a person or group that is going to make a decision that is going to lead to a negative outcome.
- Carry out an action that gives them a reason to make a different decision.
The person or group you focus on could be the ones responsible for the injustice you seek to address, or they might have no direct connection to the injustice but be positioned in such a way that they could do something to stop it. The action you take need not be adversarial—it could be as simple as serving delicious food at a demonstration to ensure that people show up who might not otherwise attend.
To offer another example: if opponents of abortion access sincerely wished to diminish the total number of abortions in the United States, they would focus on providing resources and community support to everyone who might become pregnant, so that no one would feel that they are too poor or too isolated to be able to raise a child. That would be the only surefire way to diminish the number of both legal and illegal abortions. The fact that, instead, the anti-choice movement has focused almost exclusively on legislation shows that in fact, their actual goal is to impose patriarchal control over people’s bodies by means of state violence.
It’s important to spell this out: if your goal is to exert leverage, you have to identify a group you can actually exert leverage on—a group that is likely to change course as a consequence of your intervention. If there are no circumstances under which those you are seeking to influence would make a different decision, or if they have already made their decision, it might make sense to focus your efforts elsewhere. You have to make sure that the target of your efforts has a choice—then make them an offer they can’t refuse.
Right now, the basic strategic problem is that no one has fleshed out a proposal to make suppressing abortion access the least desirable choice for the Republicans or their centrist accomplices. The Republicans are getting what they want: the more that their efforts to criminalize abortion outrage and harm people, the better, as wielding power over others’ lives is precisely what energizes their base. But Democratic politicians also have no great incentive to take risks to defend abortion access. Though Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others have proposed a strategy to codify abortion rights into law, most Democrats are determined to sit on their hands, hoping that this issue will help them in the midterm elections—regardless of the risks that those who are being criminalized face today.
This is consistent with Democrats’ efforts to re-legitimize the police and other institutions of the state in the wake of the 2020 uprising—and to do so even as Republicans are poised to gain control of those institutions and keep control of them by coup if necessary. These are the workings of the political ratchet, in which Republicans continuously push state institutions towards more oppressive agendas while Democrats continuously give ground, keeping those who are suffering invested in the state itself in hopes that it might one day be reformed. If the same pattern plays out in regards to abortion access, there really is no hope other than direct action.
The good news is that if someone can demonstrate a strategy to effectively exert leverage on those who are responsible for suppressing abortion access, countless people will want to participate in it. People may come out to march in circles and listen to speakers a couple times a year, but if they see that there is something meaningful that they can do to effect change directly, they will show up with vigor and enthusiasm. We saw this most recently in summer 2020.
What strategies have demonstrators experimented with thus far that might offer meaningful leverage on those who are complicit in suppressing abortion access?
It is a classic phenomenon that, after the cooptation and repression of a movement like the George Floyd uprising of 2020, some participants revert to staid, legalistic marches while others attempt to continue escalating on their own, shifting to invite-only night actions for the sake of security. This perfectly describes the dichotomy between this past weekend’s sign-holding rallies and the vandalism that various anonymous groups have carried out under the umbrella of the Jane’s Revenge model. The public rallies are eminently accessible, but offer little meaningful engagement; the invite-only night actions may inspire people to take action on their own, but do not offer a participatory space in which to build collective momentum. Something is needed to fill in the space between these two poles.
Likewise, whatever their other virtues, both of these models fall short when we evaluate them as means of exerting leverage. The target of the public rallies is vague: in addressing society at large by means of a largely symbolic event, they might even reassure those who are criminalizing abortion that there will be no real consequences for doing so. Their chief value is probably in bolstering the morale of the participants. By contrast, the targets of the Jane’s Revenge actions are very specific—but in targeting anti-abortion centers, they are taking on the most intransigent opponents of abortion, people who have dedicated their lives to fighting against abortion access, many of whom consider themselves to be carrying out the will of God. In attempting to exert leverage on such people, one could end up locked in a private grudge match, missing the opportunity to open up expansive spaces of struggle that can draw in more participants while escalating.
Somewhere between the public rallies and the invite-only night actions, we find the most promising events of this past weekend—breakaway marches that blocked highways in Los Angeles and other cities, on the one hand, and demonstrations outside the homes of the Supreme Court justices, on the other. These have the virtue of being both participatory and confrontational. Again, however, when it comes to exerting leverage, the target of the street marches and freeway blockades is a little bit abstract, whereas the Supreme Court justices are unlikely to change their minds, even if they have to get a bigger security detail.
If it is possible to exert leverage on anyone who is complicit in criminalizing abortion, it is probably not far-right religious cult members, but their centrist accomplices. Presented with the choice between risking their careers and sacrificing the abortion access of millions of the desperately poor, centrist politicians will usually choose the latter—but it might be possible to revise those options in such a way that they would be compelled to think twice.
At the high point of the George Floyd uprising, when millions of people had ceased to accept the legitimacy of the police and were acting accordingly, we saw terrified liberals like the mayor of Minneapolis suddenly take the demands of the movement very seriously, promising to take steps towards police abolition (which the movement had already made a reality to some extent). Later, when the politicians had reestablished control, they betrayed those promises—showing that our effectiveness hinges on keeping our social movements lively and strong, not on winning concessions. If demonstrators could find an effective and infectious way to express a total rejection of the court system, that might bring about a similar situation.
In the past, pressure campaigns have targeted the American Legislative Exchange Council and similar organizations to some effect. In liberal urban centers in the states that are criminalizing abortion, there is another potential point of intervention: some district attorneys are already declaring that they won’t prosecute abortion cases. This could represent a precedent that other prosecutors could be pressed to adopt, widening fault lines within the legal system in those states.
The movement against racist police murders that eventually led to the George Floyd uprising got off the ground in the first place because, starting with the protests against the murder of Oscar Grant in 2009, the participants were able to connect the following crucial elements:
- An abolitionist analysis that explained why the murders were occurring more persuasively than any liberal or conservative narrative.
- A set of reproducible tactics that were immediately associated with the analysis, so people could easily take action if they agreed with the analysis.
- Concrete points of intervention—including specific times, places, participants, and targets.
Other movements—the environmental movement, for example—have not been establish this connection between analysis, action, and context, and have subsequently remained stunted (with exceptions, thankfully). If we want to mobilize an effective resistance to the criminalization of abortion, we have to learn from the George Floyd uprising.
Yes, there are fundamental differences between the movement for reproductive freedom and the movement for Black lives—but those who will be most impacted by the criminalization of abortion overlap considerably with those who are most impacted by racist policing. Although the politics of the movement for reproductive freedom are currently more liberal and reformist, correlating with the higher profile that middle-class organizers have in its ranks, that could change as the situation intensifies. We should remember that in the years between the 2001 uprising in Cincinnati and the rebellion mourning Oscar Grant, movements against police violence often seemed easily co-opted, as well.
Coda: How We Got Here, Where We’re Going
As anarchists, we don’t look to the Supreme Court to defend our freedoms from other courts and state institutions. We don’t believe that any court or state institution possesses inherent legitimacy. That being said, in a struggle for our freedom and well-being that pits us against courts, cops, and other state institutions, compelling one such institution to limit the power of another can be strategic, provided it does not contribute to legitimizing any of the institutions involved. It must be clear to everyone that the power that drives social change derives from grassroots organizing, not from state institutions—that it is the needs and desires and autonomy of the human beings involved that are legitimate, not the structures that purport to represent them.
The fact that some US courts recognize abortion rights at all is itself the result of decades of grassroots struggle. Today, a majority of residents of the United States support some kind of abortion access, but this was not always the case.
Support for abortion access has slowly risen since the 1970s, even as the number of abortions people seek has declined since 1980. In 1978, only a third of those polled in the United States supported abortion access unconditionally; by 2018, that had risen to slightly over half. As Moxie Marlinspike argues in “We Should All Have Something to Hide,” it is difficult for most people to grasp the value of something that is illegal and therefore unfamiliar; the first step towards social change is for a powerful movement to persistently demonstrate its value in defiance of the law.
The Roe v. Wade decision did not take place because a majority of the US population supported abortion access in 1973. Rather, in view of organizing efforts such as the Jane collective, which provided an estimated 11,000 illegal abortions, we can conclude that the ruling was a response to the intensity with which a particular segment of the population was fighting for abortion access, and to their success in calling the state’s monopoly on power into question by continuing to make abortion available despite the efforts of police and judges.
Small groups that win concessions as a consequence of their intensity and successful defiance can enable the rest of society to discover the advantages of something that is currently illegal. Such groups are responsible for the better part of social progress; they initiated the process that ultimately led to the legalization of marijuana in parts of the United States, for example. Of all of the struggles that reached a high point in 2020, some of the most unambiguous victories were the statue topplings: governments that never would have taken action to remove racist statues were also not prepared to reinstall them once autonomous crowds illegally toppled them.
Arguably, two of the most common justifications for the power of the Supreme Court and other state institutions are, first, that they represent the will of the majority, and, second, that they maintain historical legal precedents. As anarchists, we don’t believe that either of these justifications is as important as people’s own judgments about what contributes to their personal well-being. But it is noteworthy that, in striking down Roe v. Wade, the majority of the Supreme Court is neither enforcing the will of the majority nor maintaining historical legal precedents—certainly not precedents that have prevailed for the vast majority of our lives. Rather, the Supreme Court is implementing a decades-old program propelled by the intensity and defiance of far-right anti-choice activists—who used assassinations and bombings, among other tactics, to build a pressure campaign comprised of many interlocking fronts.
The far right are also advocates of social change—but towards a more repressive, authoritarian, sexist, racist, and homophobic society. Where anarchist direct action generally targets the most powerful and privileged, the far right pursue policies that generally target the desperate and downtrodden. Where anarchists seek to decentralize power and access to resources, the far right seeks to use the state to preserve disparities. It remains to be seen how well doubling down on state violence as the chief means of enacting their program will work out for them in an era when faith in the state itself is eroding across the entire political spectrum.
This struggle is not really about the Constitution or the number of judges on Supreme Court. No cabal of nine people deserves to wield sovereignty over the most intimate aspects of our lives, and adding two Democrats to the court wouldn’t change that. Likewise, we shouldn’t tie the hands of future rebels by focusing too much on the fact that the Supreme Court is not implementing the will of the majority in this case—the issue, rather, is that they are not entitled to rule us in the first place.
The Supreme Court decision is not a matter of interpreting law; it is an act of war. Most of the players on all sides understand this as a power struggle over the bodily autonomy of those who can give birth, and are using whatever tools and reasoning are available to advance their respective agendas. Politicians are generally more cynical in the ways they relate to the state than those who explicitly reject the state itself.
All the more reason for us to come up with strategies that we can enact together, without depending on them.