Defending Abortion Rights: Lessons from American History


May 3, 2022. The news has just leaked that the Supreme Court is planning to overturn Roe v Wade. This is appalling, and enraging, and Americans have a massive fight on their hands. This booklet looks back at abortion politics in the United States since 1964, to show how Roe v. Wade was won in the first place, and how it was defended. You can download the booklet as a pdf here.

Our main points are:

Roe v. Wade, the right to an abortion, was won in the first place by a mass movement of activists who did two things. First, they gave aid and help to women who needed illegal abortions. Second, they defied the law, sometimes openly, but more often semi-openly. For some the help and comfort they gave was most important. For others, the political struggle was. And the Supreme Court ruled for Roe against Wade because it was becoming clear that otherwise they would have to imprison tens of thousands of people, who had the support of tens of millions.

We need to build that kind of movement again.

In 1989 an anti-abortion Supreme Court threatened to overturn Roe v. Wade. Nearly a million people marched in Washington. The scale of that opposition made the Chief Justice think again, and Roe v. Wade was saved.

We need to do that again.

After 1989 the abortion rights movement made two mistakes. There was a debate between the feminist activists from the grassroots of the movement and the political operatives from the Democratic Party. The operatives won that debate. After that, the mainstream of the movement campaigned mainly on gender, for a woman’s right to choose, in any circumstances. Fair enough. But they stopped campaigning on class, for racial equality, for abortion justice, for people on ordinary incomes to have an abortion they can afford.

Opinion polls, then and now, show that the argument for fairness has a lot more support in the country than just the argument for a woman’s right to choose.

This time we have to make class and racial equality fundamental to a campaign for fair access to abortion.

The mainstream movement made another mistake. Their strategy focused on the courts, on congress, and on who got onto the Supreme Court. The reasons are understandable. But that’s why we are where we are now.

Of course Congress matters, elections matter and judges matter. But a massive grassroots campaign matters far more. That power can force the politicians and judges to protect abortion rights.

The last two last points we want to make are about the timing and energy of the campaign.  

First, this struggle is going to unfold on two timescales. One is immediate – we have to react massively now.

The other is long term. We have to learn from the example of earlier abortion struggles, from Black Lives Matter, from the fights for unions. The struggle will go up and down. At certain moments it will be national, and these moments will be decisive. But much of the time it will be in states and cities.

Sometimes protests will be crucial. But the day by day provision of help will be more important – help with money, medicines, procedures, transport, accommodation, phone numbers, procedures, comfort and human kindness.

Every level of these struggles matters. The decisive national struggle may well emerge from a myriad of small struggles, one of which suddenly becomes a flash point.

 Second, don’t get lost in arguments over tactics. Different people will want to do different things. We will need them all – petitions, marches, occupations, civil disobedience, walkouts, the lot.

This booklet brings together three articles we published on Anne Bonny Pirate ( in October of 2018, when Kavanaugh appointment to the Supreme Court was confirmed. At that point we were pretty sure that eventually the court would overturn Roe v. Wade. We published two articles on the history of abortion politics, thinking that sooner or later people would need that history.

We also include here a third article published that October, on five insights about sexual violence drawn from watching the testimony of Christine Blasey-Ford and Brett Kavanaugh before the senate. That moment reminds us that the fight against sexual violence is closely linked to the defense of abortion rights.

On a simple level, the court has acted only because Justice Clarence Thomas got away with the sexual harassment of Anita Hill and Justice Kavanaugh got away with an assault on Blasey-Ford. On another level, though, both abortion and sexual violence are about a woman’s right to her body. And on a deep level, both fights are about sexuality, class and patriarchy.

            We hope you find this booklet useful,

            Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale


You can download a pdf of the booklet here.

You can read the first article on the history on this website here.

And the second article on the history on this website here.

And the article on Blasey-Ford, Kavanaugh and Sexual Violence here.

And you may find our article on Harvard, Sexual Politics, Class and Resistance useful too.

You can email us on, and on Twitter we are @JonathanNealeA1

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