Thursday, July 21, 2011

Abortion Rights, Labor and the Left

The San Francisco Chronicle printed a cartoon in the opinion page on July 18 showing teachers, social workers and public sector workers under attack, with the caption “Attacking public sector workers is attacking women.” I mentioned it to my wife and asked her where the feminists were? She said they were probably overwhelmed fighting for reproductive rights.

While the fight for women’s reproductive and health rights is important, I would argue that it is one of many struggles that would benefit from greater worker power. Do we simply want women to have the right and access to an unpleasant medical procedure or to have improved overall social and economic status, wellbeing and health? The latter would necessarily include accessible, affordable and quality reproductive healthcare, contraception and abortion, something that many women currently do not have, especially lower income women.

The vast majority of abortions and unintended pregnancies occur among lower income women. 42% of women obtaining abortions have incomes below the federal poverty level, according to the Guttmacher Institute, while 27% have incomes between 100% and 200% of the poverty level ($10,000-20,000 per year for a single woman with no children). Thus, 69% of women obtaining abortions could be considered poor or low income. The abortion rate for poor women has been growing, too, over the past decade, while the rate for affluent women has been declining. Furthermore, the Guttmacher Institute reports that 75% of women who obtain abortions cite inability to afford a child as one of the reasons for having the procedure. Lower income women also tend to have worse overall health and nutrition, which increases the chances of a medically necessary abortion, while poverty decreases access to perinatal care and contraceptives. Also, while affluent women have far fewer unintended pregnancies, they are much more likely to be able to provide materially for their children, decreasing the need for abortion.

Poor women have a higher rate of unintended pregnancies than affluent women. Between 1994 and 2001, the rate of unintended pregnancies increased 29% for women living below the poverty line, while it decreased 20% among women with incomes that were double the poverty line or higher. Poor women are four times more likely to have an unintended pregnancy and three times more likely to have an abortion than affluent women. Unintended pregnancies cost taxpayers over $11 billion per year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, while preventing these pregnancies would save the public an average of $5.6 billion per year. Guttmacher also says that because the vast majority of abortions result from unintended pregnancies, one of the best methods for reducing abortions and unintended pregnancies is better access to affordable contraceptives. They suggest that the current recession has made it more difficult for lower income women to obtain contraceptives, thus contributing to their growing rate of abortions.

Many pro-choice advocates argue that abortion increases economic opportunities for women. Again, I am not arguing against abortion. It should continue to be legal, affordable and accessible for many reasons. However, this argument conflates a medical procedure with future wealth, when it is actually the absence of children and the numerous expenses associated with childrearing, not abortion itself that is the basis for this. If poor women are more likely to have an unintended pregnancy, then reducing poverty would not only improve women’s economic welfare directly, but indirectly, too, by reducing the chances that they are forced to provide materially for a child before they are ready to do so. However, even this argument is not entirely consistent with the evidence. Contrary to pundits and activists on the Right and the Left, while delaying childbearing generally improves the economic welfare of affluent women, it lowers the economic welfare of lower income women. Several studies indicate that poor women who have children early, particularly as teens, thus being freed of child-raising duties by their late-20s to pursue employment opportunities, had higher incomes than their peers who had children in their 20s and 30s, and were less likely to be living in poverty (See Mike Males). This is not to say that teens should be encouraged to have children or denied access to abortion. Lower income teen mothers are still much less likely to become affluent adults than their affluent peers. But this tendency has far more to do with their lack of privileges growing up and as young adults, than it does with motherhood or lack of access to abortion. Lower income children continue to lack privileges such as health insurance, good nutrition, clean environments, enriching summer activities like camp, vacations and summer school, while as young adults they continue to lack privileges like inheritance, business connections, and the ability to afford college.

Clearly, by elevating women’s economic power, we would significantly increase their health and material security, thus reducing unwanted pregnancies and the most common reason for abortions. This ought to be the goal for many additional reasons, too. By increasing women’s economic status, we necessarily improve the health and educational outcomes for their children, who will be more likely to be born at a healthy weight and time, receive adequate nutrition and healthcare, and avoid much of the familial stress that accompanies financial insecurity. Each of these would decrease the number of children with cognitive impairments and learning disabilities. However, in order to improve women’s economic status, we need a strong labor movement that has the power to demand higher wages, better health care, and safer working conditions for all workers.

There is another reason why workers’ power should be at the very top of the progressive agenda. Workers have the most powerful weapon available for achieving most progressive goals—the strike. Petitions, demonstrations, letter-writing sometimes have a little influence on a few policy-makers, but they do not put any real pressure on them. The one thing that does pressure the ruling class is a threat to their profits, a threat that can most effectively be carried out when workers refuse to work or engage in other forms of direct action that slow down production. Therefore, a strong and militant labor movement is necessary for the rest of the left to achieve its goals, including the protection of women’s reproductive and health rights. In a July 18 interview on KPFA’s “Letters From Washington,”

Ralph Nadar said that Obama doesn’t have to listen to progressives because they have no bargaining power. In other words, he doesn’t need their votes (or, expects he’ll get their votes anyway) and they are too weak to gum up the cogs of capitalism, thus posing no threat to his ability to raise funds or maintain his current support. The left can whine and complain about his appointment to the consumer protection agency, war mongering, capitulations to Wall Street, and abandonment of the poor and working class, but what are they really do about it?

Returning to the cartoon in the Chronicle it, is important to recognize that an attack on public sector workers is not just an attack on women. It is an attack on all of us, as it lowers overall wages and material security and decreases the quality and availability of public services upon which we all depend. Similarly, any attack on women’s reproductive rights is also an attack on all of us as it weakens women’s status in society, decreases their social and physical independence, and helps to perpetuate poverty, each of which has social costs for everyone. When women are devalued in society, when anyone is devalued or has lesser rights or protections, it increases the vulnerability of each of us.

The basis of solidarity is the recognition that we are all in it together, that an injury to one is an injury to all. Not one of us can truly be free if any one of us is economically or socially deprived. When workers start to live by this truth, instead of pitting themselves against other workers, they will unite to fight for the wellbeing of all workers, not just to obtain better working conditions and wages, but for all the good things in life, including adequate healthcare and nutrition, a clean environment, control over their working conditions and an end to the wage system itself.

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