In Search of Solidarity: Vastly Different Responses to Michigan's "Right to Work" and Attacks on Right to Choose
This past Tuesday, I was among the more than 10,000 men and women who descended on Michigan's state Capitol to protest the signing of "Right to Work" legislation that will likely have disastrous consequences for our state's working class. I feel very strongly about workers' rights, but I was also there to protest the dangerous attacks on reproductive rights that have been making their way through the state's legislature; along with a multitude of labor unions, Planned Parenthood had also issued a call for supporters to join the demonstrations in Lansing Tuesday morning.
I was dismayed, however, by the response from many union protesters toward my "Keep Abortion Legal" sign. One man walked by angrily shouting "stop abortion as birth control!" Another man stopped short of criticizing abortion itself, but commented that the sign instead should say "stop aborting our unions, stop aborting our rights," implying that the issue of actual abortion had no place at this particular protest. And one of my companions and I both felt ourselves to be the subject of more than a few glaring looks. Not exactly the kind of mutual solidarity we were hoping for.
To be fair, there were a reasonable number of union men of all ages sporting "I Stand With Planned Parenthood" stickers, and one man stopped to tell me how strongly he supported women's right to control our own bodies. But the fact that there is even a divide on the question of reproductive rights among those who champion the rights and needs of the poor and the working class is a continual disappointment to me.
The very next day after Right to Work was signed into law, the MI Senate voted in favor of HB 5711, the "super-bill" considered one of the most extreme pieces of anti-abortion legislation in the country. I couldn't help but notice the contrast between those two days everywhere from progressive media outlets to my own social networking feeds; Tuesday's legislation had brought on an outpouring of anger and frustration, but there was near silence in response to the passage of HB 5711. I'm certainly not suggesting that we shouldn't be outraged by Right to Work, because we absolutely should be furious about it. But we need to be equally outraged by egregious attacks on our reproductive freedom. And what's more, we need to recognize that they are both attacks on the working class.
Though women from across the economic spectrum choose to end unplanned pregnancies, it is clear that economics will always be a factor for women who are facing unintended pregnancy; many women choose abortion when they feel unable to financially support a child, especially when they already have one or more children they're struggling to support. Because of the Hyde amendment, these women are already ineligible for any federal Medicaid funds for abortion, and many are forced to work extra hours or make personal sacrifices in their desperation to raise the money necessary to obtain an abortion.
Now, in Michigan, many women are also being denied any possibility of private insurance coverage for abortion. Legislation is also about to pass that will give employers the right to refuse insurance coverage of birth control, making it more difficult for women who cannot pay for contraception out of pocket to avoid unplanned pregnancies in the first place. And HB 5711, when signed into law, will place a multitude of burdens on women who are in precarious economic circumstances. Its ban on the tele-medicine prescription of medical abortion will primarily impact women living in rural areas, many of whom are poor and live a great distance from abortion clinics; for these women to incur travel expenses, as well as the necessary time away from work if they're employed, is a great burden that will make abortion significantly more difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.
And because HB 5711 will also impose a number of costly regulations on abortion clinics and providers, it is likely that even women in many suburban and even urban areas will find themselves without an easily accessible clinic to which to turn. At clinics that do manage to keep their doors open under the new guidelines, it can be expected that abortion costs will be driven even higher. In summary, as is always the case with with restrictions on abortion, these barriers will have the greatest impact on those with the least resources. And as Right to Work laws push more people toward or below the poverty line, it becomes even more terrifying to consider what the future of abortion access will look like for women in Michigan. If this does not qualify as a class issue, then I'm not sure what does.
This is not a matter of attempting to piggy-back some lesser, "special interest" issue onto an issue thought to have a greater amount of social and economic importance. The need for accessible and affordable abortion is huge: more than one in three women obtain an abortion at some point in their lives, and few things can possibly impact a woman's life more than being forced to continue an unintended pregnancy. And again, the consequences of forced pregnancy are most disasterous for women in the most dire economic positions, who often become more financially dependent on men and less able to pursue possible educational and career opportunities when forced into motherhood. The economic equality of women can and must be a goal of working class struggle, and that equality is impossible to achieve if we are not permitted basic self-determination and control over our own bodies.
Michigan is traditionally a "blue-collar" Democrat state, where so-called "social issues" frequenty take a backseat to economic ones; openly anti-abortion Democrats are frequently elected to local office. But the time is long past due to recognize that the supposed divide between "economic issues" and "social issues" is a myth. Social issues are economic issues. And any politician who claims to stand up for the poor and working class, while simultaneously denying poor and working class women the basic right to control their own bodies, should be denounced as a hypocrite.
Those who seek to dismantle unions and those who seek to deny women's bodily autonomy are not two separate groups with two separate motivations. They are the same conservative politicians, motivated by a desire to protect their own interests by preserving the current hierarchy—one which places rich white men at the top of the social and economic order. The oppression of the poor and the working class and the oppression of women might function in slightly different ways, but both serve the same oppressors. Rather than allowing ourselves to be divided by so-called "special interests," we need to recognize our common enemy, and stand in solidarity to defend all the rights of the working class.