Since many on this list are interested in issues of the women's movement, I thought this article might be of interest. It is from the latest issue of the Chicago Workers' Voice Theoretical Journal. The themes in this article will be also be discussed in the presentation that Sarah will make at the 11am Sunday workshop at the Radical Scholars Conference at Loyola University in Chicago.
The journal is available at the New World Resource Center in Chicago or through the mail for $3 (email me or write to CWV, P.O. Box 11542, Chicago, IL 60611).
For six and a half years the Emergency Clinic Defense Coalition (ECDC) played a major role in the pro-choice movement in Chicago. It spearheaded the defense of clinics in Chicago when Operation Rescue attempted to shut them down. Many saw it as an alternative to the bourgeois feminism of NOW and NARAL.
At a meeting in February 1995, it was decided to put ECDC on the "back burner." There was some discussion of continuing a newsletter (which has not come out yet) and people keeping in touch. However, any other activity was put on hold. Thus, ECDC's life as an organization has ended.
Operation Rescue (OR), an extreme right-wing anti-abortion organization, launched a national campaign of blockades of clinics which provide abortions in 1988. ECDC arose in response to this, as did pro-choice and clinic defense groups in a number of cities. It was an organization in the radical wing of the movement for women's rights as it was manifested at that time (late 80's early 90's). It may be a somewhat better representative of the more radical wing than some others at the time as it was more broadly based than some others. For example, Refuse and Resist and NWROC, which were also in the more radical wing, were more connected to the particular organizations.
The mass movement which emerged to defend the clinics was a significant class, social and political phenomenona of the time. ECDC came directly out of this motion and it embodied many features of that movement, both good and bad.
It is important for women's rights activists and revolutionaries to sum up the experience of ECDC and of the clinic defense movement of the late 1980's and early 1990's. ECDC's strengths and weaknesses provide many lessons for the development of the struggle for women's liberation in the future.
In this article I would like to discuss what I consider to be some of the important features of ECDC. I will also try to give an account of the important issues discussed and debated internally by ECDC. Note that during most of the existence of ECDC I was also a member of the Marxist-Leninist Party. My views are very influenced by how the MLP viewed the issues at the time and how we thought various political and tactical matters should be addressed. Finally, I will give my views on what is important for the future development of the struggle for women's liberation.
I have also written a chronology of ECDC's activities. It is not printed in this issue of the CWV Theoretical Journal. However, I will provide it to anyone upon request. Hopefully it will help the reader relate what was going on in the pro-choice movement to ECDC's activity and internal life.
ECDC arose as an organized response to the clinic blockades launched by Operation Rescue in 1988.
Operation Rescue is a fanatical anti-abortion organization. It aims to have abortions outlawed. It aims to intimidate abortion providers so that few or no providers are available to women. It tries to intimidate women from seeking abortions. It would like to go back to the days of back-alley abortions when thousands of women died and were maimed from unsafe abortions.
Besides blockading clinics, OR's political stand is very conducive to the bombings and murders at abortion clinics. Its leaders say that they don't organize the murders but that they consider them to be justified.
OR is opposed to birth control. It's leadership quite openly wants to get women out of the workforce. Their leaders blame many of the ills of society on "the working mother". OR wants woman in her "rightful place," subservient to man in all aspects of life.
At the time ECDC was formed, Operation Rescue was openly supported by several spokesmen of the religious right, Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority and Pat Robertson, for example. As well, it was supported by several prominent leaders of the Catholic Church.
Why did OR emerge at that time? It arose as an attempt to turn back the clock on abortion rights. After years of growing mass protest for abortion rights, the legal right to have an abortion was established by the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. >From day one there were attempts to reverse or restrict that legal right. Even before the Roe decision, "right to life" bigots were mobilized by the Catholic Church. After the Roe decision, the Catholic Church, various fundamentalist Christians and other rightists mobilized against it, trying to turn the clock back.
Abortion becomes a lightning rod issue. Around it major social, class and political issues were and are being fought out. For the right wing, the abortion issue was a transmission belt for reactionary politics. They hoped that people sucked in by propaganda about "saving babies" could be mobilized to support their whole offensive. Of course for the misogynist elements that joined clinic blockades and opposed equality, OR provided a means to network among other fascists and served as a recruiting ground for right-wing shock troops.
The anti-abortion crusade was one of the planks in the platform of Reaganite reaction. Please note that the rise of this conservatism began under the Carter administration in the late 1970's. The bourgeoisie launched a broad offensive against the workers and poor. This offensive was marked by such events as the concessions drive in auto and other industries where workers were forced to take cuts in their wages and benefits. Along with this, there were campaigns against affirmative action, immigrants, welfare and a foreign policy offensive of naked imperialism.
Reagan's election in 1980 marked a consolidation of this offensive, not the beginning of it. Jimmy Carter's State of the Union address in 1980 was remarkable for its blatant imperialism. Carter had been elected on a bogus "human rights" platform, but the revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua forced Uncle Sam to drop the human rights mask.
Although he did not initiate it, Reagan gets the credit he deserves for stomping on the working class and poor in the US and around the world. The term "Reaganite reaction" is certainly appropriate although we should never forgot that the Democrats are also responsible for the capitalist offensive. One of Reagan's first actions was to break the PATCO strike. Soon after he invaded Grenada. In regard to women's rights he was not just the male chauvinist neanderthal that so many perceived. Reagan was perhaps the greatest champion of the anti-abortion cause. He supported the anti's politically and used the power of the Presidency to aid their organizing. He also packed not only the Supreme Court, but hundreds of positions in lower Federal courts and thousands of positions in Federal law enforcement agencies with like-minded right-wing creeps. big champion of the anti-abortion movement.
In this atmosphere of political reaction, the anti's began harassing women, coming into clinics and trying to shut them down. For instance, the antis started picketing at the American Women's Medical Center at Diversey and Western around 1978. Moreover, the attack on abortion rights signalled a broad attack on the livelihood of women.
Opposition to abortion rights was and is a key issue on the agenda of the religious right. The Christian right was a major component of the bourgeois forces behind the Reagan and Bush administrations and behind the current Republican majority in Congress. While to some it may appear to be a radical right fringe, it is actually quite closely connected to the mainstream of bourgeois politics. It frequently acts as a battering ram for programs the bourgeoisie wants to carry out. And over the last several years the program of the more liberal bourgeois politicians has moved closed and closer to the right wing.
One must consider another reason for the rise of the religious right and the groups such as Operation Rescue. This is the social changes that have occurred over the last 40-50 years. There are a series of objective developments in society that reactionaries want to stop and even reverse if they can.
Especially since the 1960's more and more women are in the workforce. Today the workforce is half women and the majority of child-bearing age women work. These social changes mean that women appear more and more in political, social and economic life. This is a basic social requirement for women's liberation. It gives us the basis to fight for access and equality in politics and economics. And we can fight that this access and equality be shaped not on the basis of men's experience, but taking into account the needs of women.
Along with the large scale participation of women in the workforce and the resultant economic and social changes, there are changes in the structure of the family. There is the increase of single parent families, an increase in the number of households headed by women and the number of women having and raising children without being married. There is also an increase in the number of blended families and an increased openness of gay and lesbian families.
Some of these changes are particularly painful for women. Single women with children are the fastest growing section of those in poverty. But even where the changes are painful, there are many potential benefits for women: the breakdown of the authority of men, the increased authority of women in the family, a broader consideration of what family is, an increased consideration of the interests of children and their rights. There is also increased public attention to issues such as child care and domestic violence. And women's rights activists generally are fighting for ways to lessen if not to eliminate the pain of poverty that most women feel.
The religious right is also quick to point to the pain caused by the changing place of women in the world. However, the politics of the religious right is aimed at increasing this pain. It is unlikely that women will be driven out of the workforce. But a lack of day-care makes work very difficult and severely restricts what kind of job a woman is able to take. Randall Terry, the former leader of Operation Rescue, considers day-care to be the work of Satan. According to the religious right women shouldn't be working anyway so why make it easier for them to stay on the job. As for equal pay, that would take more women away from their sacred roles as housewives. Besides, it would be heresy to consider a woman as good as a man wouldn't it? Why, then, should women and men fight for equal pay?
The religious right considers sex to be sinful. Thus, according to them, single women having children is a sin. If one listens to some of the current discussion around welfare "reform" (gutting), then it becomes clear that single mothers on welfare are responsible for many of the ills of the country. Thus, the right wing argues that it's okay to throw her and her children into the streets. It is a splendid example of criminals blaming their victims.
In fact, the agitation and politics of the religious right seem to do a lot to help profits - the almighty bottom line.
The anti-abortion campaign is against laws and court decisions that mean women have the right to an abortion. The campaign is to make abortions effectively unavailable even if the laws are not changed. And the campaigns of the religious right seeks to reverse decades of major structural changes in our society.
Thus the fight over abortion rights was and is closely connected to the efforts by the religious right and others to drive the conditions of women backwards.
I have gone into these points a bit as a means of explaining the social backdrop of the struggle over abortion rights which took place at the time. It was in this context that Operation Rescue launched a nationwide campaign of clinic blockades in 1988.
This campaign provoked a response in city after city. During the clinic blockades in October, thousands of people came into the streets to fight back against this attack. In a number of cities there were sharp confrontations with the anti-abortion blockaders, including Boston, Seattle, New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, Buffalo, and Providence, Rhode Island.
In the struggle which came up against the anti-abortion blockaders there were a number of political forces.
The dominant force on the political scene in the women's rights movement in 1988 was NOW.
NOW emerged out of President Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women. It was formed in 1966 by a group of women who were attending a conference of the State Commissions on the Status of Women. About two dozen women, mainly upper-class, formed it when they became discontented over the slowness of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in opening its door to women. Specifically, they decided to propose in the conference that the EEOC should call for an end to sex-segregated employment ads. When this was declared out of order, these women met in a hotel room and formed NOW.
In October 1966 a second meeting was called to formalize the organization. NOW's declared goal was "taking action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now." The three immediate concerns were 1) participation on juries 2) enforcement of Title VII prohibiting sex discrimination in employment and 3) that the EEOC should change its position and oppose sex segregated employment ads. Further, they opposed discrimination in public accommodation because it was "..a handicap to their position in the business world." In general, NOW's identified concerns stemmed from their interest in the upward mobility of professional women. Thus, when NOW talked about bringing women into the "mainstream," it is doubtful that they meant all women. They were talking about upper-class women.
NOW's first campaign was against the sex-segregated want ads. This campaign reflected motion against job discrimination that was growing among working women. But when NOW took up this issue, it took it up from the angle of the rising professionals and business persons that they were. In the late 1960's it began a campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. In this effort NOW showed a disdain of working women's interests by offhandedly denouncing all protective legislation for women as the source of job discrimination."
Opposition to laws restricting abortion rights were not among the initial issues raised by NOW. However, by the end of 1967 Betty Freidan raised the issue. Abortion rights were hotly debated in the 1967 NOW convention. It took a stand for the removal of laws banning the distribution of contraceptive information and banning abortion from the penal code. A right-wing section of NOW, which did not support abortion rights, resigned in protest.
This reflected some hesitance to campaign on controversial issues. NOW did not want to campaign for gay rights at that time either. Even after the split at the '67 convention, it hardly campaigned for abortion rights. In New York, Pennsylvania and some other places it waged some legislative struggle. In 1969 protests demanding the elimination of Mother's Day were organized. Some chapters used these protests to call for repeal of all laws banning abortion. However, in many of the cases where some struggle was waged, the call for abortion rights was closely connected to campaigns for repressive population control. The Pittsburg chapter pushed for abortion reform in combination with proposals for tax laws which would refuse deductions to parents of more than two children. And by 1971, when it went wholehog into work for an electoral bloc around George McGovern, NOW refused to support pro-choice demonstrations altogether.
During the huge tide of mass struggles in the late 60's to 1970, NOW called some mass actions. The biggest was the 1970 Women's Strike for Equality which demanded abortion rights, childcare, and equal opportunity in education and jobs. This action, in which all trends participated , made NOW's reputation and created illusions that it might really fight.
This was indeed an illusion. In fact, NOW called virtually no mass actions after 1970. It subordinated every issue to electoral campaigns and its legislative drive for the Equal Rights Amendment.
NOW's second president was Aileen Hernandez, an African-American EEOC commissioner. She vowed to change what she termed NOW's "embarrassingly elitist" image. She criticized NOW's membership for "looking for a place in an essentially corrupt society." However, this general perspective did not change, and it gives a background for the types of politics and tactics NOW advocated in this pro-choice movement of the late 1980's and early 1990's.
This general perspective lead to a number of deleterious stands in the clinic defense movement. These stands and politics stood against building a militant working class women's movement. These stands hampered bringing masses of women and men into the movement. These stands stood against fighting for the particular demands of working class and poor women.
From the time OR launched its rescues, NOW counseled activists not to go to the clinics. From the beginning, this "advice" was not taken by everyone. And as the campaigns to block clinics continued, more and more activists ignored this advice and went out to defend the clinics. Thus in a later period and in later defenses NOW in some places did organize large numbers of people to go to the clinics. But then NOW insisted on "non-violence pledges." They wanted no slogans and no placards, etc. They even insisted on no eye contact with the antis. The issue for NOW is to be respectable in the eyes of the bourgeoisie. They want people under control. They don't want the activists to do anything that might offend the bourgeoisie.
ECDC was formed in the fall of 1988 as a response to the campaign of clinic attacks and blockades by the religious right. At that time in Chicago there was a section of more left and militant activists. They did not wish to stay away from the clinics. They did not agree with the policy of having only a few escorts at the clinics. They wanted a defense of the clinics. These included people in or around various organizations. Some of the organizations were Prairie Fire, No Pasaran - a women's affinity group in the Pledge of Resistance, ISO, Act-up, the Chicago Women's Aids Project, Women Organized for Reproductive Choice, and the MLP. There were activists who had been involved in other left-wing political movements and activists who had little or no previous activist experience. Ad-hoc committees organized clinic defense in Chicago in the summer of 1988. Activists from Women Organized for Reproductive Choice, Prairie Fire and No Pasaran were probably the most influential in this. In the fall the ad-hoc committees were formalized into the founding of ECDC.
The members were mostly women and some men. In age they ranged from high school students to women in their mid-50's. A number of the activists had experience in the women's movement of the 60's and 70's. In vocation most of the participants were lower level professional and in the arts. Its class composition was not working class and working class poor. But neither were they business women aspiring to the board rooms of the banks and corporations. There were a number of school teachers, secretaries, several who made their living in the arts, some in the health field, etc. Thus, its membership was not made up of those who aspired to the citadels of power. And its purpose was not expressed in terms of getting women into the citadels of power.
Objectively, because ECDC stood for clinic defense, it gathered together the more militant activists of the pro-choice movement of the time. Its strength was that it did this. It was the form that these activists used to organize clinic defense. Without some means to bring together these activists there would not have been clinic defense. Its main weakness was that, while it was objectively an alternative to NOW and NARAL, it was not conscious of the need to develop an all-round alternative to the bourgeois feminism of these organizations.
It was always hesitant to declare itself directly in opposition to and an alternative to NOW. Most of its activists did recognize, to one degree or another, problems with NOW's politics. This was a feature of all of the clinic defense organizations which arose outside of NOW and to one degree or another opposed NOW's politics and tactics. To my knowledge they were all hesitant to directly oppose NOW's bourgeois feminism. None of them saw the need for an all-round alternative to NOW's bourgeois feminist politics. This, to my mind, was a big drawback to how the movement was organized at the time. It may be part of the reason why not much lasting came out of those organizations. Some, such as BACOAR, still exist. Most I think no longer exist. And, I know little of the way of even networking that even remains.
During the course of these actions from 1988 ro 1994 there were numerous discussions on tactics. In general ECDC did stand for a clinic defense. It mobilized people to come out to the clinics in Chicago. It stood for taking an active stance against the anti's. It brought banners and pickets to the clinics. Thus, all could see that those who stand for a woman's right to choose an abortion were also in front of the clinics. Some of the slogans and tactics to confront the antis were quite creative.
Its active and confrontational stance towards the antis at the clinics brought down the wrath of NOW and the Pro-Choice Alliance. On at least one occasion the Pro-Choice Alliance called on the police to remove ECDC activists from in front of a clinic that the antis had blockaded. There were occasions where NOW and NARAL even refused to send information regarding abortion laws to activists who identified themselves as being form ECDC.
During the course of its existence there were several discussions and some internal forums on issues facing the pro-choice movement. There was a forum on the political issues around population control. There was a lot of opposition to the racist and anti-poor bias of the population control agitation. There was a forum on the FACE law. It was discussed that the FACE law did not mean that we no longer had to defend clinics.
How did ECDC fit into the pro-choice movement of that time - from 1988 to the early 1990's?
In general there were two wings to this movement. One was dominated by the bourgeois politics of NOW and like-minded groups such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood. The other wing was generally more militant and many (though by no means all) of its activists were more oriented towards the working class and poor.
When talking about the pro-choice movement as a whole, there was a break with NOW's politics over the issue of clinic defense. This break existed from the time national campaigns of clinic blockades started in 1988. The existence of ECDC was evidence that this break existed. This break was also manifested in the militant clinic defenses that were organized in places like Boston, Los Angeles. the Bay Area, Detroit and other places. This was in opposition to the counseling of NOW, NARAL, Panned Parenthood and others. There were also other organized expressions of this more militant wing such as BACOAR in the Bay Area and CDAR in Detroit.
This break over the issue of clinic defense developed on a more mass scale in 1991.
In the summer of 1991 the anti's launched a several week campaign of blockades in Wichita, Kansas. They did this is part because their blockades across the country did face an active opposition. Clinic blockades at that time had somewhat dwindled and OR was facing an organizational crisis. They needed something to spark a new round of attacks on clinics across the country. They gathered their supporters from across the country. They picked a city which they hoped would not have much of a progressive movement. They picked a city with an anti-abortion city government and an anti-abortion state governor. They picked Wichita. They knew the local officials would wink at them no matter how much mayhem they caused.
A small number of pro-choice counter-demonstrators did show up at the clinics to oppose the OR blockades. However, NOW and NARAL did not organize mass counter-demonstrations at the clinics. They advised activists not to go to the clinics. And they advised those activists that they couldn't keep away from the clinics not to confront OR while they were there. Essentially, they also allowed OR to run roughshod.
This created a whole debate in the pro-choice movement generally. Many activists were angry at NOW's opposition to clinic defense.
OR, The Lambs of Christ and others announced campaigns of clinic blockades directed towards particular cities in 1992. This became an issue in the pro-choice movement across the country. Operation Rescue announced a "Spring of Life" for April-May 1992 in Buffalo. Activists mobilized from around the East Coast and the Midwest to go and confront OR. The NOW dominated coalition in Buffalo tried to tell activists not to come. There were even threats from a clinic director to have pro-choice activists as well as antis arrested if they came out to the clinics. Yet a militant clinic defense was organized. One of the slogans developed towards the antis was "You're not in Kansas anymore."
There was a sharp fight against similar campaigns in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge and other places that summer and fall and in the spring of 1993 in South Bend, Indiana. In each of those cities activists who wanted mass confrontation against the antis at the clinics had to face the opposition and wrath of NOW, NARAL and similar organizations. The whole issue of the need for clinic defense, for mass confrontation against the antis at the clinic and the bankruptcy of NOW's tactics was a hot issue of discussion that summer.
And during that summer ECDC's weaknesses showed through. Though ECDC had the opportunity (due to geography) of actively participating in the defense of the clinics in Buffalo, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and South Bend, it did not. The MLP, anarchist circles and some others who were in ECDC did. And MLP members did speak in ECDC meetings about the need to actively participate and the need to break with NOW's politics. But it can not be said that ECDC as a whole participated. This very clearly showed its weakness that it did not see the need for an all-round alternative to the bourgeois feminism of NOW.
I think most of the people that participated in ECDC actions did recognize the differences with NOW over clinic defense. And as the events in the summer of 1992 showed this difference was recognized fairly generally. And many ECDC activists clearly recognized that there were other differences - over NOW's connection to politicians, over NOW's bias against the working class and poor, etc.
And, with their experience in the pro-choice many became increasingly opposed to NOW's politics. Yet, in general, the more militant wing was not very conscious of itself. It did not present itself as a clear working class or radical alternative to bourgeois feminism.
Among the activists who clearly saw the distinction in politics and orientation for the movement between ECDC and NOW, many of the activists considered NOW mistaken but a legitimate political approach. "They have their strategy, we have ours." Others saw better, but in principle, they thought it would be wrong to pose ECDC as an alternative to NOW. They thought this might be sectarian.
In part this was because there were political trends in ECDC which opposed a radical break with the bourgeois feminism of NOW and other organizations.
For instance, in ECDC, at one time, the political stands taken by Prairie Fire had a very strong influence. At a later time, the politics of Solidarity dominated. RWL and RCP while not actually in ECDC. But they were organizations which had a major influence nationally in the more militant wing of the clinic defense movement and so impacted on ECDC.
Some members of Solidarity will be shocked at me saying that Solidarity has something in common with RWL and RCP. But in fact they do. These organizations criticize many of the stands taken by NOW and they advocate an activist approach to clinic defense in particular. RWL and RCP advocate a more activist approach than Solidarity. But none of them see this as a task of the movement. None of them see the necessity of building up a movement and organizations truly independent of NOW and its politics. They all have hopes of being able to reunite with NOW.
As well, anarchism had a lot of political influence in ECDC circles. And anarchist politics also did not see the need for a political break with the politics of NOW.
These political trends are part of the explanation of why ECDC never saw itself as an all-round alternative to bourgeois feminism. In addition, the broader section of activists which made up ECDC in general did not see the need for a thorough break. On a broad scale the main discontent with NOW's bourgeois feminist politics was over the issue of clinic defense. As activists gained experience, discontent developed over other issues such as tailing behind liberal, and sometimes not so liberal, politicians; the politics of population control; and other issues. However, while activists gained a lot of political experience and consciousness, a mass radical and proletarian women's movement did not develop. And ECDC very much reflected the level of the movement as a whole.
ECDC played a key role in clinic defense in Chicago until 1994. After the murder of a doctor and his escort in the summer of 1994 in Pensacola, Florida, the large numbers of antis quit coming to American Women's Medical Center. ECDC faced the question more squarely of having to redefine itself if it was going to continue to exist. A planning meeting was held in January 1995 for the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
A number of possibilities were posed. None were actively taken up. Networking with other similarly oriented groups and individuals around the country was one proposal. There was little enthusiasm for this. I think one hang-up was that then ECDC would have to deal with Refuse and Resist. This necessity I think was distasteful to a number of its activists. R and R is associated with RCP and NWROC is associated with RWL. The only way most could see to deal with these two organizations was to oppose RCP and RWL as RCP and RWL. ("They're just RCP. They're just RWL.") They could not see the broad issues facing the struggle for women's liberation. A political discussion about these organizations raises again the need for an all-round alternative to the bourgeois feminism of NOW. Both NWROC and R and R have a policy of trying to approach NOW, that the women's movement can not advance unless big organizations like NOW come along. They do not see the need for an independent radical women's movement. There was a proposal to organize a march and activity for International Women's Day. There was a proposal to organize an alternative contingent in a NOW march on Washington. Neither of these proposals got off the ground after the meeting. There was a proposal to take up a focus on the current governmental attacks on women, especially "welfare reform." There was some consideration of taking up clinic defense at other clinics. But everyone knew that this would mean direct confrontation with NOW which had organized escorts at some of these clinics. It was clear to everyone that NOW would not want ECDC activists at these clinics. (NOW had quit sending escorts to American Women's Medical Center because ECDC was there. So there had not been direct confrontation with NOW at that clinic for some time.)
All of this I think would have meant a more defined radical perspective and a plan to address ECDC to a broader section of women, especially working class, poor and minority women. And it was not capable to rise to the challenge.
This still leaves the question that an alternative to the bourgeois women's organizations is needed.
The attack on abortion rights has not stopped. It is more serious than ever. There is still violence directed against the clinics, against abortion providers and the women who use them. There are a series of legal restrictions to abortion being passes in a number of states.
The current budget cuts mean a major worsening in the conditions to poor and working women.
And much of the current agitation for "family values" is aimed at driving women backwards.
A response requires organizations of activists. It requires organizations that are conscious of the need for politics and tactics coming out of a perspective of a fight for working and poor women.
Unfortunately there are no organizations on the horizon with such a perspective.