The Time for Leftist Extralegal Action Has Finally Come
For a long time I’ve been dismissive of people calling for illegal or violent actions in the pursuit of left-wing causes, mostly because they deserve to be dismissed. The violence that attended some BlackLivesMatter protests in 2020 was directionless and had no positive effect, for example. Dreams of fighting the state are absurd on their face, as the technological advantage of the American government and security forces is so great that there’s no hope for victory. (This isn’t 1950s Cuba, comrades.) Going all the way back to my teenage years, definitely in my years in the Iraq war protest movement, during and after Occupy, in the heat of the 2020 uprisings - again and again I’ve been confronted by fellow travelers who wanted to “really do something” and I’ve been forced to point out that we would be doing nothing at all if we did.
So I hope you can appreciate that I’m coming to this as a skeptic when I say that, with the death of Roe, the time has finally come when people on the left can and will really do something, in that they will work outside of the law to provide abortion services to women who live in places where that service is illegal. I imagine this will mostly involve getting women into pro-choice states to get the procedure, which may not necessarily be criminal - although you can certainly imagine anti-abortion states drawing up draconian laws to punish women who leave the state to secure an abortion. Sometimes, I think there will be clandestine abortions performed in states where both mothers and providers risk arrest. (The fact that they are clandestine will hopefully limit bad publicity, although this country is rife with pro-choice sentiment anyway.) Either way, helping women terminate unwanted pregnancies that the state would compel them to bring to term represents real, effective direct action. It will be an Underground Railroad for abortion.
I don’t want to prosecute the pro-choice case here; that isn’t the purpose of this post. The point is that this direct action is possible, and can really work, because the goal is tangible and material and does not depend on other people’s opinions. Key to understanding this moment is to recognize that providing abortion services in contravention of the law is not politics. It’s not an action designed to change minds. There’s no future election or coalition-building that it’s attempting to influence. Success is not dependent on being popular; success is simply the termination of unwanted pregnancies. It’s direct action in the purest form. It’s not civil disobedience in the sense of breaking the law to show the injustice of the law, not “bearing witness,” not a demonstration of rage or of strength, not an appeal to the voters. The procedures themselves are the goal and the point.
Look I’m one of those pro-choice absolutists you hear about, and (not but) I also think we need to be strategic and sensible with how we fight to protect abortion rights. I know there will be commenters who say that this is a bad idea for various reasons, and they may ultimately prove to be right. But unlike with politics writ large, their opinions in and of themselves aren’t germane to the question because the goal is not to make abortion popular. The goal is to actually give women access to medical care that preserves their bodily autonomy. I’ve personally never had a problem with the “safe, legal, and rare” framing, provided that no one is actually enforcing some sort of limit on the number of abortions that can be performed. I don’t care if abortion is rare, but many people do, and you have to meet the voters halfway. And I certainly think that there’s a kind of extremist rhetoric about this topic that can prove counterproductive. But I also think that women own their bodies and that forced pregnancy is totally contrary to basic ideals of personal liberty and quite dystopic, and I think that in a progressive coalition full of people that are all talk, this is an issue where people will really put their money where their mouth is. And the actual process of getting this medical procedure for women who need it is vastly more achievable than fighting the police in the streets.
You are free to object morally or politically to what I’m proposing. But people are going to do this, and I’m happy to know that some will finally fulfill their oaths and risk arrest to deliver on progressive goals. Maybe I’ll even get the chance to be one of the ones who do.