WASHINGTON—American labor unions quickly and angrily reacted to the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision to let states outlaw abortion.

The decision to overturn Roe v. Wade “is a devastating blow to working women and families across this country. We strongly believe that everyone should have control over their own bodies, including decisions over their personal reproductive health care,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement. “This is just the latest in a harmful string of attacks on our fundamental rights, including the right to vote and to collectively bargain in the workplace.”

“In the span of one week, an extremist-dominated Supreme Court decided it has the authority to divine who in America has rights and freedoms and who does not,” said American Federation of Teachers [AFT] President Randi Weingarten. “In the span of 24-hours, this court ruled that states can’t regulate gun owners but can regulate the bodies of anyone who can reproduce.”

The Chicago Teachers Union, posting on Twitter, said the decision “clearly represents a right-wing fringe and not the views of the majority of Americans, is an attempt to silence women and others, and revert to a previous era of blatant gender discrimination. It is also a tentacle of a vile and discriminatory movement against our rights to public education, fair housing, affordable health care, gun control, and the right to vote.” 

“A corrupt, illegitimate, and radical right-wing majority on the Supreme Court has carried out a brutal attack on women and fundamental rights in this country,” said SEIU 32BJ President Kyle Bragg. 

The outrage was not limited to unions with a large proportion of women members. “The extremists on the Supreme Court who don’t believe in reproductive rights also don’t believe in the most basic labor rights,” the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades posted on Twitter. “These reactionary attacks on our rights won’t stop here. We must stand up, fight back and hold the line for all of us.”

“Rape victims, including children, will be forced to carry to term,” 1199SEIU President George Gresham said. “Those who can afford it will travel out of state or out of country for abortion procedures; those with the least financial means will have nowhere to go. The same politicians who herald the end of reproductive freedom will not raise a finger to improve pre- and post-natal care and ensure that health services are universally available.”

The decision

The Court’s 6-3 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization upheld a Mississippi law that prohibits abortion more than 15 weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period, with no exceptions for rape or incest, only for medical emergencies. 

Five justices — Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett — went beyond upholding the Mississippi law to overruling Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that held state laws banning abortion unconstitutional, and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, the 1989 decision that modified Roe.

“The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision,” Justice Alito wrote in the majority opinion. He rejected the idea that abortion is protected by either “substantive due process” — the concept that the 14th Amendment’s declaration that liberty cannot be taken away “without due process of law” guarantees certain basic rights — or by the right to privacy that has been extrapolated largely from the Fourth Amendment’s right to be secure against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” 

Instead, he argued that abortion could only be a right if it was “deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition.” The “overwhelming consensus of state laws in effect” when the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868 made abortion illegal, he said, and arguments for the right to abortion did not emerge until the late 1960s. 

“The majority could write just as long an opinion showing, for example, that until the mid-20th century, ‘there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain [contraceptives],’” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in dissent. “Because laws in 1868 deprived women of any control over their bodies, the majority approves States doing so today.”

Justice Alito cited Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, the 2018 decision that outlawed the union shop for public-sector workers, as an example of when overruling precedents is justified. He argued that the right to privacy does not apply to abortion, because it “destroys what those decisions call ‘potential life’ and what the law at issue in this case regards as the life of an ‘unborn human being.’” 

He said that makes abortion different from other cases decided on the grounds of privacy and substantive due process, such as the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision that held a state ban on birth control unconstitutional; Lawrence v. Texas, which in 2003 struck down laws prohibiting gay and lesbian sex; and Obergefell v. Hodges, which established the right to same-sex marriage in 2015.

Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion, however, took aim at all those. Arguing that the concept of substantive due process lacks “any basis in the Constitution,” he said, the Court should reconsider all its precedents that relied on that, “including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell… we have a duty to ‘correct the error’ established in those precedents.”

Alito also wrote that being forced to carry a pregnancy to term is not an undue burden on women, because they have access to health insurance and paid pregnancy leave, and can easily put the baby up for adoption once it’s born.

“As a direct result of this ruling, more women will be forced to choose between paying their rent or traveling long distances to receive safe abortion care,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry responded. “Working women are already struggling in poverty-wage jobs without paid leave, and many are also shouldering the caregiving responsibilities for their families, typically unpaid.” 

“Reproductive rights are workers’ rights. Reproductive justice is economic justice. The decision about when and whether to bear children is fundamental to the ability to pursue self-sustaining work,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders.

“Our members are disproportionately affected by this decision,” said Dian Palmer, president of SEIU Local 73, which represents 31,000 public-sector workers in the Chicago area, mostly Black and Latina women. “This ruling will result in women being treated as second-class citizens as they are forced to endure economic and medical hardships because access to safe and legal abortions is denied to them.”

Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson recalled the days when airlines only hired white, single, childless women under age 32 who met specific height, weight, and male-defined appearance standards, and getting pregnant, getting married, or gaining a few pounds meant giving up your job.

“If you believe women are equal, build your union with urgency,” she urged.

Twenty-six states, including Mississippi and Texas, have either already passed anti-abortion laws that will now immediately go into effect, or are expected to do so.


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