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What the War on Reproductive Rights Has to do With Poverty and Race

Discourse about reproductive rights must acknowledge how crucial the abortion decision is to gender equity and economic stability.

When Justice Harry A. Blackmun authored the decision legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade, he wrote that “[t]he right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision, but this right is not unqualified and must be considered against important state interests in regulation.” Although this was a win for those seeking to both legalize abortion and prevent harm inflicted on people seeking illegal and unsafe abortions, it also opened the door to restrictions on abortion.

That door was pushed open further with the ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which allowed states to regulate abortion provided they didn’t create an “undue burden” to patients seeking care. State politicians across the country have marched right through that door. The Guttmacher Institute reports that one-quarter of the more than one thousand state abortion restrictions were passed between 2011 and 2015 — mostly in conservative states.

And it’s working. In 2011, almost 90 percent of counties did not have an abortion provider, and since then that number has increased. Five states (Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming) have only one abortion clinic in the entire state, while others like Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, and Texas have only a handful of clinics left; a drastic shift from just a few years ago.

The closures are particularly concentrated in the South where more than half of Black Americans reside. Despite anti-choice activists repeating the myth that most abortion clinics are set up in predominantly Black communities, fewer than one in ten are actually in communities with a majority of people of color.

With this tidal wave of anti-choice laws quickly washing away the rights Roe v. Wade gave to all women, it’s clear that not all communities are impacted the same. In the United States, race and class are major factors in who can access abortion care, contraception, and maternal healthcare. However, mainstream discourse too often separates race and class from abortion. It ignores the complex issues around a person’s ability to decide whether, when, and how to become a parent. It ignores how crucial the abortion decision is to gender equity, economic stability, and a healthy life free from violence. Mainstream discourse about abortion decisions does not often include the ability of someone to parent their children with dignity.

One in three cisgender women in the United States will have an abortion before age 45. I am one of them.

At the age of 19, I realized I was pregnant. The frequent naps, sore breasts, and vomiting tipped me off, but I was in denial. Until my then-boyfriend’s best friend clearly pointed it out: “Dude, she’s pregnant.”

Once the CVS pregnancy test confirmed the result, we sat on the couch and discussed what to do. I knew my hourly retail job wouldn’t allow me to give my child the future I had always imagined. I was struggling in college and didn’t have the $30 to pick up a birth control pill pack in the first place. As I weighed my options and briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a parent, I thought about the life that I would be able to provide my child.

My then-boyfriend, also 19, had dropped out of high school a few months into our freshman year. This pregnancy came after he had recently served time on a drug charge in a prison boot camp program for first time offenders. Our relationship was toxic, and getting increasingly violent. His boxer’s fracture, given to him by the wall next to my head, had recently healed.

While many people do make a family work with a frequently incarcerated partner, I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted. The lack of a safety net for families living in poverty and the structural racism impacting Black families were always in the back of my mind. Even in the best of circumstances, I questioned whether I could protect my child from all the harms of the world. Considering the additional harms this potential family configuration would create, why would I have a child when I felt least equipped?

My decision was clear: I was not ready to become a parent. I simply didn’t want to be pregnant anymore.

I wasn’t alone in my decision. Every year, more than a million women choose to have an abortion, a third of them Black women. My abortion was a decision I feel lucky to have been able to make.

I have been sharing my abortion story for several years. These days, more people than ever are sharing their own stories in an effort to destigmatize the experience. Last year, an explosive social media campaign #ShoutYourAbortion launched on September 19. Organizers of that campaign encouraged everyone to share stories of how their lives were transformed because they had access to safe and legal abortions. This campaign continues to change the narrative of abortion, from one of shame and stigma, to one of people who are grateful and liberated. However, like many visibility campaigns, voices of more affluent White women often rise to the top even though the majority of people seeking abortions are people of color.

ForHarriet writer Altheria Gaston offers one explanation: Black women’s abortion stigma is compounded by misogynoir, “a term that captures the unique oppression Black women experience not just as a result of sexism, but as a result of sexism that is tinted by our Blackness,” she wrote. “It can serve as a caveat that Black women and women who are poor may face different consequences for shouting their abortion than White and affluent women.”

This is something I’ve experienced myself. The additional stigma borne by people of color makes increased visibility challenging. It can invite a racist, anti-abortion backlash in addition to the usual misogynistic hate. All of a sudden, rather than simply being a “slut” for having had an abortion and daring to speak in positive terms about it, you’re also a “race-traitor” perpetrating genocide against your own people. These race-baiting tactics don’t show up just online — they’re being imported into our communities.

While claiming to care about Black lives, anti-abortion advocates have used racist billboard campaigns to shame Black women out of having abortions without addressing any of the reasons why we choose abortion: lack of access to contraception and comprehensive sexual health education, along with severe cuts to healthcare, safety net, and nutritional programs. In 2010, 65 billboards went up in Atlanta declaring, “Black children are an endangered species.” Famously, in Chicago, a billboard featured an image of President Barack Obama and stated, “Every 21 minutes, our next possible leader is aborted.”

In response, billboards have gone up that speak to the needs of Black women. In Memphis, Tennessee, SisterReach used several billboards to address the need for access to healthcare that includes reproductive care, neighborhoods free from toxins and violence, and quality schools. The message of New Voices Cleveland’s billboard, in the wake of the 2014 police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, was that reproductive justice must include assurance that families are able to raise children free from racist violence, including police brutality.

Seeing reproductive health, rights, and justice in this larger, intersectional context clearly underscores what women in communities of color need. More to the point, it shows the needs anti-abortion advocates and politicians are not addressing.

Sexual exploitation, violence, and forced reproduction were a central part of the slave trade after Congress passed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807. Without the ability to import slaves from Africa and the Caribbean, slaveholders focused additional resources on ensuring their female slaves became pregnant and gave birth to healthy children — to create future slaves and expand property. Slaveholders used rape as a tool for procreation as well as a weapon to punish female slaves or for sexual gratification. “Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women,” said Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave and writer quoted in Dr. Dorothy Roberts’ book Killing the Black Body.

Enslaved women used herbs such as black haw root, red shank root, red pepper, and gunpowder as forms of contraception as well as to increase the spacing between their pregnancies and to terminate pregnancies. The ability to prevent unintended pregnancies and to abort unwanted pregnancies traditionally allowed women to protect their health (abortion is safer than carrying a pregnancy to term) and to control the size of their family. To control one’s reproductive health and fertility during slavery was seen as an act of rebellion challenging slaveholder authority. Abortion’s stigma may have its beginnings here as it denied slave owners the ability to profit from enslaved women’s bodies.

Once slavery was abolished and Black women needed support in raising their families, their fertility was deemed irresponsible and a burden to society. Yet access to birth control and abortion care was segregated. Historian Leslie J. Reagan writes, in When Abortion Was a Crime, that White hospitals and providers refused to offer health care to Black patients forcing Black doctors to set up separate illegal abortion and birth control clinics.

Race and racism have been intertwined with reproductive health care — and its lack. Hundreds of years later, not much has changed.

Although media depictions tend to portray a woman getting an abortion as a young, single, White, middle-class woman without children, the majority of people having abortions are in fact people of color, the majority of whom are already parenting in poverty. According to the Guttmacher Institute, Black women account for 30 percent of abortions, Latinas account for 25 percent, and other non-White races account for 9 percent.

And there are other complexities buried in the statistics. While it’s true that Black women obtain abortions at five times the rate of White women, researchers attribute this to lack of health insurance and contraception access. And here’s the unfunny punchline: Low-income women tend to get their contraception dispensed from the same reproductive health care clinics that are being shut down.

Because these low-income women don’t have access to contraception, they need access to abortion care. Of all women obtaining abortions, 42 percent are living below the federal poverty level of $10,830 for a single woman without children. Another 37 percent live between 100 percent and 199 percent of the federal poverty level. And another unfunny punchline: Women denied the abortions they seek are three times more likely to be living in poverty two years later.

Among the abortion restriction policies that drive numbers like these, the Hyde Amendment is singular in its effect of turning abortion access into a war on the poor. Hyde denied Medicaid recipients, disproportionately women of color, access to abortion care by banning insurance coverage. This policy leads one in four women to carry a pregnancy to term that she otherwise might not have.

It’s been 40 years since Roe v. Wade. Many Americans can recall the days before the landmark decision, when women sought abortions from illegal providers and died as a result. We haven’t come so far. According to a 2015 study by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Texas at Austin, an estimated 100,000 to 240,000 women have attempted self-induced abortions because of an inability to access a medical abortion.

In June 2015, Kenlissia Jones, a 23-year-old Black woman, was arrested in Georgia on charges of malice murder and possession of a dangerous drug after she attempted to self-induce her abortion with medication, reportedly because of a breakup with her partner and the lack of abortion-care providers in her community. Jones, who was allegedly 22 weeks pregnant, purchased abortion medication online but rushed to the hospital when she began to bleed. A hospital social worker called police, and Jones was arrested. The murder charge was later dropped.

Jones is one more in a long line of women of color who have faced criminal charges and jail time for, or for being suspected of, self-inducing an abortion. Earlier in 2015, in Indiana, Purvi Patel, a 33-year-old Indian American woman was accused of feticide after seeking treatment at an emergency room for a miscarriage. Authorities found text messages where Patel told a friend she purchased abortion medication from a Hong Kong pharmacy. Patel is serving a 20-year sentence, and in May 2016 filed an appeal. There are many others. Women of color tend to live in poverty and tend to lack access to reproductive health care. They also tend to be criminalized for self-inducing abortions. As states increasingly criminalize abortion, low-income women of color are the targets.

It is paramount that we fight for reproductive justice and bodily autonomy at the same time we fight for Black liberation. As activists attempt to reverse the tide of abortion restrictions, it would be a mistake not to make racial and economic injustice central themes in the reproductive rights movement going forward. Lives depend on it.