In Matters of Abortion, the Personal Is Political, Especially for Women of Color
Several years ago I accompanied a close friend who was visiting the U.S. to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Southern California. She was terribly unhappy in her marriage but had just realized she was pregnant. While I sat in the waiting room during her abortion procedure, I thought about how fortunate it was that she had a way out of her desperate situation. That experience underscored for me how so many women living in other countries don’t have access to abortion services like we do in the United States.
So much has changed in the U.S. over the last few years. Decades ago, Mississippi had dozens of abortion clinics. Today, women in that state may find themselves in the same situation as those living in countries where the right to abortion is either outright banned or severely restricted, such as in Ireland, El Salvador, Iran or the Philippines. A law requiring that abortion clinics make arrangements with nearby hospitals to admit women having abortions in case of a medical emergency could force Mississippi’s last remaining abortion clinic to shut down. A 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering whether to enforce the law. The “admitting privileges” law is just the latest creative attempt by abortion opponents to whittle away at women’s reproductive rights.
Similar laws have been passed and enforced in many other Southern states such as Florida, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina, forcing the closures of many clinics. In fact, the entire state of Texas, home to 26 million people, is expected to have only six operating abortion clinics when its admitting privileges law goes fully into effect later this year, after the shutdown of many clinics. Proponents of such laws contend they are simply protecting women who may have complications arising from abortions.
But an abortion is one of the safest medical procedures being carried out today. In fact, women are 14 times more likely to die during childbirth than from complications related to an abortion.
When abortion is criminalized or simply made unavailable, women’s health is severely jeopardized. It is estimated that in the years before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, more than a million women a year self-induced abortions in the U.S., and 5,000 women died annually as a result of unsafe procedures. The lack of access to safe abortions is among the top three leading causes of maternal mortality worldwide. The “pro-lifers” pushing anti-abortion laws are apparently unconcerned about the medical complications that arise from women not having access to legal and safe abortions.
In an interview on Uprising, Loretta Ross, a lifelong reproductive justice advocate and founder and former national coordinator of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, explained that such laws are designed to “erode Roe v. Wade.” For women in Mississippi, Texas and other states where there are now almost no abortion clinics left, Ross said, “it means that the families of women who face extreme poverty and unacceptable rates of maternal mortality and skyrocketing teen pregnancy will have fewer options.” Ross boiled it down to the essentials, saying, “It’s about punishing people for their poverty and punishing women for their reproductive choices.”
While the admitting privileges laws represent one common tactic of the anti-choice movement, a second prong of attack on abortion these days is a feigned concern for the rights of fertilized eggs. States around the country have been passing “fetal personhood” laws that are based on the faulty premise that life begins at conception and that a small collection of cells within a woman’s body are as alive as the woman herself. Shockingly, 38 states now have such laws on their books. And the federal government passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act 10 years ago aimed at “crimes” against fetal tissue in cases that fall under federal jurisdiction.
According to Ross, “what they’re trying to do with all of this legislation is declare that the fetus has personhood rights that are superior to those of the woman who is carrying it.” This means, Ross noted, that “fetuses are able to be harmed by their mothers’ behavior, and therefore the fetuses have to be protected.” Even more ludicrous is the claim that “fetuses can feel pain at increasingly earlier gestational ages.” This is a convenient assertion given that it is, Ross contended, “scientifically impossible to prove.”
Ross sees the attacks on women’s reproductive rights as part of a broader political issue that intersects strongly with race. According to her, anti-abortion activism is in part “about coercing white women, particularly young women, into having more babies because I really don’t think that they want black or brown babies actually to be born unless they’re fodder for the prison-industrial complex.” She explained further that “the combination of sexual activity, young people’s ignorance about sex education, and the lack of access to abortion and contraception has only one outcome — and that is increased teen pregnancies among young white teenagers.”
Ross’ conclusions are not far-fetched within today’s heavily racialized national context that includes legal attacks from the conservative wing of the Supreme Court against the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action, and racist comments by prominent older white conservative men such as Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling. Ross said, “Obviously the racists have decided they have new license to come out of the closet with their rage over the Democratic demographic as well as political changes with the election of President Obama. We’ve just seen so much of the naked racism of the right. And let’s be clear — this racism has never gone anywhere. They’re stoking up resentment of the Civil Rights Act, resentment towards affirmative action, towards the women’s movements, toward gay rights, towards immigrants.” Indeed, the four staunchly conservative Supreme Court justices (Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and John Roberts) who recently voted to preserve a Michigan ballot measure against affirmative action are all also opposed to women’s reproductive rights.
Women of color face disproportionately greater reproductive health challenges compared with white women, particularly in terms of death during childbirth, premature birth, lower birth weight and a higher rate of unintended pregnancies. Much of this can be attributed to a lack of access to contraception, prenatal care and routine reproductive health screenings. Most clinics that provide abortions also offer low-cost reproductive health care that women of color rely on. The right-wing push to shut down every last abortion clinic has a very real impact on poor women of color living in states such as Texas and Mississippi.
In an arena that is increasingly closing off options for women of all races, the outcome of criminalized or inaccessible abortion is grim. The fact is, according to Ross, “women are incredibly determined to choose their reproductive options for themselves,” and “all this legislation will drive women into more desperate and dangerous options.” She cited cases of “teenagers trying to throw themselves down the stairs to induce miscarriage,” women who “have been known to drink all number of poisonous concoctions to try to induce abortions” or “have someone punch them in the stomach” to try to end a pregnancy.
These nausea-inducing scenarios hit home as I recalled a childhood friend who once panicked about a pregnancy and went on a dangerous smoking and drinking binge until she miscarried. Most women can relate to such stories, either about ourselves or about friends and family members who have been in desperate need of safe reproductive health care.
I wondered what would have happened to my visiting friend had I not been able to take her to the Planned Parenthood clinic in my city. Would she have been stuck in a miserable marriage, resented her child or, worse, tried a dangerous method of self-induced abortion?
Both my friends are women of color who were in situations in which discreet, quick, safe and accessible abortions were not available to them in their own communities. In light of the current attacks on abortion, how real is the fear that the entire United States may someday be a reflection of Mississippi and Texas?
Thankfully there are some bright spots. A recent review of legislation related to reproductive health has found that dozens of bills supporting women’s rights and expanding access to abortion were introduced this year as countermeasures to the slew of anti-choice laws.
Even Ross was hopeful, telling me that despite the grim picture it is too late for the nation to go back to the days before Roe v. Wade. “The toothpaste is out of the tube right now,” she said, and “just because they want to push us into the 19th century, there’s no reason for us to go there. We’re going to take charge of our bodies and our lives.”