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What We Stand to Lose

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In the 41 years that have passed since the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, state legislatures have chipped away at the landmark decision that legalized a woman’s right to choose. Safe and legal abortions are under attack, and Black women—who seek out family planning services at a rate four times higher than White women—may face greater limitations in getting the procedure.

“Whether a woman has a job, access to health care or the ability to take care of a family are all huge parts of her decision to have an abortion,” says Monica Simpson, the executive director of SisterSong, a reproductive justice organization in Atlanta. The barrage of recent antiabortion laws only compounds the difficulty in maintaining control of our bodies.

Within the past three years, more than 200 laws that impose restrictions on abortion have been enacted by state legislatures—that’s more than the number passed from 2001 to 2010, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive health organization in New York City and Washington, D.C. Healthcare clinics, where 63 percent of all abortion stake place, are the main targets of these new regulations. In Texas, for example, State Senator Wendy Davis, a Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, tried to prevent a restrictive bill from entering into law with her much-publicized 11-hour filibuster last year. The law passed anyway, and now abortion providers in the state are required to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The ruling adversely affects clinics because they often employ licensed physicians instead of hospital-affiliated doctors. As a result of confining laws like this, more than 50 clinics nationwide either have shuttered their doors or have stopped performing abortions.

Women are now traveling farther and farther away from their homes—30 miles on average, says the Guttmacher Institute—to obtain abortions. For those who lack transportation or don’t have the option to take time off from work to accommodate their travel, the freedom to choose has become rife with roadblocks and red tape.

So how are Black women specifically more affected than other groups? Planned Parenthood estimates that abortions cost anywhere between $300 and $950 in the first trimester, when a majority of women have the procedure. Most private insurance providers cover the fees, but African-Americans are 55 percent more likely to be uninsured than their White counterparts, states the Department of Health and Human Services. Even if a Black woman relies on Medicaid for healthcare, the use of government funds for abortions is banned in 33 states, including Mississippi, Alabama and Pennsylvania, and can only be used in cases of rape or incest or where the pregnancy threatens a woman’s life. The financial barriers that these regulations pose leave many low-income women with few options to pay for safe terminations.

Overall, 80 percent of African-American women agree that abortion should be legal, according to a Belden Russonello Strategists telephone survey. We tend to support the notion of having the procedure in theory, but this doesn’t always translate to our prochoice advocacy. Some Black women are reluctant to support the reproductive rights movement because of religious values. According to the Pew Research Center, African-Americans demonstrate a high comfort level with religion’s role in politics. Additionally, 84 percent of Black women say religion is important to them—a higher percentage than any other group in the nation. Simpson recalls speaking at a Georgia health rally where she was approached by a young Black woman who asked her, “Are you all just about killing babies?” The encounter didn’t surprise Simpson. “When you lead conversations with abortion, it immediately shuts folks down. They don’t necessarily make the connection with choice.”

To remedy that disconnect, SisterSong and BlackWomen’s Health Imperative, a D.C. advocacy organization dedicated to health and wellness, are trying to shift the conversation from the actual procedure to body autonomy, since some Black women are uncomfortable with the term “abortion” and more accepting of prochoice philosophy. “The idea that women should be in control of their bodies resonates within the African-American community,” says Heidi Williamson, a senior policy analyst for the Women’s Health and Rights program at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. Showing the broader scope of prochoice principles helps foster better communication among the group that will benefit the most from Roe v. Wade’s preservation.

On the other side of this issue are antiabortion activists who argue that the restrictions are ultimately beneficial to our community because they curb the terminations of thousands of Black pregnancies. Barbara Culbreath, a pro-life advocate from Ohio who says she had an abortion in college, shares her story at churches while her husband, a preacher, leads a support group that is geared toward Black women who are considering having the procedure. Culbreath says she regrets hers and warns group members, “Abortion has an impact on everything you do for the rest of your life.”

But as long as Black women are seeking abortions, education about reproductive rights should remain readily available. There is no group more capable than African-American women to help protect the freedom to choose. Our attendance at the polls has afforded us more voting power than any other demographic in the U.S., and we agree overwhelmingly that we know best when it comes to our bodies. It’s critical to release the stigma that comes with supporting access to abortion, because it’s only serving to undermine our choices, as opposed to working to uphold them.

If you are among the millions of women who want to protect your reproductive rights, now is the time to get active. Consider this: Dozens of new antiabortion bills have already been presented in Congress in the first half of 2014. What can you do? Get involved with pro-choice organizations in your area to find out how you can help keep safe abortions accessible to all women. Know where political candidates stand on these issues so you are informed when it’s time to vote. Midterm primary elections are coming this November, and the Planned Parenthood site womenarewatching.org keeps track of restrictive changes to abortion laws and the candidates who support them. Staying in the loop is the first step to ensuring your voice is heard.

Maya Rhodan is a reporter in Washington, D.C.

For more information on Sister-Song and Black Women’s HealthImperative, visit sistersong.netand blackwomenshealth.org, respectively. 

This article was featured in the May 2014 issue of ESSENCE . Pick it up on newstands now.

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