Chipping Away At Abortion Access

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Congress is set to vote on another abortion restricting bill that would permanently ban the use of tax dollars for abortions.

Today is the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, so naturally the newly sworn-in Republican House has scheduled a vote to restrict women’s access to abortion.  After a veto threat by President Obama and an unexpected revolt by women in the Republican caucus, H.R. 36, a bill that would ban abortion after just 20 weeks was hastily shelved Wednesday.  Instead, the House is set to vote on H.R. 7, another abortion restricting bill that would permanently ban the use of tax dollars for abortions.

That ban, codified in 1976 by the Hyde Amendment, normally requires a congressional reauthorization annually, but this new bill would institute a permanent ban, while also prohibiting coverage under private plans offered by Obamacare.  Hyde essentially makes abortion inaccessible for women who receive their health care from Medicaid. Thus the right to abortion is still in tact, but access to the procedure is all but impossible for poor women.  

Additionally, a de facto ban on abortion through insidious TRAP (“Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers”) laws has the greatest impact on women of color and low income women, especially in states like Texas and Florida where abortion providers are scarce and harder to come by each day.  TRAP laws require abortion clinics—unlike other medical clinics—to meet certain arbitrary and onerous regulatory standards that are not medically necessary.  For example, in 12 states TRAP laws require abortion clinics to have hallways the same width as emergency rooms.  In short, TRAP laws close abortion clinics. If there is nowhere to seek a legal and safe abortion in a reasonable distance from a woman’s home, a woman’s right to an abortion is essentially nonexistent.  

Over the past four decades since Roe, opponents of legal and safe abortion procedures have systematically restricted access by attacking it from all sides.  Instead of working to overturn Roe by pushing a direct legal challenge all the way up to the Supreme Court, opponents are chipping away at access bit by bit. In the past four years alone, states have enacted 231 abortion restricting laws. (Note: The conservative Supreme Court would likely overturn Roe if a challenge did make it to the Roberts Court).  And while abortion rates have been going down for all women since Roe, Black women have consistently had the highest rate of abortions compared to other women.  Thirty-seven percent of abortions are obtained by Black women, compared to 33 percent by White women and 22 percent by Latina women, according to the Guttmacher Institute. 

Supporters of women’s abortion access have been playing litigation whack-a-mole in the courts, fighting abortion opponents with some success.  That tactic is evolving to include an offensive approach, which seeks to expand access to the procedure.  In 17 states, legislators introduced measures to expand access and voters rejected “personhood” ballot initiatives that would criminalize both abortion and many forms of contraception.   

What’s still unclear is whether there will be any political cost for the Republican Party among women voters, a key constituency that the GOP cannot afford to lose entirely.  Black women have had the highest rate of voter turnout in recent presidential elections, and challenges to abortion access resonate with communities of color. The right to an abortion is only as strong as the ability to access it, and for many Black women who live in states where clinics are regularly shutting down, that access is no longer a reliable reality.

Zerlina Maxwell, J.D., is a political analyst and ESSENCE contributor.  She writes about national politics, candidates, and specific policy and culture issues including domestic violence, sexual assault, victim blaming and gender inequality.

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