Today marks the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s landmark decision that established abortion as a constitutional right. Yet even as people across the country marched this past weekend to defend abortion rights, Black women’s access to the full range of reproductive health care has never been a reality. In 2018 alone, more than 200 restrictive abortion bills were introduced at the state level, with 28 enacted. Women, especially Black women, are feeling the brunt of these actions. Restrictions on reproductive care mean that women have to travel farther to see their physicians, important procedures are more expensive, and ultimately women’s health suffers. For Black women, restrictions on reproductive care are literally costing us our lives.
The ability to decide when, how or if to carry a child is directly connected to a woman’s educational attainment, economic progress, and overall health and well-being. The decision to become a parent is personal, and one that lies first and foremost between a woman and herself, and no one else. Even though abortion is one of the safest medical procedures (less than a fraction of 1 percent of medication abortions result in complications), it is the most regulated procedure in the U.S. Plus, restrictions including waiting periods, limiting the procedure after an arbitrary number of weeks, and hoops that abortion providers have to jump through in order to provide care actually lead to an increased chance of complications.
A 2017 report from the Center for Reproductive Rights and Ibis Reproductive Health found that abortion restrictions have negative effects on women’s and children’s health and well-being. The research showed that states with more anti-abortion laws tend to have worse health outcomes, including higher maternal mortality rates. Black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes. Black women’s concerns, questions and needs are also consistently disregarded by health care professionals and politicians.
At the end of the day, abortion restrictions are rooted in the fact that our society does not trust women to make their own decisions about their bodies, especially Black women.
The significant increase in abortion restrictions across state legislatures has closed clinics across the South and other parts of the country, in direct contradiction to what research tells us: that reducing abortion restrictions improves maternal health. We know that conservative politicians have been chipping away at our reproductive rights for decades, and it’s a targeted approach. While the dramatic increase in reproductive-health restrictions has affected the entire country, it’s no coincidence that the state with the harshest anti-abortion laws, and poor maternal health outcomes, also has one of the highest Black populations: Louisiana.
In 2018, Louisiana enacted more anti-abortion laws than any other state, including forcing biased counseling onto patients, increasing harassment of abortion providers and implementing an extreme abortion ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy that is currently pending, given the results of a litigation battle over a similar ban in Mississippi. That same year, the Louisiana Department of Health released a report stating that Black women in the state are four times more likely than white women to die because of pregnancy-related causes. Louisiana has the second-largest Black population in the country.
Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Since 2011, more than 400 medically unnecessary and politically motivated abortion restrictions have passed at the state level, putting patients at risk by pushing affordable health care out of reach for many. With the looming threat of abortion rights being further stripped under a more conservative Supreme Court, some states are taking the lead in safeguarding reproductive rights, which will expand abortion access and decriminalize the procedure. Democrats in New Mexico are looking to repeal the state’s anti-abortion law that criminalizes the procedure. And Georgia state Rep. Renitta Shannon is introducing a bill this legislative session to eliminate the state’s program that grants money to crisis pregnancy centers, which often give patients medically inaccurate and misleading information about abortion care.
Shannon told ESSENCE: “Georgia is in a real health care crisis. Under Republican leadership, our state has refused to expand Medicaid, and now we are among the worst in the nation for maternal mortality. We should not be sending money to clinics that provide little no care for women while we have legitimate health providers who need our support to continue providing real health care services.” The conservative right claims that abortion is “Black-on-Black crime,” and that crisis pregnancy centers are an “alternative to pro-abortion clinics.” But in reality, these measures put Black women’s lives in jeopardy by spreading medically inaccurate information and the myth that Black women who seek abortion care are being coerced into doing so. We can make our own decisions.
On this Roe anniversary, I urge policymakers and advocates to listen to Black women, to center our lived experiences in the debate, and to advocate for the necessary expansion of access to abortion and maternal health care. Our lives are at risk. It’s time to listen to us.