Why Black women bear brunt of strict U.S. abortion laws


Black women face rising maternal deaths and unwanted pregnancies as states restrict access to abortions, human rights groups warn

  • Black women face barriers to accessing reproductive health care
  • New curbs are disproportionately affecting them, activists say
  • Abortion rights are the focus of the November elections

By Anastasia Moloney

Sept. 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — American Nancy Davis, upon learning that the fetus she was carrying had no skull and no chance of surviving, requested an abortion in her home state of Louisiana.

Davis said she ultimately had to travel to New York for the procedure because Louisiana had banned almost all abortions after the Supreme Court overturned a landmark ruling that established women’s constitutional right to have an abortion.

A total of 16 out of 50 U.S. states now have blanket or near-total abortion bans, according to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), a provider of reproductive services.

Three months after the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision upheld Roe v. Wade, which established nationwide abortion rights, black women like Davis were disproportionately affected, reproductive rights activists say.

“It’s having a devastating impact,” said Krishna Upadhya, PPFA’s vice president of health equity.

Why are black women more affected by abortion restrictions?

Black women are more likely to live in states that ban or severely restrict access to abortion, particularly in the South, where nearly half of the country’s black population resides.

“If you want access to abortion care in America, so much depends on what zip code you live in and how much money you have,” said Jenny Ma, senior attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy organization.

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According to 2019 data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), black women are more likely to have abortions than Hispanic or white women because of barriers to accessing reproductive health care.

“We just don’t have access to birth control like white women do (meaning) you’re going to have more unwanted pregnancies,” said Linda Goler, president of the nonprofit organization Black Women’s Health Imperative.

Black women are also less likely to have health insurance coverage for abortion treatment, while a lower median income means they are less likely to be able to afford to travel abroad for a procedure, reproductive rights groups said.

“It used to be that if you couldn’t get care in your state, you might go one state further. Now it’s two, three, four states further,” Ma said.

Will Black Women Experience Higher Maternal Death Rates?

Black women in the US are nearly three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, according to 2020 CDC data.

“This is an issue of access to healthcare, and it’s also a bias in the system,” Goler said.

“When black women complain of pain or complications during childbirth, they are ignored. There is willful ignorance.”

Abortion restrictions and bans will increase black mothers’ mortality rate even further, Goler said, by erecting further barriers to health care in a situation where they are already disproportionately vulnerable.

A 2021 study estimated that enacting a nationwide ban on abortion in the United States would result in a 21% increase in pregnancy-related deaths overall and a 33% increase in black women.

Which other groups of women are particularly affected?

Hispanic, Indigenous, and low-income women are also more affected by abortion bans and restrictions because they are less likely to have health insurance or have the funds to cover the additional costs associated with traveling to other states.

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After the suppression of Roe v. Wade lost 5.7 million Latinos in the United States access to reproductive health services, said Aurea Bolaños, strategic communications director at the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR).

“Latinas are members of one of the most marginalized groups in the healthcare system,” she said.

Undocumented migrants who have to travel abroad to have an abortion are at risk of being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who enforce immigration laws.

“If you’re … undocumented and live in Texas or other states that have ICE borders that you have to cross, you’re out of luck,” Marcela said

Howell, director of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda.

“You can’t actually go to another federal state, because otherwise you could be stopped by the ICE and deported.”

How have abortion funds responded?

U.S. abortion funds, which help cover the cost of the procedure and travel and hotel expenses, saw a surge in volunteers and donations after Roe v. Wade was lifted. But many are struggling to meet the growing demand.

“Abortion funds can’t fill the void… far from it,” said Liza Fuentes, research director at the Guttmacher Institute, a US research group on abortion rights.

Helping women access abortion pills through the mail or from pickup locations is one way to circumvent restrictions on abortion access, Goler said.

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More than half of abortions in the US are performed by taking abortion pills, which can usually be performed at home and without medical supervision, as opposed to a surgical procedure, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

“We’re looking at how to get medical abortion (pills) and emergency contraception to women in the South where they need it so they don’t have to leave the state to get an abortion,” Goler said.

What’s next?

States like California and Kentucky will have voters voting directly in November on measures to amend their constitutions to either protect or undermine abortion rights.

Access to abortion also plays an important role in Michigan’s governor’s race, as well as in contests in several other states.

In August, voters in the deeply conservative state of Kansas rejected a Republican-backed constitutional amendment that would have declared abortion rights illegal.

The result has fueled hopes among Democrats and pro-choice groups that similar results will prevail in midterm elections and other state referendums in November.

“We need to say to candidates, ‘This is a winning cause,’ and to people, ‘Do you really want politicians to control your body?'” Goler said.

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(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Sonia Elks. Please recognize the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers the lives of people around the world struggling to live free or fairly. Visit http ://news.trust.org)

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