Kamala Harris On Forcing People To Stay Pregnant: “Women Are Dying”

Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images.
On May 11, as expected, the Democrats’ last-ditch effort to protect abortion rights failed to pass in the U.S. Senate. But — echoing the likely doomed future of Roe v. Wade — just because it was expected didn’t make it any less devastating to folks who support a pregnant person’s right to choose abortion. The failed bill, the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA), would have guaranteed a healthcare provider’s ability to perform abortions, and a person's right to access them. This was the second time this year it failed in the Senate, but Democrats said they wanted to vote again on what was essentially a lost cause (for now), to get Senators on the record on their stances. This, they said, was especially necessary after the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that will likely overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that protects a pregnant person’s ability to choose to have abortions.
“Sadly, the United States Senate did not vote where the majority of Americans are,” Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters after presiding over the vote in which the WHPA failed. She was referring to research that’s shown most Americans, and about 35% of Republicans, say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. On a follow-up call with journalists on May 12, Refinery29 asked Vice President Harris about the ripple effects of folks being stripped of the right to abortion — and specifically about how the Biden Administration plans to support the people who will inevitably be forced to continue pregnancies and give birth if and when Roe falls.
“We have the highest rate of maternal mortality of any economically strong nation in the world, and women are dying at an extremely high rate,” Harris said in response. “Black women are three times more likely to die, Native women twice as likely, rural women one-and-a-half times more likely to die. It should not be this way.”
The issue of maternal mortality is intrinsically connected to abortion, reproductive justice, and bodily autonomy. “Abortion is safe — abortion is normal,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder of Whole Woman’s Health, told Refinery29. “The problem is that a small group of politicians have decided to ban it, and that makes it more difficult for people to access…. Access to safe abortion makes families healthier. There’s no logical reason you’d ban access to safe abortion if you care about public health.”
Marcela Howell, president and CEO of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women's Reproductive Justice Agenda, says that anti-abortion folks who will pass or enforce bans post-Roe will ultimately be forcing pregnancy, particularly for people who don’t have the resources to get out of state or and who don’t self-manage their abortions at home.
This won’t be the first time pregnant people — in particular, Black pregnant people — will find themselves in extreme peril in America, due to being forced to carry pregnancies. “[If we’d passed the WHPA] it would tell people they are in control of their own bodies and can decide whether to carry a pregnancy to term,” Howell says. “Historically Black women during slavery faced mandated pregnancy — I would say mandated motherhood, except those children were taken away from them and sold. They had no control over their own bodies, [and] that’s essentially what some of the very conservative politicians want to do… control women and their bodies and their families.”
Effectively, Howell and many other advocates believe that anti-abortion legislation isn’t about improving people’s lives or health or safety (it will likely do the opposite) but about “limiting… the right and the agency of women in such a fundamental way,” as Harris put it. “We should be in the business of the expansion of rights,” she said on the call, not taking them away.
Harris notes that she’s been working for years to elevate the issue of maternal mortality in a way that includes dealing with racial bias in healthcare. She points to wins that will help families, mothers, and parents, like expanded Medicaid coverage postpartum. She also convened the first Cabinet meeting to discuss what more can be done to support maternal health and families. Harris also mentioned the Administration's fight for paid family leave and expansion of the child tax credit.
While that work is important, none of it will be enough to stop the need for abortions, experts say — despite what anti-abortion folks may argue. (For instance, some say that having supports like free diapers and safe haven laws will eliminate the need for abortion, which medical experts note is categorically untrue. Refinery29 reached out to Americans United for Life, and did not hear back by press time).
Not to mention this one fact: “There’s no world in which there aren’t abortions,” Jessica L. Rubino, M.D., told The Daily from The New York Times. “Even if we give all the best birth control in the world and all of it works and no one has a failure… Even if we have Medicare for all, there will still be pregnancies where someone just doesn’t want to continue it. … Having a delivery — taking a pregnancy all the way to term — is at least 10 to 12 times more dangerous than having an abortion. When you tell me that I have to do that, that that’s my job, that once I’m pregnant, that’s what’s required of me because there’s a ‘human being’ inside of me, you are sentencing me to a process that is 10 to 12 times more dangerous than the one I want. You are possibly sentencing me to death.” In a followup with Refinery29, Dr. Rubino noted that the 10 to 12 stat is a few years old, and the ratio is even higher now
Ultimately abortion is an issue that helps families, adds Stephanie Loraine Piñeiro, executive director of the Florida Access Network. Six in ten who have had an abortion are already parents, so by “supporting the right to abortion, you’re also supporting parents.” Parents in poverty often can’t afford another child, or even the cost of the abortion itself. We have high rates of child poverty and child food insecurity and no universal pre-K. The point is, the government is already failing many parents — and people in general. And the repercussions are severe.
“People who grew up in Native communities, we’ve seen firsthand how the government has not helped us and how federal legislation impacts us for better and for worse,” Rachael N. Lorenzo, executive director of Indigenous Women Rising, tells Refinery29. “We know that there are well-intentioned politicians out there who really want to do something about our access to healthcare and childcare… but right now, I can’t even describe to you how frustrating it is.”
Harris urged folks to “understand their power” and vote for pro-choice leaders in upcoming local, state, and federal elections. For folks who are frustrated with simply being told to simply vote, Piñeiro says they can also push forward the movement by supporting abortion funds, practical support organizations, and independent abortion providers. You can also combat abortion stigma and misinformation by speaking up and out. Everyone can help, and doing so is a powerful way to take back agency at time it feels like government is failing us. As Piñeiro says: “Our right to an abortion isn’t something that should be used as a political tool.”
“What I maintain is: there are some extremist Republican leaders who clearly want to punish and criminalize women,” Harris added. “I think it’s critically important at this juncture that we use every tool in our ability to inform all Americans about their right [to abortion] and therefore what is at stake."
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