In 1973, Roe v. Wade made abortion legal across the U.S., but, as is the case with many other laws and landmark decisions, its application throughout the country was anything but simple — or equal. Decades after the Supreme Court’s ruling that a person's freedom to have an abortion without excessive government limitations is constitutionally protected, various restrictions continue to pose obstacles for people seeking abortions. And, with the appointment of several new conservative judges to the Supreme Court, as well as a rise in restrictive abortion legislation being passed at the state level, the road ahead isn’t looking much clearer.
In 2019 alone, 25 new abortion laws were passed — including bans on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy in Mississippi, Kentucky, and Georgia, and a full abortion ban in Alabama. “We saw these political attacks on the reproductive rights of Southerners [in 2018] across Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama,” Quita Tinsley, co-director of Access Reproductive Care-Southeast, a regional abortion fund, told Refinery29 last year after the signing of Tennessee’s near-total abortion ban. With 2020 and the advent of the coronavirus pandemic came a slew of new challenges, including the fact that abortion services are now considered “non-essential” medical services in many states.
Many of these bans occurred in alignment with a common goal of anti-abortion lobbyists: the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade. And while the need to protect people’s access to abortion care has always been an urgent one, especially for Black people, the necessity feels particularly pronounced amid this country’s double crisis: not only has the coronavirus run rampant throughout the U.S., but this nation’s ongoing epidemic of anti-Black racism continues apace.
At the center of it all exists America’s most vulnerable population: Black women and girls. As the recent grand jury decision surrounding Breonna Taylor’s murder demonstrated, American institutions do not protect Black women. And why would they? They’re not intended to do so. This fact is evident in the various systems of oppression that make it difficult for Black women to survive in this country. It’s evident in how they are treated in the workplace. It’s evident in their experience of excessively high rates of pregnancy-related deaths, many of which are preventable, but are exacerbated by a discriminatory healthcare system. And it’s evident in abortion restrictions that disproportionately harm Black women. All of this is a reminder of how long-standing systemic racism is built into every facet of our society; it’s why Black and brown lives are not safe, and never have been.
Of course, the endangerment of Black women’s lives is not new. Black women’s sexual and reproductive health in particular has been in jeopardy for decades. “Black women’s bodies have been a site of control since slavery,” Zakiya Luna, PhD, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of Reproductive Rights as Human Rights: Women of Color and the Fight for Reproductive Justice, tells R29Unbothered. “They were thought of as vessels for reproductive control for the benefit of white slave masters and their families, even as Black women were providing so much important, critical labor.”
In the same way that slavery was rooted in the exploitation of Black bodies, anti-abortion efforts have white supremacist roots in which Black women were pushed aside in order for white men to increase their own wealth and power. “Prior to the Civil War, abortion and contraceptives were legal in the U.S., used by Indigenous women as well as those who sailed to these lands from Europe,” reports the American Civil Liberties Union. Back then, most women received reproductive health care from midwives, not doctors, and around half the women who provided reproductive health care were Black women. “[Black women] also were keepers of knowledge of how to actually terminate an early pregnancy before ‘quickening,’” a term used to describe the first sensations of fetal movement, says Luna.
But, once Black women’s prowess within the field posed a threat to white men looking to capitalize in the field, midwifery was decried as a “degrading” form of obstetrical care. Male doctors lobbied to ban the practice and abortion along with it, positioning themselves as superior, and ultimately removing Black and Indigenous women from the same spaces they helped cultivate. Of course, it had been those same Black women whose bodies were probed and prodded in experimental, dangerous surgeries that ultimately made it possible for the kind of obstetrical advances that would further delegitimize midwifery. “Dr. Marion Sims famously wrote about his insomniac-induced ‘epiphanies’ that stirred him to experiment on enslaved Black women, lacerating, suturing, and cutting, providing no anesthesia or pain relief,” notes the ACLU. In addition to being used, mistreated and mutilated, Black women were also barred from practicing inside hospitals once they came into existence. Another effect of the sidelining of Black midwives was the banning of abortion and contraceptives; this made it possible for white men to have all the power when it came to women’s reproductive choices, and also made it illegal for Black women to help their communities in the way they’d been doing for generations.
What we’re experiencing now, then, a time when Black women are jumping additional hurdles to obtain the reproductive care they need, feels horribly familiar. “It’s a different moment, but it’s similar in that restricting who has access to the means of reproduction is part of the history of the U.S.,” stresses Luna. “Black women in particular have been used in a way to develop policies that end up having a broad affect on all women and people, controlling the reproductive possibility of their lives.”
There is no arguing the fact that abortion bans disproportionately harm Black people, who are three times as likely to die during childbirth as white people. Making it more difficult for Black people to access reproductive healthcare literally puts their lives at risk. With multiple states calling for the postponing of abortion procedures amid COVID-19 — during which Black and brown communities are being hit the hardest — Black women are being met with the prospect of navigating an already treacherous healthcare system to birth children during a pandemic if they are unable to gain access to abortion care.
“[The COVID-19 pandemic] certainly makes it all the more tenuous for folks to get the kind of care that they need,” Kwajelyn Jackson, Executive Director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta, Georgia tells R29Unbothered. “We know that folks are taking a tremendous risk just by being outside of their homes during this period of time. But also, abortion care has always been an obstacle course.”
In order to get an abortion, patients often need to take time off work, find childcare, secure safe transportation, and find someone who will be able to be with them throughout the day, particularly if they’re undergoing a surgical procedure that requires them to have anesthesia. There’s also the challenge of paying for the care, which may be especially difficult right now, with 54 percent of Black women reporting that they were facing some sort of economic hardship in June — including being laid off from their jobs — amid the rapid rise in unemployment seen as a result of the pandemic. In states like Georgia, Jackson explains, the Hyde Amendment has been deployed to ban the use of state Medicaid funding to cover the cost of abortion care in most cases. Worth noting: Georgia has one of the highest Black maternal mortality rates in the country, making it clear their policy isn’t borne out of concern for women or children. It’s why reproductive justice advocates of color are fighting to end racist and classist legislation like the Hyde Amendment.
And with Black and brown pregnant women being more likely to be exposed to and die from COVID-19, their fight has become especially critical. Not only do abortion bans perpetuate the systems of oppression that threaten Black women’s lives daily, but during this especially prounounced period of anti-Black racism and social unrest, it becomes increasingly difficult for Black women and their families to survive in their homes and communities.
“What is very clear is that [access] very much depends on your geography, and that has been the case with abortion access in the U.S. for a long time,” says Luna. “For some folks, that likely meant that they ended up taking a pregnancy full term, but then there’s other folks who did what people did before the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion federally, where there was patchwork and access varied state by state: they will travel to another state if they’re able to.”
In either case, the stakes are high for Black women and girls, who — without safe and legal access to abortion care — will continue to die, especially those who may not be able to afford to travel. Black women, Jackson adds, are in a place where it doesn’t feel safe to continue a pregnancy, particularly during a pandemic. It doesn’t feel safe to venture out of your home, let alone travel across the country to another state. It doesn’t feel safe to move through crowds of protesters in order to enter an abortion provider. And consistent, stress-free access to contraceptive care is becoming scarce.
“There are so many systems that are working against our ability to live full, self-determined, autonomous lives when it comes to our safety and our reproduction,” says Jackson. As we continue to navigate this pandemic, one in which clear, up-to-date, science-based information regarding safety protocol remains unavailable to many in this country, people across the nation face a bleak future — but it’s Black women who will be asked to carry the heaviest burden.