Fighting for Reproductive Justice Where Black Women Live

by Marcela Howell

As the President concluded his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, the message was clear if unconventional. He set low expectations for success in working with a GOP-led Congress but also issued a call to the American people to take our future into our own hands, calling on us to fulfill our civic duty by voting, engaging in public service, and even protesting. Looking ahead to a year full of peril and opportunity for Black women's health, I can say that Black women are already heeding this call. We must, and will, define for ourselves what liberation looks like and demand accountability from the politicians who stand in our way.

For the past forty years, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently supported the constitutional right of women to have abortions. So, as I look ahead to March, when the Court will review the law (HB 2) that has shut down more than half of the clinics in Texas, the image that comes to my mind is one of dominoes standing back to back across a map of the United States. With this new case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, will those dominoes start to fall?

According to recent analysis, in the last five years politicians who want abortion to be completely illegal have quietly passed 288 new laws that make it harder and harder for women to access abortion care (57 in 2015 alone). The reach of these laws has expanded across vast regions of the U.S., forcing doctors to lie to women, requiring women to make multiple appointments and delay care, and shutting down clinics. These requirements are neither medically necessary, nor beneficial to women’s health.

However, the Supreme Court that will be decided this year goes far beyond one state’s abortion laws. In deciding Whole Woman’s Health, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to uphold every woman’s right to end a pregnancy with dignity by deeming unconstitutional not just the Texas law, but similar laws in other states.

Politicians and pundits on both sides of the debate have remarked on how much is at stake in this case: in Texas, in abortion case law, for women writ large. But there’s been comparatively little in-depth discussion about what this case means for Black women across the country. What it means for our families, our communities, and our futures.

Restrictions on abortion should matter to each and every one of us, but the truth is they don’t harm us all equally. Even after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which celebrates its 43rd anniversary on January 22nd, the ability to end a pregnancy has depended largely on what state a woman lives in, how much money she makes, whether she is over 18, how easy or difficult it is for her to find a provider and the additional barriers, cultural and personal, she faces in making and keeping an appointment.
For women enrolled in Medicaid, exercising the constitutional right granted in Roe has been difficult for nearly four decades, ever since the Hyde Amendment, denying abortion insurance coverage to low-income women, was first passed. While 15 states now provide coverage for abortion using state funds, low-income women, primarily women of color, immigrant women and young women in the remaining 35 states and Washington, D.C. are left struggling to make ends meet.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2000, 13 states were considered “hostile” to abortion rights. These included the usual suspects: “red” states like Texas, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Kentucky. Flash forward to 2014, and 27 states were considered hostile to abortion rights, with 18 now considered “extremely hostile.” No longer are these states scattered throughout the map. Now the hostile territory blankets the South, reaching in an unbroken swath from Virginia to Florida, across to Texas, and everywhere in between.

So where does the Supreme Court case figure in? It could play a key role in reducing the “hostile territory” for Black women seeking abortion. States with laws on the books that might be affected by a decision regarding the ambulatory surgical center (ASC) and admitting privileges requirements challenged in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

These twenty states alone are home to 12.5 million Black women--a majority of Black women in the U.S. The Hyde Amendment restrictions already create “insurmountable barriers” for women struggling to make ends meet. And we know that denying a woman already struggling access to abortion can push her further into poverty.

When clinics in these same states are forced to close, Black women, already facing barriers to quality, affordable health care, may be left with nowhere to turn. Others will save and struggle to travel hundreds of miles to a clinic in another state, which could overwhelm the remaining clinics, and make it harder for women living there to get an appointment on time.

Of course, this is far from the first time we’ve faced hostile policies in the places we call home. Many of these same states have a history of denying healthcare, fair employment, educational opportunities, and voting rights to Black women, violations of our civil rights that continue to this day. Living in “hostile territory” is not new to Black women, but neither is it acceptable.

But here is what some of the politicians passing these laws forget: the South may be embattled by anti-choice politicians, but it is also the birthplace of Dorothy Height, Amelia Boynton Robinson, and Daisy Lee Gatson Bates. Those same hostile states are where we are organizing in churches, beauty salons, and around the kitchen table. And those same states are also home to Black women voters, who are prepared to hold politicians accountable. And we overwhelmingly believe that abortion should be covered by health insurance (76 percent) and support the right of women to have access to affordable abortion care in our own communities (71 percent).

In a few short months, the Supreme Court will decide whether we regain the progress promised by the sweat and toil of our mothers and grandmothers, or slide back. And a few months after that, voters will have an opportunity to chart the future of our nation. Those who oppose Black reproductive autonomy have set their game pieces across the map. It is my fervent hope and prayer that these dominoes of oppression will begin to topple, helping to make way for a brighter future for Black women and girls, the future we’ve been fighting for generations, a future long-awaited, and even longer overdue.

Photo: Shutterstock

Marcela Howell is the Executive Director for In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda. Ms. Howell is a nationally-recognized policy and communications expert who has worked on a range of domestic and international issues, including: health care reform, CEDAW ratification, and a well-woman health standard. A long-time activist on reproductive health and rights issues, she has worked in government at the local, state, and federal levels. Her efforts to expand the women's movement in California led to her serving in a number of leadership positions within the movement, including being elected to two terms as chair of the Women's Caucus of the California Democratic Party, serving on the board of directors of NARAL, Women's Campaign Fund, and the California Women's Vote Project. As a political consultant in California for over ten years, Ms. Howell specialized in helping women run for elected office. Ms. Howell is the author of Walk in My Shoes: A Black Activist’s Guide to Surviving the Women's Movement.

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