In 1994, a group of Black women coined the term “reproductive justice” in an effort to create a movement that, unlike mainstream pro-choice activism, would be inclusive of people who are most marginalized. To that end, reproductive justice as a movement encompasses far more than abortion rights. It also includes fighting for a living wage, equitable family leave policies, access to health care, and so much more. While this broader, more inclusive vision of reproductive justice has gained popularity over the past few decades, it remains neglected by many in favor of a narrower focus on abortion.
Abortion rights advocacy in the U.S. usually revolves around the legal status of abortion, specifically defending Roe v. Wade and fighting against state-level abortion restrictions such as mandatory waiting periods, gestational limits, and more. All of this is critically important. Yet, too often we fail to center the people—particularly low-income people of color—who are most harmed by these abortion restrictions.
While abortion restrictions threaten the reproductive autonomy of everyone who is able to get pregnant, poor people bear the brunt of this consequence. With enough wealth and privilege, the issue of obtaining an abortion ultimately becomes a matter of how far a person must travel—whether that’s across state lines or out of the country altogether. That’s what many people in the U.S. did before Roe v. Wade, and that’s what people still do today to avoid state-level abortion restrictions. In Ireland, which only recently repealed its abortion ban in May 2018, thousands of people traveled every year to England to obtain an abortion.
However, many people—especially those who are low-income—do not have the option to travel for an abortion. On top of the cost of abortion itself, they must also factor in the time and cost of travel, the ability to take time off work and the potential loss of income, the availability of child care if they are already parents, and many more considerations that all together make obtaining an abortion an impossibility. This is why when discussing abortion, it is not enough to focus on its legality—it is equally important to continuously push for ways to make abortion more accessible to everyone who may need one.
One enormous barrier to abortion access in the U.S. is the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when pregnancy is determined to endanger the person’s life. This has a resounding impact on people who rely on Medicaid for health insurance coverage. Since most people on Medicaid are low-income, the end result of the Hyde Amendment is to limit abortion access to poor people who cannot afford it. This consequence was not lost on Representative Henry Hyde, the chief sponsor of the amendment, who stated, “I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the… Medicaid bill.”
Beyond the federal funding restriction, abortion access in the U.S. remains highly unequal and is often dependent on a person’s location as well as the means to travel. Given the disparate nature of state-level abortion regulations, some people have more difficulty accessing abortion than others. California, for example, does not have any major abortion restrictions and as of 2014, there were 152 abortion clinics operating within the state. By comparison, Mississippi is one of the strictest states in terms of abortion regulations and has only one abortion clinic in operation.
For folks who have the financial means to do so, they may travel to the one abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi and go through the process of mandatory counseling and subsequent 24-hour waiting period to have the abortion. Alternatively, they may travel to another state, such as California, with less restrictive regulations and avoid such hurdles altogether. With such prohibitive regulations in place—and a scarcity of abortion clinics in many states—it is not hard to imagine that the people who are most hurt by anti-abortion laws tend to be low-income.
Anti-abortion laws do not prevent abortions from happening; they only make safe abortions more difficult to access for certain people. Women on Waves serves as an extreme example of the impact of abortion bans. A Dutch organization, Women on Waves works internationally to provide abortions to people on ships outside of territorial waters in countries where abortion is illegal. The ships take passengers 12 miles off the coast of the country, where local laws no longer apply and they are able to operate under Dutch law, where abortion is legal. The act of having to take people into international waters to obtain abortions is highly symbolic, proving that abortion bans do not actually prevent abortions but rather force people into extreme circumstances to obtain one.
In the U.S., local abortion funds attempt to address the problem of inaccessibility by providing support to people in various forms, ranging from financial assistance to lodging to child care and more. However, local abortion funds cannot be a permanent solution to such an extensive problem. They are volunteer-run, rely on donations from individuals and organizations, and as a result can only provide a limited amount of support for people seeking abortions. In order to ensure that abortion is accessible to all who need it, there must be broader change at the government level.
Fighting for abortion access means acknowledging the disproportionate impact that abortion restrictions have on people in marginalized communities. It means placing their needs front and center to ensure that the movement pushes for a truly inclusive vision of abortion access. Beyond that, it means acknowledging the myriad factors that may cause people to seek abortion in the first place and pushing for not only legal, accessible abortion but also policies that support people who may want to have children but cannot afford to do so.
Reproductive justice is about more than just abortion. It’s about protecting the reproductive autonomy of everyone—whether they want to have children or not—and enabling them to make these decisions for themselves.
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