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

Abortion rights demonstrator tapes her mouth outside the United States Supreme Court as the court rules in the Dobbs v Women's Health Organization abortion case, overturning the landmark Roe v Wade abortion decision in Washington, U.S., June 24, 2022

Abortion rights demonstrator tapes her mouth outside the United States Supreme Court as the court rules in the Dobbs v Women's Health Organization abortion case, overturning the landmark Roe v Wade abortion decision in Washington, U.S., June 24, 2022. REUTERS/Michael A. McCoy

What’s the context?

Black women face rising maternal deaths and unwanted pregnancies as states clamp down on abortion access, rights groups warn.

  • Black women face barriers to reproductive healthcare
  • New curbs impact them disproportionately, say campaigners
  • Abortion rights take prominence in November ballots

By Anastasia Moloney

When American Nancy Davis learned that the fetus she was carrying had no skull and no prospect of survival, she sought an abortion in her home state of Louisiana.

Davis said she ultimately had to travel to New York for the procedure, as Louisiana had banned almost all abortions after the Supreme Court swept away a landmark ruling that had established women's constitutional right to terminations.

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

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Three months after the top court's Jun. 24 decision overturned the Roe v. Wade ruling that established nationwide abortion rights, Black women like Davis have been disproportionately affected, reproductive rights campaigners say.

"It's having a devastating impact," said Krishna Upadhya, vice president of health equity at PPFA.

Why are Black women more affected by abortion restrictions?

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

"In America, if you want to access abortion care, so much will depend on which zip code you live in and how much money you have," said Jenny Ma, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy organization.

Black women are more likely to get an abortion than Hispanic or white women, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), due to barriers they face in accessing reproductive healthcare.

"We simply don't have access to contraception like white women do (which) means you are going to have higher rates of unintended pregnancy," said Linda Goler, president of the Black Women's Health Imperative, a nonprofit.

Black women are also more likely to lack health insurance coverage for abortion care, while lower average incomes mean they are less likely to be able to afford to travel for an out-of-state procedure, said reproductive rights groups.

"It used to be that if you couldn't get care in your state maybe you went one state over. Now it's like two, three, four states over," said Ma.

Will Black women experience higher maternal mortality rates?

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

"This is an issue of access to healthcare, and it's also bias in the system," said Goler.

"When Black women giving birth complain of pain or complications, they are ignored. There's willful ignorance."

Abortion restrictions and bans will raise Black maternal mortality rates still further, said Goler, by throwing up more barriers to healthcare in a situation where they are already disproportionately at risk.

A 2021 study estimated that introducing a nationwide ban on abortion in the United States would lead to a 21% increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths overall and a 33% rise among Black women.

Which other groups of women are particularly affected?

Hispanic, indigenous, and low-income women are also more impacted by abortion bans and restrictions as they are less likely to have medical insurance or the means to meet the extra costs that come with traveling farther to other states.

After Roe v. Wade was struck down, 5.7 million Latinos across the United States lost access to reproductive healthcare 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 out-of-state for an abortion risk being arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who enforce migration laws.

"If you are ... undocumented and living in Texas, or other states where there are ICE borders that you have to cross, you are out of luck," said Marcela

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

"You can't actually go to another state because you might get stopped by ICE and deported."

How have abortion funds responded?

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

"Abortion funds cannot fill the gap ... not by a long shot," said Liza Fuentes, principal research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute, a U.S. abortion rights research group.

Helping women to get access to abortion pills by mail or from pick-up locations is one way to help bypass curbs on abortion access, said Goler.

More than half of U.S. abortions are carried out by taking abortion pills - which can usually be done at home and without medical supervision - as opposed to having a surgical procedure, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

"We are looking at how we get medication abortion (pills) and emergency contraception to women in the South where they need it, so they don't have to leave state to get an abortion," said Goler.

What's next?

States including California and Kentucky will ballot voters directly in November on measures to amend their constitutions to either protect or erode abortion rights.

Abortion access is also figuring prominently as an issue in Michigan's competitive governor's race, as well as contests in several other states.

In August, voters in the deeply conservative state of Kansas rejected a Republican-backed state constitutional amendment that would have declared there is no right to abortion.

The result has boosted hopes among Democrats and abortion rights groups that similar results will prevail in midterm elections and other state referendums in November.

"We have to say to candidates 'This is a winning issue,' and to people, 'Do you really want politicians controlling your body?," said Goler.

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