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Women of color will be most impacted by the end of Roe, experts say

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/25/2022 Anne Branigin, Samantha Chery
Tahira Henson, 19, and Vinod Akunuri, 22, embrace during an abortion rights rally near the Supreme Court on June 24. © Eric Lee for The Washington Post Tahira Henson, 19, and Vinod Akunuri, 22, embrace during an abortion rights rally near the Supreme Court on June 24.

Her entire life, Christina Mitchell has lived with Roe as the law of the land. On Friday morning, the 23-year-old was on her way out for a run in Houston. As she was about to walk out the door, her mother delivered the news: The Supreme Court had just overturned the fundamental right to an abortion.

“My initial reaction was shock,” said Mitchell, a law student at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge. This year, Mitchell, who is Black, had traveled to D.C. to celebrate Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Among a throng of supporters, she cheered and chanted and held up signs supporting the court’s first Black female justice.

Now, what Mitchell feels the most is uncertainty in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. She viewed abortion as the Supreme Court had laid it out in its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling: a fundamental right giving women the power to exercise control over their bodies.

While Mitchell lives in a state where abortion is banned, she doesn’t believe that will affect her: She is religious and doesn’t foresee getting an abortion herself, she said.

But Mitchell is clear about who will be most impacted by Dobbs. “It’s going to affect Black women more,” she said.

Supreme Court reversal leaves states free to outlaw abortion

All sides of the abortion rights debate have acknowledged that women of color are most likely to be affected by abortion laws. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote a concurring opinion on the Dobbs ruling, has previously compared abortion to a “tool of modern-day eugenics.” (Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., in the court’s majority opinion, wrote in a footnote that it is “beyond dispute” that Roe has had a “demographic effect” — “a highly disproportionate percentage of aborted fetuses are Black.”)

Not all states report racial and ethnic data on abortion, but among those who do (29 states and D.C.), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that a disproportionately high share are women of color. In 2019, the abortion rate for Black women was 23.8 per 1,000 women. For Hispanic women, it was 11.7 per 1,000. And for White women, it was 6.6 per 1,000.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that supports abortion rights, the reasons for these higher rates are systemic, driven by a lack of access to and effective use of contraceptives.

As word of the high court’s decision spread on Friday, racial justice and women’s rights organizations, alongside liberal lawmakers, condemned the decision, pointing to the ways it could harm people of color by restricting access to abortion and potentially criminalizing them for their pregnancy outcomes.

“Today is a dark day in our nation’s history and this decision is a devastating confirmation of what Black and brown reproductive justice organizers have been sounding the alarms about for years: this Court will stop at nothing to strip away our reproductive freedom and our fundamental human right to bodily autonomy,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) said in a statement.

“This is a direct and pernicious assault on people of color, including Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities where the path to abortion care is riddled with language barriers, cultural stigmas, and low rates of insurance coverage among our most vulnerable community members,” wrote Isra Pananon Weeks, interim executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.

Lupe M. Rodriguez, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, said her organization was “angry and crushed” by the court’s decision to uphold Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban — but not surprised.

“The courts have never served our communities,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “This decision will directly and disproportionately harm Latinas/xs and all communities of color; this is an attack on racial justice, economic justice, and equality.”

Tennessee state Sen. London Lamar (D) said she is devastated and angry at the Dobbs ruling. The state legislature in 2019 passed a “trigger” ban, which effectively outlaws abortion in the state.


Video: 'It's An Issue of Freedom': Women Share Their Abortion Stories (People)

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“It is unconscionable that a group of politicians, who mostly neglect families that look like mine, now have the power to endanger women’s health and criminalize our doctors for offering appropriate, lifesaving care,” said Lamar, who is Black.

Many people anticipated that the court would strike down the constitutional protection of abortion after Alito’s draft opinion was leaked in May. Among those was Melissa Murray, a New York University law professor and author of “Cases on Reproductive Rights and Justice.”

Even with Roe as the law of the land, access to abortion has been “very limited” for marginalized groups, who often encounter financial and structural barriers to accessing medical care, Murray said — not having proper identification or documentation, a lack of sex education or not being able to afford or access contraception, for example.

“Women of color, poor women, Black women are often the canary in the coal mine on these issues,” Murray said. “Their experience really telegraphs where we are going with this.”

Friday’s decision “will have an immediate impact on these populations,” she added.

Advocates point out that difficulty accessing care will be compounded for trans people of color, many of whom report facing stigma or discrimination navigating the health-care system.

Transgender advocates say the end of Roe would have dire consequences

Tammie Lee, who lives in southeast Idaho, can no longer have children. But the Supreme Court decision and its potential aftermath made her worry for those who can. Lee, who is White, first learned about the overturned ruling as she was leaving for her job as a health educator on a Native American reservation. Throughout the day, her co-workers mourned the disproportionate effect the decision will have on Native American women, women of color and poor women, she said.

“I’m just so angry, and I feel so bad for the future,” Lee said.

Indigenous abortion rights advocates note that women and gender-nonconforming people “have long been subjected to a de-facto abortion ban,” The Lily reported last year. Because many Indigenous people cannot afford private health insurance, they have to rely on the federal Indian Health Service (IHS), which is subject to the Hyde Amendment, a provision that blocks federal funds from covering abortion services.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is particularly devastating for the Native community, who will undoubtedly see an increase in violence towards Native women and girls as a result of today’s decision,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, executive director of IllumiNative, a racial and social justice advocacy group.

Of the 22 states that have banned or may now severely limit abortion, many are in the South, which is home to nearly half of the country’s Black population. Abortion rights advocates worry how that will impact Black people and other people of color, who are more likely to die from childbirth-related complications.

Mississippi, which filed the Dobbs case, has among the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the nation. Those rates are even worse for Black people: In the United States, an average of 18 birthing parents will die for every 100,000 live births. For Black women in Mississippi, that rate is 51.9 per 100,000 live births, the Jackson Free Press reported.

The Rev. Heather Bradley, director of African American outreach for the antiabortion organization Democrats for Life of America, welcomed the Dobbs decision. “We have been working for years to see Roe v. Wade overturned. We are definitely concerned about the life of the unborn,” she said.

But the work is far from over, Bradley added: “It’s so important to have legislation that provides health care, especially for the mother.”

Bradley would like to see more lawmakers push for policies that support working parents, such as an expansion of pre- and postnatal care and paid leave. Bradley, who is based in Norcross, Ga., has also been doing outreach to Black churches so they will be more welcoming and supportive of pregnant parishioners — particularly those who are unmarried, she said.

Why some Black churches aren’t elated about the possible end of Roe

“There’s a saying that it takes a village to raise a child,” Bradley said, adding that she is hoping policymakers will work to create more support for those who may have no choice but to give birth after an unintended pregnancy.

Murray, the law professor, noted that the “legal landscape literally just changed on a dime” for many parts of the country on Friday.

Now, the United States looks like a country where the right to an abortion has been “hollowed out,” she said: Terminating a pregnancy will be either illegal or severely restricted in much of the middle and south of the United States. This will affect places where abortion is protected, such as the Northeast and the West coast, as demand for these services surge, Murray said.

In this landscape, every person seeking an abortion and other forms of reproductive care will be pushed closer to the margins, Murray predicts. This is true even for people with means — those who can travel to other states or out of the country or be plugged into networks and services that can help them, she said.

“But for women of color, poor women, women who lack the resources to travel, who don’t have the time to take off from work, who don’t have additional child care for their children, it’s going to be really grim.”

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