Race, Class, and Access to Women's Health Services:
Honoring the Intersections
I confess that I have always been uncomfortable with abortion, especially late-term
abortions and the statistic that 45% of women who have abortions undergo the procedure
multiple times. But I have also been uncomfortable with the strident condemnation of
abortion by the most passionate elements of the pro-life movement, particularly since so
many in that movement are also opposed to social policies to support underprivileged
women and children.
As someone who participated in the Women's Marches across the country the day after
the Trump inauguration, I have also learned to pay attention to the intersections wherein
the concerns of affluent white feminists have been historically privileged over those of people of color
and other socially marginalized groups. This blog article is an effort on my part to honor
those intersections as they relate specifically to women's reproductive health services
and access to them.
Falling Abortion Rates
Though one might not know it from the more strident rhetoric from anti-abortion
advocates, abortion rates have actually fallen in recent years. According to the CDC
web site, the abortion rate went down by 5% between 2012 and 2013, the latest year for
which surveillance data is available and, in fact, have gone down every year between
2004 and 2013 for all age groups. Pro-life advocates attribute this decline to their
relentless condemnation of the practice and to laws they've managed to pass in various
states to obstruct Roe v. Wade. There is, however, another possible explanation.
Data has shown that, in places where medically assisted suicide or euthanasia has
been legalized, people resort to it surprisingly little. It appears that the mere
availability of euthanasia as a legal option makes desperate and frightened people
less likely to opt for it. Extrapolating, the mere availability of the legal option
for abortion may restore to desperate and frightened women some sense of personal
autonomy and control over their bodies, thereby offering them space and time to consider
an option other than abortion.
Whatever the reason for falling abortion rates, CDC statistics also reveal something
far more disturbing: while non-Hispanic white women had the lowest abortion rates,
non-Hispanic black women had the highest. When one drills down into the data, non-Hispanic
white women accounted for only 37% of the total abortions in 2013 despite white women's
majority numbers in the American adult population; Black women accounted for nearly as many at 35.5% of
abortions, far and away disproportionate to their numbers in the general population.
The other two racial/ethnic groups were 1) "other," many if not most of whom would be
women of color, and 2) Hispanic women, at least some of whom would be women of color.
All stats considered, it seems clear that the vast majority of fetuses still being aborted
are racially black or brown. Lower socio-economic status is another
factor correlated with higher abortion rates, not surprisingly since it affects access to all the goods of
society from health care to education and job access.
Many white women involved in the anti-abortion movement may not be aware of the racial
disparity, but even those who are may use it as a political cudgel to beat down abortion
access: Abortion must be eliminated because women of color are disproportionately affected
by it. But here we come up against the law of unanticipated consequences, in which the very
good we seek (the reduction of abortion rates and/or concern for the welfare of women of color)
becomes the very thing that increases abortion's likelihood for those women who may have
the least access to alternatives:
The recent expansion of efforts to use disparities in abortion
rates as a political strategy to justify limiting access to abortion has the potential
to increase disparities in women's health by increasing abortions at later gestational
ages and raising rates of unintended childbirth. In addition, decreased access to
abortion limits women's ability to make the best decisions about childbearing for
themselves and their families... This work must recognize that, although disparities
are associated with differences in individual-level factors, these factors are
constrained and produced by larger structural inequities, including racism and poverty,
and by a legacy of coercive reproductive health policies.
- Christine Dehlendorf et. al. "Disparities in Abortion Rates: A Public Health
Approach," American Journal of Public Health, October 2013.
How so? Well, by law, federal funds cannot be used for abortion, yet the prolife
movement has relentlessly sought the federal defunding of women's health services,
including contraception and breast and other cancer screenings, provided by
Planned Parenthood and other women's health clinics,
whose primary clientele is the underprivileged whether here or abroad. The courts
have also upheld the right of businesses such as Holly Hobby to refuse on religious
grounds to include birth control in the services covered under their employee insurance
programs (as if businesses could have a religion, a case of following the Citizens
United "people are corporations, too" nonsense to its irrational conclusion).
Advocating for Moral Consistency
At the same time they so passionately oppose abortion, many adherents of the self-styled
pro-life movement share the penchant of other social conservatives for pointing the
finger of reproach at disadvantaged women, among whom women of color are also
disproportionately represented, for "having children they can't afford." If such a woman
aborts a fetus, she's accused of "murder." If she has the baby when she can't afford to
raise it - especially if she's a single mother - she's labeled a "societal leech"
sucking on the public dole. Many social conservatives also don't want to
spend taxpayer money on education for poor mothers so that they can get better jobs with
a living wage to support a family, ignoring the clear evidence that family size goes down
as education levels go up. (Actually, many conservatives are reluctant to spend taxpayer
dollars on public education at all.) Nor on child care so that women can work. To me, this
is not a morally consistent pro-life position; it is merely anti-abortion.
it is one of our culture's enduring mysteries that so many of those who are so passionately
invested in the survival of a four-month fetus seem to care so little for the future of
a four-month-old baby or a four-year-old child.
This is the classic bind into which conservative opposition places underprivileged
women. Whatever I may think about abortion access as
a general principle or in specific cases, I, as a white woman of privilege, am opposed to what looks to me to be a
form of de facto ethnic cleansing in which society accepts abortion among non-affluent
women of color as collateral damage in the culture wars.
More Peg's Blog Spot Posts
· The Trouble with That Anonymous Trump-Circle Editorial
· What "Telling It Like It Is" Really Means
· Breaking News: We're All "Values Voters!"
· Monuments Flap Is Not about the Monuments
· Have We Always Been the Disunited States of America?
· A Humble Defense of the Constitution
· The Trump Presidency: Bigotry's Cause or Only Its Effect?
· Race, Class, and Access to Women's Health Services
· Trump's Angry White Folks
· Whatever Happened to "Look It Up?"
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