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  • Riya Kumar

Overturning Roe v. Wade is an Attack on Women of Color

It’s not the end of reproductive autonomy- for women of color, it’s just another brick in the wall.

The USA maintains that it is the greatest country in the world in many aspects—constitutional freedoms and personal liberty abound! But behind the curtain of American progressivism is a class of people who consistently struggle to keep their heads above water and in the media bubble, people whose “feminist wins” are just cemented losses, never truly full. They’re people whose constitutional rights seem eternally curtailed, whose social statuses are segregated forever. These are women of color, who have never truly been liberated like White women have. Among conversations about the decision regarding Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overruled the historic Roe v. Wade, many WOC are facing exclusion from the mainstream conversation and most of all, ignorance. For some WOC, Roe never guaranteed accessible abortion at all.

Photo Credit: Michigan Daily

Even the most liberal states have often failed at providing safe, comfortable abortions, especially to women of color. For example, California is often cited as a protected abortion haven in the US. However, those who do so are unaware that beyond the SF Bay Area and greater Los Angeles (and even within them), many impoverished people—typically of color—suffer a lack of easy access to abortion. 22 California counties don’t have a single abortion clinic—and it’s easy to see the correlation between those 22 counties and their median household incomes. Of the top 5 counties with the lowest median income per capita, 3 have only one abortion clinic (Imperial, Madera, and Merced counties). Meanwhile, the other two (Kings and Tulare) have none!

Photo Credit: Map of California Abortion Clinics

Although some hospitals offer abortions, almost 95% of abortions in the US occur in clinics, because hospitals are more likely to turn you down and leave you with an empty wallet, among many other things. Abortion availability just gets worse and worse the further you travel from the center of economic activity and into rural areas. Unfortunately, being a racial minority and being impoverished is often a package deal, meaning that these statistics about poverty are, in a way, also statistics about race. It’s not just an assumption—more than half of Imperial County, one of the counties with only one abortion clinic, is Hispanic (85%). The same goes for Tulare, Merced, and Madera. Combine this lack of availability with the fact that many women of color in underprivileged communities are uninsured or unaware of government aid programs, and the result is a state where most residents fall victim to the same narrative—that “abortion for all” means that women of color are thriving too.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. The reproductive rights of women of color in the United States have always been under attack—from those in “privileged” states in California to those in the deep South facing abortion restrictions as strict as possible pre-Dobbs. In fact, the history of fertility in the US is deeply intertwined with racism and gender politics. For many women of color, traumatic reproductive control goes back to plantation slavery, where Black women were essentially used as machines—“bodies made to breed,” to many White men.

Photo Credit: Dr. J. Marion Sims with Anarcha by Robert Thom. at Pearson Museum

The objectification of Black women as reproductive bodies is so deeply ingrained in the country’s roots that even Thomas Jefferson and other Southern Founding Fathers used enslaved women to mother their own children. Black women continued to

be exploited as they were enslaved and afterward, being pushed into acting as guinea pigs for White men in modern gynecology like J. Marion Sims and further used only for their bodies as women. As time went on and chattel slavery ended, the war against POC existence continued in other, more palatable methods to the US government—eugenics.

The founder of Planned Parenthood herself, Margaret Sanger, acted as a proponent of the eugenics movement, suggesting that through reproductive freedoms, we could remove “inferiority” from society. Sanger was accompanied by many others in this flawed thinking—notably, the government. In California, the Asexualization Acts (1909) sterilized people of color all over the state, specifically Latinx and Black people deemed “unfit to reproduce.” California's numbers surpassed those of any other state during a time when many participated in a nationwide eugenics effort, culminating in the sterilization of upwards of 60,000 people. Coupled with racist anti-miscegenation laws (later overturned by the landmark Loving v. Virginia, also a due precedent case), such initiatives marked a period in US history when abortion and sterilization were embraced by the White mainstream. The period even reportedly inspired Nazi Germany pre-WWII, spurring Hitler to single out California as a great example, to him, of state-level ethnic cleansing.

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It wasn’t just California, and it wasn’t just the Black and Latino populations. Asians were also sterilized as the result of “yellow peril,” the coined term for the fear that began to spread as Asian people made their way to the West. As part of the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act (1970), racist physicians sterilized more than a quarter of Native American women receiving treatment through federally funded Indian Health Service programs. They curtail abortion access to these populations at the same time through the Hyde Amendment to this day, forbidding federal programs to use funds for abortions. Of course, it’s federal programs that serve Indigenous Americans on reservations now, due to their independence from state governance. In modern conversations about what states will leave openings for abortion to occur, we often forget about Native American women living alongside us in federal oppression, under the guise of sovereignty. Though reservations are exempt from federal rulings, they remain extremely impoverished, meaning most native women rely on the same health services which sterilized them many years ago, still unable to access abortion through them.

Photo Credit: Native American Family Planning Propaganda (JSTOR)

Forced sterilization is not a thing of the past. Just as Black women still have the highest rates of maternal death in the US, Native American women still lack proper reproductive healthcare, and White people still act constantly imperiled by the growth of the Asian population, our government is still sterilizing minorities. ICE has been coercing and forcing sterilization of Latina women held at the border, with numerous reports that have come out since 2020 and brought to attention by American politicians such as Rep. Pramila Jayapal (WA-07). For women of color, it hasn’t just been a lack of abortion—it’s been a complete lack of any bodily autonomy for centuries of American history. Our nation has committed direct genocide through sterilization and ethnic cleansing, all in the name of “racial purity.”

Interestingly enough, “racial purity” and modern eugenics in Apartheid South Africa looked quite different from limiting Black women from reproducing—instead, it focused on limiting White women from having abortions. In the 70s, there were pro-apartheid White people were hugely concerned that the more native Black populations grew, the less power White people would have. During the 70s specifically, a new radical climate allowed women to evade the consequences of unprotected sex by having abortions, which didn’t sit well with the South African National Party. So, the National Party began a great campaign against abortion availability to encourage White women to keep their children and grow the “white power” in their country, as well as to further reinforce their patriarchal hegemony on women. The National Party took it one step further from standard eugenics—White women who got abortions also had “weak moral fiber,” and allowing that meant white South Africans would be lower on the racial superiority scale. Seems extreme, right? Well, in our modern context to many White nationalists, the overturn of Roe v. Wade has the exact same significance and implications….and to them, that’s not a bad thing!

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At a recent Trump rally, Rep Mary Miller (IL-15), a right-wing MAGA Republican with a history of anti-Semitic comments and opposition to same-sex marriage, commented on the Dobbs decision by calling it “a victory for white life” and stating that it would give “white life an edge.” Many of the people in power in our country currently lie just as right-wing as dictionary-definition-racist regimes. Their policies have brought American WOC back to the same circumstances that South African WOC faced under Apartheid. While many White women had the luxury to fly out to islands or the UK to receive abortions, subjugated Black women never did. A wealthy White woman can take a “beach vacation” in Malibu from her residence in Louisiana, but a Black woman on the New Orleans coast can’t. Once again, the race and wealth gaps collide and will keep on persisting in the United States.

Women of color rarely let anything get in their way, though, especially not abortion restrictions. Though this translates to resilience, in the case of abortion it can also translate to a sepsis diagnosis. Take South Asia for example—as discussed in my previous article about abortion, less than 50% of abortions administered in the region are considered safe. In India, abortion is legal for up to 5 months of pregnancy, but someone hoping to receive one must jump through several hoops before receiving one- being approved by a doctor is by far the hardest to achieve. Multiple doctors are needed for approval as time passes in the pregnancy. But it’s not just the mental toll of discussing abortion in front of a panel of doctors that dissuades Indian women—their reputations become haunted by sexual scandal and in many rural places, a doctor and hospital are simply not tangibly accessible.

Photo Credit: Woman healing uterus in India (NPR)

53 million Indian women live below the poverty line, and these women likely need abortions the most. Lower caste status, lack of money for hospital fees or doctors, lack of contraceptive knowledge, consistent sexual stigma, and inability to financially support another child all come to a head with such women, sown into the fabric of reproductive struggle which is present across South Asia. All of these circumstances are similar in Pakistan and Bangladesh, which, as religiously conservative countries, have very strict bans on abortions. So where do women go? They go to the street, which is exactly where the sepsis and morbid statistics come in. Clandestine abortions are often unsanitary, invasive, and risky. They put women’s health and legal safety in danger, but they’re rampant across Pakistan, Bangladesh, and many rural parts of India.

Exploring racial lines and class divisions around the world allows us to ascertain a lot about the way those same classifications will affect those of us in the throes of the abortion struggle in the US. The moral of the gruesome South Asian abortion story is that burdened American WOC will be experiencing the same things soon. Broken condoms translate to bloody coat hangers, and unprotected sex translates to unrelenting sepsis. This exemplifies precisely why pro-choice advocates say, “Abortion is healthcare!!” After all, a world without abortions means relentless suffering, for mothers and children. As much as Americans love to be the “best in the world,” the future for women of color in this country looks like the realities of women in the developing countries those same Americans love to bash. The SCOTUS justices can claim to be forward, caring, nonpartisan, or feminist, but actions speak louder than words. Banning abortion is an inherent step in the wrong direction and just another brick in the wall dividing the bodily autonomy of women of color from that of everybody else. Therefore, it’s urgent for us to claim that power back and rewrite the future of reproductive rights for the better.

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