‘Women will die’: how new abortion bans will harm the most vulnerable

Women of color and poor women will be disproportionately affected by new restrictions across the US, opponents say

On the floor of the Alabama state senate this week, a robotic voice read nine pages of legalese that would define a new reality for women in the state: abortion would be a crime, starting from the moment a woman knows she is pregnant. Doctors who perform the procedure could face up to 99 years in prison.


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    Then senators names were called one by one, and they cast their votes. There were 25 yes votes, enough for the bill to pass easily. Every single one was cast by a white man.

    Those most hurt by the ban, by contrast, will be women of color and poor women, advocates say.

    For those with the means, it doesnt matter that Alabama bans it. Theyre going to find another state, find another country, said the state senator Linda Coleman-Madison, one of four black Democrats who spent hours denouncing the bill before it passed overwhelmingly. Pictures of Coleman-Madison, her head in her hand, became a symbol of the proceedings.

    We all know about the back alleys, the basements. People will try going online now. Thats going to be very popular now: how can you mix a concoction to have an abortion? People are going to have abortions. The problem is, its going to always be unsafe, inaccessible for those people who have lesser means, she said.

    Linda
    Senator Linda Coleman-Madison speaks before the vote. Photograph: Christopher Aluka Berry/Reuters

    Alabamas ban, signed on Wednesday by the governor, Kay Ivey, is the strictest of any state, but just the latest in a host of laws passed by abortion opponents looking to set up a challenge to the landmark supreme court ruling Roe v Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide.


     

    For now, abortion remains legal in every state, and legal challenges are expected before the bills take effect. It is likely that lower courts, which must follow supreme court precedent, will block them for the time being. But this year alone, four other states have passed bans on abortion after about six weeks into pregnancy, the point at which embryonic cardiac activity can be detected.

    Those with the least amount of power among us are disproportionately affected, said the Naral Pro-Choice America president, Ilyse Hogue. That has always been the case, and will only become more acute in the states with these demeaning and dangerous laws.

    Black and Hispanic women are more likely to experience unintended pregnancies than white women, and more likely to get abortions. In 2017, the abortion rate for black women was 27 for every 1,000 women of reproductive age, compared with 18 for Hispanic women and 10 for white women, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

    The higher rate has inspired claims by abortion opponents that the procedure amounts to black genocide. The conservative activist Candace Owens called it voluntary genocide for black America.

    The Mississippi governor, Phil Bryant, who signed a six-week abortion ban this year, has embraced the theory.


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    But Guttmacher explains that differences in abortion rates by race and ethnicity are probably due to gaps in access to affordable healthcare and contraception, as well as other factors tied to the countrys history of racism and discrimination.

    Among US abortion patients, 75% are poor or low-income, including 49% who live below the federal poverty level.

    Im one of the lucky ones, because I am the picture of privilege. I can go out of state if I need an abortion, said Jenna King-Shepherd, who has spoken out about her own abortion at age 17.

    Women of color are the ones who are really going to be impacted by this, more so than anyone else. And the people who dont have the means of transportation to cross state lines to go and receive their abortion services that they need, and really its just an assault on them, she said. Thats something that our legislators just dont understand, because they are too privileged.

    Pro-choice
    Pro-choice supporters protest in front of the Alabama State House. Photograph: Christopher Aluka Berry/Reuters

    Spectators who packed the gallery at the Alabama state house several times erupted into laughter at statements from male lawmakers weighing in on female biology. I dont know if Im smart enough to be pregnant, the bill sponsor, Clyde Chambliss, said at one point.

    Outside, protesters dressed like characters from The Handmaids Tale, the dystopian book and TV show that some see as eerily foreshadowing reality under Donald Trumps administration. Some carried signs saying get out of my uterus or cant trust me with a choice, but with a child?!?

    Coleman-Madison introduced an amendment that would have required the state of Alabama to pay childbirth costs and the provide healthcare for the child up to age 13. The state has slapped restrictions on food stamps, she noted, and does little to help families pay for daycare.

    The sin to me is bringing a child into this world and not taking care of them, she said. The amendment failed.

    In neighboring Georgia, the governor last week signed a bill to ban abortion after six weeks.

    Already, 79 of Georgias 159 counties do not have a single obstetrician-gynecologist practicing, said Dr Tiffany Hailstorks, an OB-GYN in Atlanta and a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health. Alabama has a similar shortage, with half of its counties lacking an OB-GYN.

    Montgomery

    Doctors may leave the states or choose not to move there if threatened with criminal charges for performing abortions, opponents fear.

    The ban forces doctors to make this impossible choice of whether or not to treat their patients or face jail time, Hailstorks said. The shortage could become worse if people choose to not practice in our state.

    Alabama has the nations highest rate of cervical cancer deaths, and black women are twice as likely to die from the preventable cancer as white women. Infant mortality rates are also among the highest in the nation, as rural hospitals in the state continue to close, forcing some women to drive an hour or more to give birth.


     

    We already have abysmal health outcomes for rural women, poor women and women of color in these states, said Staci Fox, president of Planned Parenthood Southeast. Something like this is just going to make it worse.

    Women in rural areas denied access to legal abortions may attempt to end their pregnancies on their own, then end up in hospitals poorly equipped to respond to obstetric emergencies and worried about their own legal liability if they intervene, she said. The outcome of that is clear: women will die.

    Laura
    Laura Stiller hands out coat hangers as she talks about illegal abortions during a rally in Alabama. Photograph: Mickey Welsh/AP

    Research has found that women who seek abortions but are denied because they are too far into their pregnancy are more likely to report they dont have enough money for food, housing and transportation, when compared with women who successfully get an abortion.


     

    If you ask women why do you want an abortion, their most common reason is they feel like they cant afford to have another child. And when they are denied an abortion, they are much more likely to be poor than women who receive an abortion, said Diana Greene Foster, the director of research at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health.

    The wave of abortion restriction legislation shows no signs of abating. On Friday, Missouris Republican-led state legislature passed a ban on abortion after eight weeks, with exceptions only for a medical emergency for the woman.

    Robin Utz, 39, who lives outside St Louis, had an abortion 21 weeks into her 2016 pregnancy with a daughter she and her husband had tried for years to conceive. They named her Grace Pearl. But doctors found a fatal problem: her kidneys were full of cysts, and her lungs would never develop.

    They told us there was a 100% chance she would die upon birth, Utz said. She had an abortion just one day before the legal deadline at the time. If Missouris legislation were to take effect, a procedure like the one she had would be illegal.

    I think I would have honestly, sincerely tried to take it into my own hands, Utz said. She would have been born to a life of agony. No working lungs, no ability to breathe. It would have been torturous.

    Utz now has a three-month-old daughter, and has lobbied legislators who she said have played on their phones and played with their pens rather than listen to me.

    Its obvious when you have this type of ban, its about controlling women. Its so obvious because its not about helping the unborn, she said. This ban would have hurt my daughter. It would have ensured she would be born into a life of pain.

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