Abomination or Access? These are two words that have been used to frame the abortion debate in the United States since the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision guaranteed birthing people a constitutional right to an abortion up to 23 weeks or fetal viability.
Now, 49 years since the groundbreaking decision was issued, a birthing person’s right to an abortion faces its biggest threat. A conservative majority in the Supreme Court questions whether there is a constitutional right to an abortion at all and seems less inclined to uphold the legal precedent. The court’s majority seems more in favor of setting a new one based on personal, political and religious preference.
During oral arguments late last year, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested he could not find the specific right protecting abortion in the constitution.
“If we were talking about the Second Amendment, I know exactly what we’re talking about. If we’re talking about the Fourth Amendment, I know what we’re talking about because it’s written. It’s there. What specifically is the right here that we’re talking about?”
Furthermore, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said, “If you think about some of the most important cases, the most consequential cases in this court’s history, there’s a string of them where the cases overruled precedent.” Justice Kavanaugh’s reference to overruling the precedent of Roe v. Wade comes after he stated during his confirmation hearing that Roe was “settled precedent.”
A new precedent could roll back abortion access to 15 weeks of pregnancy or overturn Roe altogether. Either outcome is bitter and will have dire consequences for birthing people who seek abortions; especially those who live in states held in chokeholds by conservative local and state governments where abortion access is already limited.
The subject of abortion is not just a hotly debated ideological or political topic that has no real human cost. In fact, Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of We Testify, a reproductive justice organization, argues that abortion is not political at all.
“I actually don’t think it’s politically charged. I think it’s gerrymandered and it falls along a lot of racist lines because racism is politically charged because people are racist,” Bracey Sherman said. “The only thing that has changed is who the politicians are and that’s based particularly in the last ten years on gerrymandering and who gets to represent us.”
With a forthcoming decision from the Supreme Court regarding the 2018 Mississippi abortion restriction and the lack of movement on the Women’s Health Protection Act in the Senate the lives of birthing people are in limbo.
The crux of anti-choice propaganda is that “life begins at conception.” Billboards proclaim with pictures of bubbly brown skinned, curly haired babies that heartbeats begin at eighteen days. Well before a pregnant person notices they’ve missed their period. But if life begins at conception it certainly does not end at labor and delivery. Yet, there is very little conversation about the systems that need to be in place to ensure a good life follows a successful birth — especially in Black and Brown communities.
The New York Times recently issued this portrait of the typical person seeking an abortion in the United States. Characteristics include someone in their late twenties, who may have had some college education, is not married, may already be a mother, may be having their first abortion, and is in their first six weeks of pregnancy. The Times quoted professor Ushma Upadhyay with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco as saying “There isn’t one monolith demographic who get abortions.” But that is not entirely true.
While the number of those seeking abortions cut across all racial and socioeconomic demographics the abortion rate is highest among BIPOC birthing people. Numbers from the Guttmacher Institute show that while white patients account for 39 percent of abortion procedures, the numbers for Black and Hispanic patients combined are over 50 percent with patients of other races and ethnicities accounting for nine percent.
Kenya Martin, an abortion storyteller with We Testify, and who employs the moniker “Abortion Diva,” was 19 when she had her first abortion in 1995.
“I still felt very immature. And didn’t even consider it [having a baby].”
Her mother helped her get an abortion at their local clinic in Houston. However, a few years later when Martin found herself pregnant again, both her mother and father encouraged her to continue the pregnancy.
“Back then I didn’t feel good about that choice,” Martin said. “You know, after she came here, I totally regretted it. I totally regretted becoming a mom before I was ready.”
Martin’s daughter is now 21 and the two have a great relationship. She is her only child. Martin had one other abortion after the birth of her daughter which she said filled her with guilt and shame.
“I felt horrible. I felt extremely guilty and selfish. You know, how can you have one and not the other . . . all the stigma that comes with you know, being a parent and having an abortion.”
At 39-years-old, Martin was pregnant once again. When she went to confirm the pregnancy and have a consultation about an abortion she ended up in the emergency room for eight hours, During a whirlwind day, she eventually found out she had and atopic pregnancy, had lost a few liters of blood from internal bleeding, and needed emergency surgery.
The doctors removed her right fallopian tube. Martin credits the Black nurse at her Houston abortion clinic—where she later worked for three years—for saving her life.
“I just felt like this real connection with her and I just loved her because I was a mess and the fact that it was somebody Black there really made me feel safe.”
Once again, abortion—whether you fall in the camp that believes it’s an abomination or about access to care—is not entirely about a right to life. Suggesting a fetus has the same right to life as the living parent carrying it extends beyond just living into quality of life; into seeing the humanity of not just the fetus but its mother, father, or parents who may not identify as either.
Quality of life is rarely discussed alongside debates about a right to life. Perhaps because quality of life requires access to healthcare and insurance which could look like an expansion of Medicaid benefits for low income people and federally mandated paid maternity leave. Quality of life may request increased income for workers so that they can afford to take care of their children. Quality of life may demand an increase and expansion of SNAP benefits or a federal program that ensures breakfast and lunch for school children nationwide is always free and not only during a global pandemic. Quality of life may call for the passage of an anti-lynching bill so that Black and Brown people are not assassinated and taken from their children without redress. Quality of life may call for the passage of voting rights, or the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act so that the carceral state Black and Brown people live in begins to ease. Quality of life may ask, finally, for the passage of the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act to protect both the life of the child and parent immediately after birth.
“In a perfect world there may not be a need for abortion clinics,” Martin said. “But it’s not a perfect world the way the systems are set up. They’re not made for us to thrive.”
Thriving refers to quality of life. When you begin to count the necessary costs demanded by having a good quality of life, many who support the anti-choice movement are in direct opposition to the passage of any other laws that would allow birthing people and their partners (or lack thereof) to adequately parent.
And indeed, the abortion debate is about whether to have a child and parent, not whether someone can give up their parental rights in favor of adoption as Justice Amy Coney Barrett suggested during oral arguments.
“When you actually talk to first parents and birth parents . . . and ask them what would you need to be able to parent? ‘Oh, well, I need money and I need a house and I need you know, all these things, right?’” Bracey Sherman said mimicking the conversation. These things are all the trappings that create quality of life or as Bracey Sherman noted “that the government freely gives to foster parents.” She believes the system of adoption and the funding of foster parents who take care of children who have been removed from their homes is a part of the United States’ culture of capitalist patriarchy. Bracey Sherman believes abortion is a direct affront to capitalism and white supremacy.
“Anti-abortion policies, kind of ebb and flow with black liberation,” she said. “It’s a white supremacist thing to worry about the birth rate, like why are you so worried about whether people are having kids or not.”
In a country with an infant mortality rate of 5.6 percent (10.8 percent for African-Americans), and the highest rate of maternal mortality for a developed nation (Black women are twice as likely to die from childbirth than white women), what is being offered by anti-choice advocates for the birth of a child it does not deign to protect after its delivery? Is that humanity?
“…what is being offered by anti-choice advocates for the birth of a child it does not deign to protect after its delivery? Is that humanity?”
This 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade comes just months after an image of a Black fetus in utero went viral. The illustration, created by Nigerian medical student Chidiebere Ibe, also depicted the body of a Black pregnant woman. Neither had been seen in medical text books to date, despite the fact that the science behind modern gynecology is steeped in John Marion Sims’ experimental treatments he first tried on enslaved Black women without anesthesia.
Humanity and quality of life are two areas of exploration that have been noticeably divorced from the abortion conversation. But for the majority of those seeking abortions—Black and Brown, perhaps low income, perhaps already parenting — their humanity and their quality of life are all that matter to them. In a country founded on freedom, should they not have the freedom to choose a life unbound by decisions they did not make for themselves. How free are we if half the population cannot choose how we live our own lives in the pursuit of happiness? How free are we if our criminalized for choosing our own life? That is Bracey Sherman’s biggest concern as the country hurdles toward a cultural conservatism that allows average citizens to become deputized agents of the law who can go after their neighbors on the suspicion of a terminated pregnancy.
“Those state legislatures [are] making it not only a crime to have an abortion, but to help anyone a crime,” Bracey Sherman said. “If you don’t report your miscarriage or all miscarriages and stillbirths will be investigated as if they are crimes. And then what’s scary about that s the crime scene becomes our bodies.”
For Martin, who still lives in Texas where such a law is currently on the books, she said she feels for those people seeking abortions because she understands how necessary having access to the procedure can be.
“I’m so grateful that I was able to access my abortions,” Martin said. “I don’t regret them. And I found relief and joy with getting back to normal and being able to parent on my terms. I felt like accessing abortions made me a better parent.”
Being the best parent you can be and raising a child as well as you can is the reward of choice and the value in the quality of life.
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