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Health

What the repeal of Roe v. Wade really means

By Maya Khamala

Everyone knows that the US abortion debate (if, indeed, the arguments against can be deemed sound enough to qualify for debatehood) recently got extra real, and extra-ugly—real quick. Really, the whole thing is more of an eternal, ongoing attack than anything akin to a civil debate.

Brass tacks: one grisly event after another has finally led to the unthinkable — an outcome that advocates of reproductive rights everywhere have, deep down, considered highly unlikely. Roe v. Wade was actually overturned. And it shouldn’t be a surprise, because it was never enshrined in law as it could/should have been, countless times. And it’s a big fucking deal—a mind-blowing setback for women’s rights and the world at large. Many can’t even begin to imagine the real-life ramifications of this messed up turn of events. 

First, a brief history (herstory) lesson

Roe v. Wade was a landmark 1973 decision of the US Supreme Court in which it was ruled that a pregnant woman's liberty to choose to have an abortion is a constitutional right. Ultimately, what the decision meant for people on the ground was that pregnant women were entitled to an abortion during the first 3 months of their pregnancy. The decision overrode many federal and state abortion laws and fueled the forever battle about a woman’s bodily self-agency. 

Fast forward to 2022, almost fifty years later, and the US Supreme Court, forcibly stacked with Trump’s conservative “pro-life” candidate Amy Coney Barrett (right after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s untimely passing and right before the 2020 election), went and reversed that shit. Voila, a half-century legal precedent down the toilet.

What this means for reproductive and bodily autonomy

Now that the Court has overturned Roe, it is possible for states to ban abortions earlier than 3 months. While the repeal doesn’t make abortion automatically illegal across the entire US, individual states are now allowed to decide if they will allow abortion.

Let’s break down the consequences thus far, shall we? Thirteen states had “trigger laws” in place which sent abortion bans into effect when Roe v. Wade was reversed. Other states had left old laws on the books which served to ban abortion pre-1973—and now there’s not much stopping these laws from regaining traction. In total, 26 states (and counting?) are currently making moves to ban or severely limit access to abortion. While some intend to ban abortion from the moment of conception, others are introducing bans at 6+ weeks.

In the days immediately followed the ruling, several bans did, in fact, come into force, some of which have been blocked by the courts—at least temporarily. It’s worth noting that over the past decade, several states have tried to make abortion illegal. Some of those attempts were defeated, as they appeared to violate Roe v. Wade. But now? Now, nothing much stands in their way.

In short, this is a massive setback for women’s human rights. After all, reproductive freedom was one of the key goals of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. 

It gets even better: just one day before the ruling was made, the very same conservative majority Supreme Court struck down a 111-year-old gun law restricting the ability to carry handguns outside of the home in the state of New York. Apparently the Court deemed it unconstitutional. Go figure. 

I guess people with uteruses should take comfort in the fact that all states allow abortion “to save the life of the mother,” while some allow exceptions in cases of rape or incest—undoubtedly requiring a woman to prove her victimhood. Oh, and most states have said they won’t prosecute women for trying to get an abortion—rather, they’ll go after abortion providers and others who try and help women access abortions.

Here’s a breakdown of the abortion restrictions state legislatures have introduced or are expected to introduce.

“A monumental setback”

According to the Guttmacher Institute, approximately 40 million women of child-bearing age live in states where abortion will become more challenging to access.

UN human rights experts have denounced the decision by the US Supreme Court and called on President Joe Biden to take all necessary measures to reduce its consequences. Describing the decision as a shocking and dangerous regression of human rights which will damage women’s health and lives, the experts said: 

“What has happened in the United States today is a monumental setback for the rule of law and for gender equality. With the stroke of a pen and without sound legal reasoning, the US Supreme Court has stripped women and girls in the United States of legal protections necessary to ensure their ability to live with dignity.”

The experts also noted that while the restrictive new legal landscape will not diminish the need for abortions, it is guaranteed to increase the number of women and girls seeking illicit and unsafe abortions. Not to mention, all of this will also serve to further fuel the stigma around abortion, leading to the abuse of women in need of care.

Already marginalized women get the butt end of the stick, as always

The Court's decision to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion is—unsurprisingly—expected to have a disproportionate impact on Black women and other women of color. Why? Because they continue to face staggering costs and logistical obstacles disproportionate to the resources available to them, while at the same time suffering from more health complications than average. In other words, it’s already more challenging for them to access reproductive healthcare than it is for everyone else—and they need it even more.

Black women could see a 33% increase in pregnancy-related deaths. According to the CDC, Black women are over 3 times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related complication than white women. In some parts of the country, this disparity is even starker. A report by the District of Columbia’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee found that Black people accounted for 90% of pregnancy-related deaths in DC, despite comprising just half of all births. Black women are also at a significantly higher risk of pregnancy complications and postpartum issues, like pre-eclampsia and eclampsia. 

The historical racism foundational to the American healthcare system explains why pregnancy and birth are so much deadlier for Black people. They’re often dismissed, ignored and have their concerns denied while seeking medical care. Black women also happen to fall behind in other social determinants of health, like housing, employment and socioeconomic status, all of which can significantly impact their ability to have safe, healthy pregnancies—and care for a child. Poor or low-income women represent 75% of abortion patients. 

It should also go without saying (but it doesn’t) that the lack of accessibility to elective (non-medically necessary) abortions directly impacts the most marginalized, racialized, and low-income women, making it next to impossible to travel for an abortion, let alone support a child.

Women of color in the US already live their lives in a country that doesn’t value them or take their struggles seriously. Their lives are dangerous enough without being forced to carry pregnancies that could kill them, harm them, and/or dramatically alter their quality of life.

Takeaway

Bottom line: there’s no question that while society’s most marginalized and racialized women are the most adversely affected by new abortion restrictions, all people with uteruses suffer a blow to their basic dignity, and all human beings must cope with a stern kick to our overall integrity as a species. IMHO.

But…there is always hope, friends. Activists from all 50 states are currently fueling fierce momentum on the daily in service of our collective reproductive justice rights. Maybe you can find a way to contribute to herstory too. <3

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