Anti-Abortion Laws: A War Against Poor Women

Yves here. I’ve steered away from featuring posts on abortion because in the US, they are typically places in the “women’s rights” frame, when far too many self-styled feminists have sat pat as the right to an abortion has become effectively non-existant in large swathes of the heartlands because low and moderate income single women can’t afford to get them. Medicaid covers abortions in only 15 states. Many women don’t have health insurance or have a policy with a high deductible. Six states have only one abortion clinic (see here to get more detail on the degree of restrictions on abortions in various states). Not only does that mean that even going to a clinic would entail a day off work, but many states impose 24 hour cooling off periods for a doctor to give the pregnant woman a moralistic lecture about her fetus and make her sleep on her decision. How many people in low-level jobs can take two days off, both in money and “will they allow me to do that” terms?

Needless to say, I’m cynical about the hand-wriging by well-off women in blue states about the Supreme Court possibly reversing Roe v. Wade. Where have they been all these years while their supposed sisters in flyover effectively have no right to an abortion? Why didn’t they push during the years of peak feminism (in the 1970s) for legislation to enshrine abortion rights, as women in pretty much every other advanced economy save Ireland has done, rather than rely solely on the continued generosity of the bench? Of course, getting a bill passed would have required some compromise with the pro-life sorts, but the usual remedy in the rest of the world has been to limit the right to an abortion to the first trimester.

That is a long-winded way of saying that it’s time Americans wake up and recognize that abortion rights are much more a class issue than a social rights issue.

By Manuella Libardi, a Brazilian journalist and the content editor for democraciaAbierta Brasil. She holds a Masters degree in International Relations. Twitter: @ManuellaLibardi. Originally published at openDemocracy

The political fight against anti-abortion legislation is infact a class battle, and the reality is that abortion is only illegal for poor women. Women with resources can always interrupt their unwanted pregnancies. Either they know a doctor who performs medical abortions for an exorbitant price, they have the resources to travel to a place where abortion is legal, or they have the means to buy an abortion pill in their own country or elsewhere.

Restricting access to safe abortions keeps poor women in poverty, perpetuates the cycle that prevents them from social mobility and allows wealth to remain in the hands of the rich, particularly white men.

Deciding if and when to have a child is essential for a woman’s economic and psychological well-being: it has implications for her education and for entering the workforce. In a 2018 study based on interviews with 813 women in the United States throughout five years, researchers found that women who had abortions denied to them were more likely to be in poverty within six months compared to women who were able to interrupt the pregnancy. Women who were denied abortion were also less likely to have full-time work and more likely to depend on some form of public assistance. Both effects “remained significant for 4 years.”

The study concludes that “women who were denied an abortion were more likely than women who received an abortion to experience economic difficulties and insecurity for years. Laws restricting access to abortion may lead to worse economic outcomes for women”.

Latin America

In Latin America, this scenario is exacerbated by the huge inequalities of the region, which makes poor women and minorities invisible to those who are creating public policies. Indigenous women, for example, are disproportionately affected by adverse sexual and reproductive health outcomes.

The rates of unwanted pregnancy and teenage pregnancy are high among indigenous populations and indigenous women also face greater risks of complications related to abortion such as injury or death than the general public.

Poor, young and ethnic minority women suffer the physical and social costs imposed on them by the restrictive anti-abortion laws of Latin America the most. Latin America is home to six countries that criminalize abortion in all cases, even in situations where a woman’s life is at risk. In El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname, women have to carry a full term pregnancy even if it means they could die in the process, which is an explicit violation of their human rights.

This makes Latin America the region of the world with the strictest anti-abortion legislation. The only other two places that fully penalize termination, even if the procedure is medically necessary to save the woman’s life, is Malta and the Vatican.

El Salvador made headlines in 2019 when Evelyn Hernández was acquitted of a murder conviction related to the death of a fetus. She had been sentenced to 40 years in prison for giving birth to a dead baby, in other words, for miscarrying.

In this Central American country, at least 159 women have received sentences of between 12 and 40 years of prison for violating the country’s anti-abortion laws. About 20 remain in jail today, and none of these women comes from rich or economically stable families. All are poor.

The Race Factor

The political-economic order is made up of many variables, and race is among the first. In the United States, black women have the highest abortion rates in the country. This is a consequence of the serious wealth gap between white and black families, which remains constant even among poor families.

After the legalization of the procedure, the entry of black women into the workforce increased 6.9 percentage points, compared with 2 percentage points among all women.

A white family that lives near the poverty line generally has a yearly wage of around $18,000, meanwhile, black families in similar economic situations usually have a near-zero average wealth. While all women suffer the consequences of the battle against abortion, class reality means that women of color feel the effects disproportionately.

A large number of studies show that access to safe abortion in the United States had more visible positive effects among black women. After the legalization of the procedure, the entry of black women into the workforce increased 6.9 percentage points, compared with 2 percentage points among all women.

The legalization of abortion in the United States reduced adolescent fertility among all women. However, black women and girls experienced an increase in the high school graduation rate and college admission, while legalization did not improve educational outcomes for white women and girls. This is another indication of how inequality disproportionately affects women of color.

Restrictive Laws Do Not Decrease Abortions

The highest abortion rates are found in developing countries, specifically in Latin America. Leading the list is the Caribbean, with 59 per 1,000 women of reproductive age, followed by South America, with 48. As expected, the lowest rates are found in North America, with 17, and in Western and Northern Europe, with 16 and 18, respectively.

Given the amount of research that shows how ineffective punitive laws are in curbing the number of abortions women carry out, it is difficult to imagine any other reason that they exist, other than to keep women out of the workforce and in poverty.

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