Women of Color Can’t Weather the Fight Against Abortion Criminalization Alone

| Reproaction

By: Shireen Shakouri

Around the world, the struggle for reproductive freedom is borne on the backs of women of color, and supposedly ‘pro-life’ policies employ a racist and classist worldview to push them deeper into poverty, suffering, and the margins of society.

Many so-called pro-life people claim that their faith drives them to be colorblind, for one, and to have the utmost respect and love for women while they view providers as murderers. Never mind their loud drumbeat of the roundly-debunked and racist myth that Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women seek ‘sex-selective’ abortions, lobbying for tighter restrictions that have a laser focus on controlling AAPI women’s reproductive autonomy. The pro-life camp doubles down on their lies by equating all abortion providers to the likes of Kermit Gosnell, a sicko who preyed on — mostly Black and brown — disadvantaged women facing desperate situations, all for his profit. His crimes led to the deaths of multiple women and infants, all driven by naked greed and cold detachment. This is very clearly the opposite of what a compassionate care provider looks like, and his violence was undoubtedly enabled by the very things that “pro-life” forces are pushing for: tighter restrictions on clinics, providers, and no coverage of reproductive care by public health insurance.

In their absurd ploy to liken all providers to Gosnell, though, these “pro-lifers” spit on the memory of Karnamaya Mongar, Gosnell’s last victim. She was a Bhutanese refugee who in 2009 found herself pregnant and with neither the means to take care of a child nor seek an abortion from a qualified, real provider. She ended up in Gosnell’s office, where a combination of his greed, negligence, and criminality ended her life. Her tragedy was bandied about by abortion opponents as a reason to restrict access to quality abortion care, despite the fact that merely enforcing existing regulations could have shuttered Gosnell’s criminal operation. [1] In this omission of facts, they fail to see their own complicity in her demise: had those pro-life advocates not found success in raising barriers to access and limiting options for women like Ms. Mongar, she may have found haven in one of many safe and compassionate abortion care providers, and she’d likely still be here.

But it is the cases for which the pregnant person is their own abortion provider where the “pro-life” camp shows they’re very much pro-punishment. Though self-managed abortion with pills is safe and effective in ending a pregnancy up to 12 weeks, there is legal risk because abortion opponents have fought to impose “feticide” laws with punishment equivalent to those given to murder. Purvi Patel was an Indian-American woman who in 2013 ordered abortion pills online with the intent to self-manage her own abortion. She asserts that she later had a stillbirth, but a perfect storm of anti-abortion medical staff and draconian laws where she lived in Indiana – laws imposed by “pro-life” hero Mike Pence during his disastrous service as governor – led to a criminal investigation and charges of feticide and “neglect of a dependent,” landing her with a sentence of 20 years in prison. The Supreme Court of Indiana eventually overturned her sentence on the feticide charge, but only after she was incarcerated for so-called neglect of a dependent. [2] She never should have served a day or been charged in the first place: Patel’s human rights remain grossly violated.

Patel is not alone, and other women in this country who experience miscarriage or stillbirth have been charged with murder and related crimes, as detailed in The New York Times’ excellent new series, “A Woman’s Rights.”  In it, National Advocates for Pregnant Women provides data that 52 percent of women charged with pregnancy-related ‘crimes; were Black, with many jailed during the crack cocaine panic of the 1980s. [3] Still today though, women can be charged with ‘unborn child abuse’ for suspected drug use while pregnant, though there is no evidence that it helps, and is indeed more likely to harm, the pregnancy and the woman. Ohio lawmakers weren’t using a turn of phrase when they declared they wanted to make motherhood “necessary” as they fought to pass a six-week abortion ban this fall. [4] In fact, it’s part of the grand plan deciding who should have motherhood imposed on them, who is fit to parent, and who should be kept in line when not fitting these strict ideals. While these moves are cloaked as an exercise of religious freedom for the few – largely white evangelicals and fervent Catholics – their end is to destroy reproductive freedoms for all.

I often think of Ireland’s recent victory in passing a referendum legalizing first trimester abortion and expanding the near-nonexistent protections for the pregnant person’s health and well-being. The culture change and movement-building required to repeal the 8th amendment was the result of decades of work by a coalition of Irish feminists, no doubt. But the movement didn’t mainstream until an Indian-Irish woman, Savita Halappanavar, died in 2012. Her week-long suffering that led to her death was caused by complications of a septic miscarriage that her clinicians wouldn’t treat because, as one told her family, “This is a Catholic country.” [5] There was public outcry and momentous grassroots organizing to change the law. But when it comes down to it, a brown woman had to die for change to happen, and it took six years after her death until the throngs of mostly-white women were able to descend the streets of Dublin and claim victory. Chants of “Savita! Savita!” rang through the capital, and a mural was created where people left letters, flowers, and candles in memoriam to her.

Stories like Savita’s aren’t as common in the United States. Here, the path to positive change is steep. No, the United States isn’t a religious country by law, but the hardships that result from strictly imposed and heavily protected religious patriarchy have had much the same effect. How much must women of color suffer before it’s too much for our society to bear? How much work must we put into a movement that often mines our traumas for publicity or political gains, then forgets us when it’s time to deliver on that long-sought help? Why must we bear the weight as the bringers of progress while also bearing the brunt of regressive policies wrought by mostly white, Christian people?

Stateside, many experiencing miscarriages have been denied medication to aid the process, leaving them without the easiest option to manage an uncomfortable and often heartbreaking loss – all because the same drugs are used for abortion. [6, 7] This is all while Catholic hospital systems are growing and merging – one in six hospital beds in the country are in a Catholic institution, and those tend to be in poorer areas – chipping away reproductive and sexual health programs from the hospitals they take over and often leaving patients no options for comprehensive care for hundreds of miles. [8] It often hits communities of color the hardest, especially those in low-income rural areas. [9] And through all that, the Trump administration is fighting hard (though so far failing) to roll back the birth control mandate of the Affordable Care Act, hoping they can grant employers the ability to deny contraceptive coverage to their staff on religious or moral grounds. [10]

We owe it to those who have died, been jailed, or otherwise experienced trauma to demand that ‘pro-life’ leaders put down the handcuffs and stop prosecuting abortion along with any pregnancy outcome, and end the demonization of reproductive choices made by women of color. And our movement owes it to women of color to put our stories and leadership at the front, because we usually stand to lose the most. Going backward on any of these fronts is not an option.

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