The courts will not save abortion access

The courts will not save abortion access
© Greg Nash

A Supreme Court decision in June Medical Services, LLC v. Russo requiring Louisiana abortion providers to have admitting privileges would have been devastating. Upholding the Louisiana law would have put an enormous undue burden on abortion providers, it would have emboldened other states to follow suit with laws meant to shut down abortion clinics, and it would have made life even more difficult for people of color who already face countless hurdles to getting any reproductive care, including abortion. But make no mistake: although the court struck down the Louisiana law, it is not going to save abortion access, especially for people of color. 

Yes, abortion is legal in the United States, but for too many, it is far from accessible. The courts alone will not and cannot resolve the systemic inequities that undergird this inconvenient truth.

Roe v. Wade never guaranteed abortion access for all. Although abortion has been legal for almost half a century, many states have added hurdles to accessing abortion care. Today, 57 percent of U.S. women of reproductive age live in states classified as hostile or very hostile to abortion rights. People of color especially have been left behind due to discriminatory policies that limit our agency to make our own decisions about our bodies. 

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Across the United States, communities of color are grappling with intersecting challenges that limit our access to abortion care. As more people wake up to the brutality people of color face daily, we cannot underestimate how intimidating it can be for a person of color to walk up to an abortion clinic that has beefed up security personnel and aggressive anti-abortion protestors outside its doors. Our communities are not free from the violence both in the physical sense, as well as from the structural violence of actors that purposely keep our communities starved from resources to access the full range of health care. 

The current COVID-19 epidemic laid bare to all what people of color already knew — we do not have equal access to quality care in our health care system and that extends to all kinds of care, including prenatal and abortion services.

Black and brown people have fewer clinics servicing their communities. In the largely Latina/x region of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, for instance, there is only one clinic. Our communities often work the toughest, least flexible jobs and we do not have the time, money, childcare, or other support networks to make lengthy, expensive trips for reproductive care, including abortion.

The recent rise in anti-immigrant policies has made it even more complicated for Latina/x communities to access the care they need. Many undocumented immigrants are afraid to attend their abortion appointments due to the presence of Border Patrol along their route to the doctor. Sometimes they have seen ICE parked outside of their health clinics. In many states, immigrants cannot drive easily to clinics due to laws limiting drivers’ licenses for those without documentation.  

Our communities are also the target of egregiously discriminatory policies like the Hyde Amendment, which gets passed every year in Congress and bars abortion coverage for those on Medicaid. The Hyde Amendment is in many ways the original abortion ban. Due to structural inequities, women of color are disproportionately impacted by it, since 31 percent of Black women of reproductive age, 27 percent of Latina women of reproductive age, and 19 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women are enrolled in Medicaid.

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Our nation’s courts are powerful, but they alone cannot resolve the layered, systemic challenges that keep reproductive care out of reach for so many.  

Take for instance the court’s decision in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, which struck down an abortion shutdown law in Texas that was identical to Louisiana’s. Despite the legal victory, the damage of the original law was hard to undo. A year after the decision, only three abortion clinics in Texas had reopened.

That is why we must continue to build our base of advocates for abortion access state by state, community by community. We must also take an intersectional approach to organize our communities and build winning coalitions that can tackle systemic issues — from underinvestment in our communities to policies that promote racist and anti-immigrant targeting — which impede people of color from getting equitable reproductive care. 

We are facing systemic failures that keep healthcare, including abortion, out of reach for our communities.  This reality will not be changed overnight and certainly not by one court decision. It will include steady work at the local level to transform deep-seated systems and allow for our communities to live with dignity, health, and justice.

Ann Marie Benitez is a senior director of Government Relations at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.