Overturning Roe would be a disaster for young women of color

Last month, Reps. Cori BushCori BushHouse progressives urge Garland to intervene in ex-environmental lawyer Steven Donziger's case The real 'threat to democracy'? Pols who polarize us with their opinions For Democrats it should be about votes, not megaphones MORE (D-Mo.), Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeHouse progressives urge Garland to intervene in ex-environmental lawyer Steven Donziger's case Overturning Roe would be a disaster for young women of color CBC's pivotal role on infrastructure underscores caucus's growing stature MORE (D-Calif.) and Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalDemocratic caucus chairs call for Boebert committee assignment removal Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season 91 House Dems call on Senate to expand immigration protections in Biden spending bill MORE (D-Wash.) shared their experiences with abortion. The testimonies were gut-wrenching, moving us through the gamut of cultural and psychological considerations young women of color must make in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Those considerations include: whether or not to carry the baby of their rapist; whether or not, at 18, to risk an illegal abortion or give up their dreams; and whether to carry to full term the child they so dearly want or jeopardize their physical and psychological health by doing so.

The ability to determine one's reproductive future has been constitutionally protected since 1973 when Roe v. Wade established the right to obtain pre-viability abortions, up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. Since then, women have reaped the benefits of that autonomy — they are more educated, enjoy higher incomes as well as live healthier and safer lives than the generations of women who came before them. 

In 1965, just eight years before Roe v. Wade was passed, women were 17 percent more likely to die due to complications from an illegal abortion in comparison to the .3 percent who suffer complications from a legal one today. As illustrated by the experiences shared by Bush, Lee and Jayapal, early access to abortion and the right to choose has long-term benefits for women’s well-being. 

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But the protections established in Roe v. Wade are under threat. In the immediate aftermath of a world without those protections, 24 states would be poised to ban abortions. Across half the country, people who are the most likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy and the least likely to have the financial resources to obtain an abortion would lose access to care. We’re seeing this unfold in Texas, where people must now travel hundreds of miles to reach the nearest clinic. 

There are other insidious costs to restricting abortion. Mississippi, the state leading the fight to overturn Roe, has among the highest rates of child poverty in the country as well the highest infant mortality rate. It stands to reason, that restricting abortions neither prevents unwanted pregnancies nor provides pathways to support children once they are here.

If Roe v. Wade is struck down, women of color — already sinking under the weight of inequality in America — would fall further behind their peers. Recent history illustrates the precarity of their economic well-being. Within the last year and a half, 865,000 women left the labor force — four times the number of men. Latina and Black women continue to lag far behind white women in returning to work. Studies show that in the states that restrict abortion and close clinics, there are significant reductions in Black women’s college completion rates and in their future income earnings. 

Young people are already in a precarious financial situation, and their economic well-being will likely worsen. On the other hand, so long as young people from affluent families can afford to navigate abortion restrictions, they will continue to access abortion rights. It has always been younger women from working-class and low-income communities who have had to shoulder the hidden costs of traveling to the nearest clinic, staying overnight at a hotel, and taking time away from work to see a provider. Rather than building an America where young people of color are protected, loved and empowered, we are actively endangering their futures. 

In a future without Roe, Native American women, who are 2.5 times more likely to experience rape than any other group of women, could be forced to give birth under psychological and financial distress. Black women, more likely to die during childbirth or pregnancy than any other demographic because of racism in the health care system, would be denied further care. Latinas, who make on average 55 cents for every dollar paid to white men, wouldn’t even have the option to put that money toward terminating a pregnancy that might push them out of the workforce. Instead of working to close the wage gaps that depress the economic futures for Latinas and their families or improve the maternal health care system that is actively endangering Black women, this country stands on the edge of worsening every single outcome that there is for young women of color. 

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Young women today are passionate about protecting Roe’s promise. In YWCA USA’s most recent survey of women across the country, young women of diverse backgrounds overwhelmingly supported Roe v. Wade. In fact, 72 percent of Generation Z and 68 percent of Millennials viewed protecting Roe v. Wade as being “very important” while more than 69 percent of Black, Latina, Asian and Pacific Islander, as well as American Indian and Alaska Native women expressed that protecting their right to abortion is “very important.”

The fact that we ask young women to participate in studies and testify before legal bodies to demonstrate how access to abortion has changed their lives only to pass legislation that would doom their younger selves to a life without access to abortion in their most vulnerable moment is cruel. To deny women going forward a constitutional right that has improved the lives of their elders over the past 50 years is irresponsible. 

We have to make it impossible for states like Mississippi and Texas that contravene basic human rights by passing laws that disproportionately prevent women from seeking safe, affordable and timely abortions. This is why YWCA USA, Girls Inc., Supermajority Education Fund, and United State of Women (USOW), filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to protect the fundamental right of women to decide whether or not to have a pre-viability abortion. If the Supreme Court revokes that right, the consequences for millions of young women, particularly those of color, will be immediate, long-term and devastating. 

Elisha Rhodes is interim CEO of YWCA USA, nonprofit organization focused on eliminating racism and empowering women.