Women, Civil Rights, Income Inequality and Abortion

The recent Supreme Court ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt made no poetic sweeping affirmations that women have a basic human right to reproductive choice. However, the ruling did carefully calculate that restrictions imposed by the Texas Legislature placed an undue burden on women seeking abortions.

The ruling could have stated “an undue burden for poor women seeking an abortion.”

The deliberately imposed burden on women is not just in Texas. Versions of the Texas law are on the books in 23 other states, so the Supreme Court ruling affects those states as well.

This is not just a court ruling that affects women of childbearing age. It is not a court ruling that affects only women. This is a ruling that affects everyone who believes in the basic human right to control one’s reproductive health.

For poor women in America, access to an abortion is largely dependent on the state in which they reside. Wealthy and middle-income woman can, of course, travel to any location in the country for a safe, legal abortion. Women with limited finances need at least $450 for a first trimester abortion. That’s more than the discretionary fund in most low-income households. The idea of coming up with additional money to travel long distances is impossible. That’s what the Texas Legislature was counting on. Make abortion clinics so regulated they’d be forced to close. It worked, initially. Of the 40 clinics in Texas prior to the legislation, half were forced to close and more were expected to follow. That would leave just seven clinics in Texas to perform 70,000 abortions a year. Women were being forced to go to other states and across the border to clinics in Mexico where standards were totally unregulated by the state and federal governments.

Poor women were disproportionately hurt.

Rates of sexual activity are roughly the same between low-income and high-income women. Access to reliable, long-term contraception is more easily available to higher-income women than lower-income women.

Linda Greenhouse wrote in The New York Times that one-third of American women have abortions, but state restrictions seek to “ghettoize and delegitimize abortion” by removing it from ordinary women’s health care and by making it a moral issue.

Clearly, many religious denominations around the world support a woman’s right to access abortion. (See Pew Research Center, “Religious Groups’ Official Position on Abortion.”) Their support is often drowned out by the fervor of people wanting to restrict or eliminate legal access to abortion. It can be argued that any moral issue surrounding abortion is the immoral attempt by some to restrict equal access.

Women must have the personal right to plan pregnancies for social, economic and medical reasons. Unintended pregnancies are highest among poor women. Unplanned births create a cycle of poverty that is tough to escape. An unplanned pregnancy and birth reduce a woman’s chances of entering the labor force by 25 percent according to research from Boston University.

A study from the Brookings Institute found that rates of abortion are highest among high-income earners (32 percent) and lowest among low-income earners (8.9 percent). So women harmed most by lack of access to contraception and abortion are the economically most disadvantaged.

While many Americans were quick to condemn China’s one-child policy as a violation of human rights, many in this country are quick to sentence poor women to unwanted pregnancies and childbirth. That is no less a violation of human rights.

Let’s stop debating the abortion issue as pro-choice v. pro-life. Let’s call it what it is: discrimination against poor women.

All American women have the Constitutional and moral right to control their own reproductive health. The United Nations has affirmed all women worldwide have the basic human right to access abortion and control their own reproductive health. The UN warned countries with repressive abortion restrictions that they may be in violation of international human rights treaties.

That has the potential of putting the UN in conflict with the Republican Party Platform adopted in Cleveland that calls for no federal funding for abortion even in cases of rape or to protect the life of the woman. The platform rejects the FDA’s approval of the abortion pill and other over-the-counter contraception . . . all in the name of protecting the health of women, oddly echoing the failed, repressive Texas effort to shutter all abortion centers.  (Clare Howard)

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