Commentary: Women’s rights are human rights – and that includes abortion

By Jamila Bey,
Special to the AFRO

The first Monday in May has come to be known as the Met Gala Monday, and during and after the event, who wore what usually dominates social media and the news. Normally we might still be talking about what Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion, and Alicia Keys were wearing. 

But who could have foreseen that during the same moment the glitterati was posing in their finery on the Met Gala red carpet, a bombshell leak of the Supreme Court’s plans to strike down Roe v. Wade would touch off a firestorm of protests, debate, and concern? 

Indeed, on May 2, POLITICO reported on the leaked Supreme Court initial majority draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito — an opinion of the court’s decision to roll back abortion rights. Doing so would bring an end to women having constitutional protection when it comes to terminating a pregnancy. 

Alito, who is a devout Catholic, takes his direction on abortion from the Vatican. However, not all American Catholics agree with the church’s official stance. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 68 percent of Catholics don’t want Roe v Wade overturned. But if Alito’s brief foretells abortion laws in the U.S., it will be left to each state to determine if women and their doctors are free to terminate a pregnancy.

Rather than pondering the propriety of a Supreme Court Justice imposing his sectarian beliefs on the laws and the people of a nation that claims to recognize a separation of church and state, Black activists are busy doing what Black folks have done on these shores since we got here: standing up to America’s power structures and fighting for our rights.  

Black birth workers are at the forefront of this fight. Even before the Supreme Court draft was leaked, they were circling the wagons to protect the country’s most vulnerable mothers. 

National Director of Training, Practice, and Evaluation for the National Birth Equity Collaborative, ​Inas Mahdi, said the law is clear and protecting the lives of Black women is essential. 

“Under international human rights obligations, our nation has the duty to protect, respect and fulfill human rights for her citizens, which it cannot in good conscience hand over to states to honor,” Mahdi said. “Women’s rights are, in fact, human rights.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women who are pregnant or who have just given birth in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to die than their white counterparts. The numbers clearly illustrate the disparity — for every 100,000 live births, about 19 white mothers die, while about 55 Black mothers die.

These disparities are rooted in the lack of access to quality health care for many Black women. These disparities are exacerbated by a number of issues, including the implicit bias in medical treatment that leads Black women to receive lesser-quality care, as well as unequal access to housing, education, jobs, and health care. These disparities are well known, but as they persist, so do the risks to Black women who have worse outcomes to their pregnancies in the best of circumstances. 

The Associated Press, using U.S. Census Bureau information, found fewer Black people are covered by health insurance, especially in states with tight abortion restrictions. Some of the highest rates of uninsured women live in Texas, Mississippi, and Georgia, where at least 16 percent of Black women were uninsured in 2019.

Advocates have warned that abortion bans will disproportionately impact Black women who would be forced to carry their pregnancies to term despite potential health risks. Many Black women live in places with few options for abortion care if they don’t have the means to travel out of state for the procedure or adequate means to raise a child.

A study published in 2021 in the journal “Demography” focused on the effect of a total abortion ban on pregnancy-related mortality. The study found banning abortion nationwide would lead to a 33 percent increase in deaths among Black women and a 21 percent increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths for all women. According to the study, if abortions are denied, the lifetime risk of a Black woman dying of pregnancy-related causes jumps from 1 in 1,300 to 1 in 1,000.

Raven Freeborn, the director of policy organizing and partnership at Washington, D.C.-based Mamatoto Village, an organization that seeks to combat health disparities for moms, babies, and their families, says the fear of women and the practitioners who care for them is palpable, but premature. “Abortion in D.C., and in the rest of the country is still accessible,” Freeborn says. “The reality is that women can still seek care.”

Freeborn says that while abortion hasn’t yet been outlawed, the fact that medical care is a political issue means that there is more work to be done. 

“Roe has been predicted to fall. We need to galvanize people, and this is absolutely the time to embrace the political power of your own voice. But also embrace the fact that abortion is care, it is health care, and it is care that must continue to be accessible if we are caring communities.”

Jamila Bey is the Digital Manager of the Washington Informer. She covers health, politics and all things First Amendment.

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