By Nicquel Terry Ellis, CNN
The first time Kenya Martin got an abortion, she was a 19-year-old college student who felt she wasn’t old enough or mature enough to raise a child.
The second time, Martin was a 26-year-old single mom making $12 an hour as a bank teller, could barely afford childcare or health insurance and was in a custody battle with her daughter’s father. Martin would later have four more abortions, each time knowing she did not want another child.
Now Martin, who is Black, worries that other women, particularly women of color, won’t have that choice if the Supreme Court affirms a leaked decision to overturn Roe v. Wade — the landmark ruling that legalized abortion in 1973.
“I’m stressed, I’m concerned, I’m worried,” said Martin, 46 of Richmond, Virginia. “Kids don’t deserve to be brought into a life of poverty.”
The threat to abortion access has underscored the economic hardships and maternal health crisis that Black and brown women face, with many advocates saying forced pregnancies would only worsen their outcomes. Black women are three times more likely than White women to die of pregnancy-related complications; encounter racism from health care providers at higher rates; face unequal pay; and are more likely than their White counterparts to lack health insurance. Abortion rights advocates say the pay disparity alone hampers Black women’s ability to secure affordable childcare and housing. And there are no federal laws that mandate paid maternity leave. Activists also argue that there has been little movement on federal police reform that they say would create safer environments for Black women to raise their children.
Abortion access has also gained the attention of lawmakers including Rep. Ayanna Pressley who made an impassioned plea for the Senate to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, a Democrat-led bill aimed at preserving access to abortion nationwide.
Pressley said banning abortion is “forced birth” in a country that deprives families of universal health care, child care and paid medical and family leave.
“The anti-abortion movement in America is rooted in organized White supremacy, and overturning Roe v. Wade would only perpetuate cycles of poverty and trap our most vulnerable in systems of oppression,” Pressley said on the House floor last week. “None of this is abstract. There is a history of medical apartheid in this country against Black, brown, immigrant, indigenous and disabled folks.”
Still, the Women’s Health Protection Act failed in the Senate last week, which was expected amid GOP resistance.
President Joe Biden lashed out at Senate Republicans after the failed Senate vote.
“This failure to act comes at a time when women’s constitutional rights are under unprecedented attack — and it runs counter to the will of the majority of American people,” Biden said in a statement.
What is the economic impact?
Some activists say banning abortion will only exacerbate the economic struggles of Black and brown women.
Monica Simpson, executive director of Sistersong, said she considers it “racist” that lawmakers want to ban abortion but not fix the systems that have oppressed and marginalized Black families.
Simpson said many Black women are underpaid and living in communities without access to fresh food or health care facilities. U.S. Census data shows Black women are paid 63% of what White men make on average. And about 24% of the Black community faced food insecurity in 2020.
Black Americans are also more likely than White Americans to suffer multigenerational poverty, according to a Brookings report. The report found that one in five Black Americans is living in poverty for the third generation in a row compared to one in 100 White Americans.
Now some Black women who want abortions may be forced to have unwanted babies because they can’t afford to travel to a state where it’s legal to get the procedure, Simpson said.
“We don’t have to have statistics to know that when you remove access or limit access to any service in this country it’s going to disproportionately impact people of color, poor people,” Simpson said. “It’s going to impact the folks that have been historically pushed to the margins.”
Cathy Torres, organizing manager for the McAllen, Texas-based Frontera Fund which provides financial support for women seeking abortion care, said the six-week abortion ban in Texas has already made it hard for women to access abortion.
If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, it will be even harder because Texas and other neighboring states have “trigger laws” that outlaw abortion in all or most cases if Roe is dropped, she said.
Torres said she expects a significant uptick in calls given many of her clients are low income, Latina women who will need the money to travel farther to get an abortion.
According to the Pew Research Center, 21% of Latinos age 18-64 in Texas are living in poverty and 31% of Latinos don’t have health insurance.
“If you are low income, how are you expected to fly to Virginia to get an abortion?” Torres said. “How are you expected to pay for an abortion?”
Why is banning abortion a form of White supremacy?
Some activists and Democratic lawmakers point to abortion bans as a form of White supremacy, which is a term to used to describe White people having dominance over people of other races and ethnicities.
An overwhelming number of White, male lawmakers have been at the forefront of the fight to ban abortion at the federal and state level.
In many states, Black and Latino women receive abortions at higher rates than White women, according to the Centers for Disease Control — which collects data from state health agencies.
Simpson said White men controlling the rights of people of color is nothing new. She said White supremacy dates to when Africans were shipped to North America and enslaved more than 400 years ago. More recently, Simpson noted that Republicans, many of them White men, blocked legislation that would have expanded voting access for people of color and created more police accountability in communities where Black and brown people have been killed by officers.
“This is a fight against White supremacy,” Simpson said. “That is extremely disserving that a person that cannot even give birth, doesn’t even have the ability to give life, is trying to move forward with legislation that prevents people who can from being able to make decisions about their own bodies and lives.”
Torres said abortion restrictions control women’s “bodily autonomy.”
“That is the goal of White supremacy,” she said.
How do abortion bans worsen the health care crisis for women of color?
Health experts and advocates fear widespread abortion bans would also deepen the United States’ maternal mortality crisis that has disproportionately hurt Black women. Black women are three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than non-Hispanic White and Hispanic women, according to the CDC.
Many Black women face barriers to health care because they either don’t have doctors in their communities, lack health insurance or encounter racism from their health care providers, said Breana Lipscomb, senior adviser for maternal health and rights at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 11% of Black Americans age 0-64 were uninsured in 2019.
“People should be allowed to decide when and if and how they want to have a pregnancy,” Lipscomb said. “When we see abortion restrictions being passed, forcing people to carry pregnancies to term, we’re not seeing the proactive, supportive policies also being passed to support these families, it wreaks of hypocrisy.”
Doctors have also joined the fight to protect abortion access.
Dr. Judette Louis, chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of South Florida, previously recalled to CNN a time when she was treating patient who was hemorrhaging from her pregnancy and had to obtain permission before she was allowed to terminate the pregnancy for the health of the mother.
“I was standing there watching her hemorrhage out, waiting for permission to do the termination. It is a disgusting feeling. It is a sad feeling. And you’re sitting there literally watching her blood pressure going down while you’re waiting for permission,” Louis said. “It’s just sad to now know if [Roe] really is overturned, that that will be happening all over across the country where [terminating a pregnancy] won’t even be a possibility for a lot of states.”
Meanwhile, moms like Martin and Amanda Furdge of Jackson, Mississippi, say they hope sharing their own stories will change the minds of people who want to ban abortion.
Furdge, 34, said she had abortions at age 19 and again at 24 when she felt she was “young,” “irresponsible” and “selfish.” Furdge attempted to have another abortion in her mid-20s, but by the time Furdge found a clinic that performed abortions, she was too far along under Mississippi law.
Still, the mom of three said she was thankful to have access to safe abortions at times when she knew she wasn’t ready to raise a baby. It’s unfair to deprive women of that right, Furdge said.
“I believe people should make the decisions that are best for themselves,” Furdge said. “Parenting from any other space other than I can, I’m capable, I have the capacity, I have everything I need to do this well, and I want to do this…. is absolutely dangerous.”
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CNN’s Amara Walker, Priya Krishnakumar, Daniel Wolfe, Ali Zaslav and Clare Foran contributed to this report.