Before the 1973 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed women’s right to legal abortion services — a decision that was handed down 40 years ago this Tuesday — reproductive freedom was sharply divided along racial and socioeconomic lines. And as anti-choice politicians slowly chip away at women’s abortion rights at a state level, some areas of the country aren’t too far away from returning women to that era of inequality.
By the early 1970s, about 20 states had passed state laws regarding abortion, and the procedure was legal in a handful of states. If a woman was lucky enough to be born privileged, she had a better chance of having the resources to travel to one of the areas of the country where she could safely obtain an abortion — if not, she was forced to join the estimated 1.2 million women who resorted to illegal abortion each year. And since women of color were more likely to be economically disadvantaged four decades ago, they were also much more likely to turn to illegal abortion procedures than their white counterparts. In the South, black women’s mortality rate from illegal abortions was fourteen times higher than white women’s. In New York City, more than 90 percent of the women who died from illegal abortions were black and Latina.
Today, abortion remains inextricably linked to issues of race and class. Blacks and Latinas have the highest rates of unintended pregnancy and, subsequently, the highest rates of abortions — 40 percent for African-American women and 29 percent for Hispanic women. Forty two percent of the women who have abortions fall below the federal poverty line, partly because poorer women still struggle to access affordable and reliable contraception. And denying women the opportunity to have a legal abortion greatly increases their risk of falling into poverty.
But that doesn’t stop anti-choice lawmakers from attempting to roll back abortion rights state by state, slowly bringing the country back to the time when legal reproductive services varied widely across regions, and ultimately exacerbating racial and economic inequality. According to nationwide abortion data extrapolated by researchers at Yale, allowing states to eliminate access to legal abortion still disproportionately hurts the low-income, non-white women who are forced to struggle — just as they did in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s — to get the resources they need to safely terminate a pregnancy.
In states like Mississippi and North Dakota, where the sole remaining abortion clinics are on the brink of being shut down, GOP lawmakers are threatening to transport women back to a time when reproductive freedom was reserved for the privileged, just as it was before Roe v. Wade. In the 20 states where employers and insurers are permitted to deny women access to affordable contraception by refusing to comply with Obamacare’s birth control provision, low-income women may be left with few preventative options, just as they were before the Supreme Court legalized the use of birth control for unmarried women in 1972. In states across the country, lawmakers hostile to reproductive rights are slowly passing abortion restrictions, shutting down women’s health clinics, targeting abortion providers, and inching the country backwards — erasing some of the progress that Roe made, all while the court’s decision technically still stands.