United States: Black women face double blow if ‘Roe vs Wade’ overturned

May 9, 2022
Abortion rights protest in the US
The right to abortion is supported by more than 70% of the US population. Photo: @hannahschinz/Twitter

Following the leaking of a draft majority decision by the United States Supreme Court to overturn 50 years of legal abortion, the response by women and supporters was quick. Spontaneous protests took place in the capital and around the country.

Many protests were led by women of colour, including African American women, who will be disproportionately impacted if the right to abortion is lost.

State government restrictions have already made it difficult for Black women to access abortion.

Unless one of the Supreme Court justices changes their vote, the 5 to 4 decision will prevail. The right to abortion is supported by more than 70% of the US population. Only 24% support a total ban on abortion, with no exceptions for rape, incest or the health of a woman.

While this draconian ruling — a politically not constitutionally-argued decision — is outrageous, it came as no surprise to African American women’s rights scholars, academics, activists and ordinary working-class women. Sexism and racism are combined for African Americans.

Wake-up call on racism

Justin Phillips wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 5 that the leaked decision, written by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, “argues that the Constitution ‘makes no reference to abortion’, thus the Roe decision was ‘egregiously wrong’ and has had ‘damaging consequences’”.

In one of the draft’s footnotes, Alito even evokes myths — rooted in right-wing propaganda — about abortion and the Black population, noting “that ‘some’ Roe supporters have been ‘motivated by a desire to suppress the size of the African American population’, and it’s because of Roe that a ‘highly disproportionate percentage of aborted fetuses are Black’”.

“They’ve been planning this day for years,” Oakland Democratic representative Barbara Lee told Phillips the day after the leaked draft was reported by news site Politico.

“They’ve been electing people, appointing judges, everything as part of their master plan to erode [our] democracy and set up a new system in this country that allows for them to be — and I hate to say — the dictator[s]... It’s nothing new.”

Lee is African American. She told Congress about her own abortion as a teenager in the mid 1960s. She went to Mexico and survived, which she explained, many other Black girls did not.

Raped by my father

Michele Goodwin, law professor and author of Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood, wrote a powerful OpEd for The New York Times in November, where she recounted the impact of her father’s sexual abuse, which started on her 10th birthday and resulted in pregnancy at the age of 12.

“The physiological suffering that I endured included severe migraines, hair loss and even gray hair — at 10 years old.

“I lived in fear of the night, and the footsteps outside my bedroom door.

“My father never missed a parent-teacher conference. However, that veneer of normalcy belied intimate family violence that began years before with his physical abuse of my mother.

“At age 12, I was pregnant by my father, and I had an abortion. Before we got to the doctor’s office, I had no idea that I was pregnant. My father lied about my age and the circumstance of my pregnancy, informing the doctor that I was 15 and that I had been reckless with a boyfriend.

“For many years, the shame of my father’s lie lingered with me — the stereotype embedded in the narrative of the risky, hypersexualized Black girl…

“In the end, my way out was to leave the economic security of home at age 15 … But it was not easy.

“To win my freedom from my parents, I went to court, where I endured interrogation from ill-prepared and insensitive lawyers about being raped as a child.”

Most young Black girls who are raped by relatives don’t survive or live successful lives.

New Jane Crow

Goodwin told DemocracyNow! on May 6 that a new aspect of the state anti-abortion provisions is that they make no exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

In 1992, the Casey vs Planned Parenthood decision limited abortion rights and weakened Roe vs Wade. Since then, numerous so-called “right to life” politicians have restricted women’s health care at a state level by imposing unnecessary steps before a routine abortion could occur. These restrictions — known as the “new Jane Crow-ism” — disproportionately penalise poor, predominantly Black and Brown women.

“These laws, on their own, are really quite chilling and horrific when we understand … that a woman or girl is 14 times more likely to die by carrying a pregnancy to term than by an abortion in the United States,” said Goodwin.

When we add in the lack of exceptions for rape and incest, said Goodwin, “then we really understand that these laws have nothing to do … with protecting, [or] respecting the autonomy, the dignity, the privacy of women or girls.

“In fact, they’re just simply cruel types of laws that are power plays that fit into a history of controlling women’s bodies,” said Goodwin, “specifically, of controlling the bodies of Black and Brown women”.

“As to rape and incest, I thought it was really important to legitimize that conversation and move us away from the taboo where we’re not supposed to talk about those things,” said Goodwin.

“[C]learly, the Supreme Court is not talking about that at all, as it was not raised in oral arguments. And in the leaked draft opinion … Justice Alito does not even bother to actually mention rape or incest in any part of the nearly 100-page draft opinion.”

Janette Robinson Flint, executive director of Black Women for Wellness, told wordinblack.com on May 3 that people must resist the attacks on abortion access.

“[E]very woman, every Black woman, deserves control, autonomy, and self-determination over her own life. It’s a basic human right. You get to say if you want to be pregnant or not,” said Flint.

“Because racism is so baked in … what does [the leaked decision] say about the folks who have been least able to access the system? What doors will that close for us?…

“[W]hen we look at places like Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana — states where they have lots of Black people but very little healthcare — this means even less healthcare.”

Canaries in the coal mine

Goodwin told DN! any decision to roll back Roe vs Wade will send women of colour back to the days of Jim Crow segregation and slavery before it.

“What we will begin to see is that there will be states where people will not be free, where they will in fact be policed,” said Goodwin.

“And that kind of policing will also be connected to sex profiling, just like racial profiling … this hyper-intensive look at what are girls and women doing with their bodies."

In relation to a recent case in California where a woman was prosecuted for murder after a stillbirth, Goodwin said: “There will be a turn to and pressure on nurses, on doctors, on medical staff to breach millennia-old practices of confidentiality between themselves and their patients. And they will breach that and will share that information, just as we saw in that case, with law enforcement. And then the next step will be arrest.

“[I]n the state of Alabama, already there have been hundreds of women who have come under the inspection of the state, [been] charged and arrested under fetal endangerment — or child endangerment, in that case…

“[I]n Alabama ... the majority of those women happen to be white. But they all are poor, or the vast majority of them are poor or working-class women, who have already come under the attention of the state in this prurient kind of way.

“[T]his attack that’s finally reached its pinnacle up to the Supreme Court to dismantle Roe v. Wade, this work has had tentacles. And it’s been working to criminalize women and also to impose civil punishments associated with pregnancy.”

Mass action needed

We cannot rely on the capitalist state’s institutions — the courts, Congress and presidency — to defend women’s right to physical autonomy.

It took mass mobilisations during the second wave of feminism in the 1960s to bring about positive change.

The 1973 Roe vs Wade decision was based on the right privacy clause in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution adopted in 1868. It took a civil war to win the “liberty” clause that was not included in the original Constitution.

Alito’s perverse decision — some references are to the 13th century — means all personal rights, interracial marriage and gay rights could be called unconstitutional.

If half the population is denied their basic human rights, white male domination and supremacy will be strengthened.

The stake for Black women and the working class in the fight for abortion rights and to become equal and full citizens is existential.

Black women have been struggling long before Roe vs Wade and will play a decisive role in the resistance.

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