Those laws that survive legal challenges will most deeply affect women too poor to travel or move to a state with better access to abortion services. That’s a group that is disproportionately black and Latino — and, in the case of black women, a group that tends to support access to legal abortion. This gap between those making the decisions and those affected by them, experts say, is a dynamic with deep roots in American history.
The role of white women — long key players in dictating and constraining the reproductive choices of others — is too often discounted and overlooked, experts say. In 2019, new abortion restrictions were passed in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana after white women co-sponsored them, many voted for them and in one state, signed the changes into law. (In those four state legislatures, 48 women — almost all of them white — voted for the restrictions.)
“These abortion laws, in combination with other policies, pretty much ensure that women who are already poor will remain poor with little chance to climb,” said Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote the book “They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South.”
Among the reasons: Women who don’t have complete control of their fertility cannot make firm career or economic plans. And working parents must also find ways to cover the cost of child care, in which fees are typically assessed per child.
In Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the overall share of people living in poverty ranges from 12 percent to 17 percent. White poverty rates in those states are lower, between 7 percent and 10 percent, while black and Latino poverty rates are higher, ranging from 17 percent to 31 percent.
Jones-Rogers describes the recent efforts to curtail abortion without expanding access to birth control or other social services as part of a lengthy history of policies and practices that have affected black women’s reproductive rights in America, dating back to slavery. These decisions, largely made by white men and women, had the effect of creating or maintaining a class of black workers who could not rise out of poverty — or, in the case of slavery, had no life choices at all.
As Jones-Rogers read testimonials of slaves gathered or published during and after slavery’s end as well as plantation owner journals, ads and other public records, something else became clear. Slave holders, including slave-owning women, sometimes coordinated the sexual assault of slave women by white men or other slaves. The goal: produce more slave children or potential wet nurses at times opportune for the owners. Slave children could be sold away and slave wet nurses hired out, producing more income for slave owners. And some slave women were punished for failing to become pregnant or trying to prevent a pregnancy with herbs or other means. All of this intensified when the nation outlawed importing slaves in 1808.
When the Civil War ended slavery almost six decades later, lawmakers in many states found ways of maintaining this unpaid workforce. Black Americans long barred from learning to read or write in many slave states were, in practice, all but confined to the lowest-paid work. Some states implemented policies making black people — including some children — subject to vagrancy laws if unemployed. The punishment involved compulsory, usually unpaid, labor.
At the same time, fears of free black Americans becoming a political force and a potential drain on social welfare resources led to black Americans being excluded from public benefit programs and shamed, discouraged or forcibly and surgically rendered unable to have children. By the early 20th century, white Americans on both the liberal and conservative ends of the political spectrum advocated reduced childbearing among the poor, organized early birth control experiments in Puerto Rico and Haiti, and pushed for targeted sterilization, Jones-Rogers said.
Eliminating abortion would have the opposite effect of these sterilization campaigns, but it’s yet another example of black women’s reproduction being targeted, influenced or controlled by policies in which they have limited input. Now, though, the discussion is framed around religion and values, rather than race and economics.
Abortion is a relatively new focus area for the mostly white evangelical conservatives behind the recent anti-abortion pushes at the state level.
Immediately after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, most white, Protestant conservatives did not consider the case consequential, Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a research organization, said. Evangelicals from denominations such as the Southern Baptists and the Pentacostals viewed contraception and reproduction as Catholic preoccupations, he said.
For much of the last decade, white women have been more likely to describe themselves as “pro-life” than black women have, according to a Gallup analysis of national polling data on abortion between 2010 and 2019, conducted at the request of NBC News. During that period, 46 percent of white women described themselves as “pro-life,” compared to 36 percent of black women.
Andrea Young, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, has seen a pattern in the way abortion debates have unfolded.
“All over the South, ‘pro-life’ lawmakers have for years made little to no effort to increase aid to the poor,” Young, who is black and the daughter of a civil rights activist, said. “But, we have seen this relentless pursuit of an unconstitutional ban on abortion, an effort to force childbearing. And yes, you see both white Republican men and women deeply involved.”
A white Republican woman, Gov. Kay Ivey, signed the bill into law.
White conservative women and men are not, of course, alone in opposing abortion. A full 42 percent of black evangelical Protestants and 37 percent of non-white Catholics told researchers with the Public Religion Research Institute that they believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.
Louisiana state Sen. Regina Ashford Barrow, a black woman and Democrat who voted for the Louisiana bill, also tried to build support for social programs in every room where the bill was discussed, she said. She serves as chair of the state Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee and worries that without increased social services, poor women will die from back-alley abortions. She introduced a bill that aims to identify pathways out of poverty and where existing aid program rules make escapes impossible. It passed.
“I believe in life from the womb to the tomb,” Ashford Barrow said, “and, to me, that means giving people the resources they need so they are able to raise every child in a dignified manner.”
So in June, shortly after Georgia lawmakers moved to restrict abortions beyond the sixth week of pregnancy, the ACLU of Georgia, Planned Parenthood of Georgia and black women’s organizations filed suit. The disproportionate effect the state’s new abortion policy could have on poor women of all races and women of color should not be ignored, the suit says.