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Senators introduce bill to help people with disabilities access reproductive health care

Sen. Tammy Duckworth said the law is necessary to “restore bodily autonomy” to people with disabilities.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., speaks about her support for abortion rights at the Capitol on May 19, 2022.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., speaks about her support for abortion rights at the Capitol on May 19.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file

Democratic Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Patty Murray introduced legislation Thursday to help bridge the gap in reproductive health care access for people with disabilities in the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. 

The bill, called the Reproductive Health Care Accessibility Act, would provide funding for training and education programs focused on reproductive health care specifically for this group of people. It also would add more doctors and nurses with disabilities to the workforce and calls for a study analyzing reproductive health for disabled communities. 

The new legislation comes weeks after the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion. 

“I want it to restore bodily autonomy to the community of persons with disabilities,” Duckworth, of Illinois, a double-amputee who lost her legs while serving in the U.S. Army, told NBC News of the proposed law. “We constantly have our bodily autonomy questioned. There’s this horrendous history of forced sterilizations, refusal to allow access to fertility treatments or birth control or abortions. So we absolutely had to be clear to enshrine the rights of persons with disabilities to have their bodily autonomy and, in this case, to deal with their own reproductive rights.” 

As of 2019, at least 12.7% of the U.S. population lived with a disability — from speech and limb differences to mobile and developmental disabilities, according to census data. About 1 in 10 people with disabilities are able to become pregnant, and there are more than 4 million parents with disabilities in the country, the senators note in the bill. 

Duckworth and Murray are hoping the new legislation will address some of the overwhelming issues that people with disabilities must contend with. This group of the population is less likely to have health care providers and routine check-ups, and more likely to have unmet health care needs because of the cost, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those with disabilities fare even worse when it comes to reproductive care access. Research from the Disability and Health Journal shows that people with disabilities get pregnant at similar rates to those without, but are more likely to experience blood clotting, hemorrhaging and infection during pregnancy. They also often receive inadequate health care and are at significantly higher risk of dying from pregnancy and childbirth, the research showed. 

“Every single American deserves to have control over their own body, life, and future — and that, of course, includes Americans with disabilities,” Murray, of Washington, said in a statement. “But people with disabilities have long faced discrimination and truly unacceptable roadblocks to getting the reproductive care they need — and Republicans’ nonstop attacks on our rights have made matters so much worse. Our legislation will help ensure people with disabilities can access reproductive care that meets their needs.”

The legislation doesn’t go as far as to provide clear pathways for people with disabilities to access abortion services or address concerns about officials denying them medications that happen to be abortifacients — drugs that induce abortions. But Duckworth said she hopes the bill will ultimately create a more equitable and inclusive environment for people with disabilities when accessing reproductive health care. 

Duckworth said the long term goal for the bill is "to grow a community of clinicians that are sufficiently diverse; not just in terms of racial diversity, but also diverse in terms of disability, that have experience and expertise to deal with the range of concerns within the disability community when it comes to reproductive health care,” Duckworth said. 

Following  the reversal of Roe v. Wade, disability rights advocates spoke out about the lack of consideration for marginalized communities when it came to abortion access. Organizers and advocates say that, in order to have a more equitable reproductive health care system, there needs to be proper sex education for and about people with disabilities and more knowledgeable health care professionals. 

To this end, the bill would provide funding to both public and private nonprofit groups to train people with disabilities to become health care professionals and provide sex education focused on the sexual and reproductive health care needs of people with disabilities. It would, through the Department of Health and Human Services, establish a technical assistance center to provide states and tribal organizations with best practices in sexual and reproductive health care. It also proposes to conduct a study to analyze reproductive health care for people with disabilities. 

“Already, people with disabilities have a hard time accessing abortion, whether it’s because they can’t travel to where there’s a clinic or because they get denied access to it,” Duckworth said. “This would say, ‘Hey, as we’re fighting the larger fight over access to abortions, we need to further lift up the disability community.”

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