Jamille Fields, Resident Blogger (Law Students for Reproductive Justice Fellow at the National Health Law Program)
I have always found studying history fascinating. I subscribe to the philosophy that “you can not understand where you are going until you understand where you have been.” That statement definitely applies to the Roe v. Wade victory for abortion rights and the subsequent battles to achieve abortion access. As history teaches us, it is often low-income women and women of color who are most likely to have access to their rights denied—and this holds true today.
To explore how much has changed and remained the same, I explored the organization where I work to understand their abortion rights advocacy throughout the years. The National Health Law Program (NHeLP) is a public interest law firm dedicated to health care access for low-income people. It was founded four years before the Roe v. Wade decision in 1969.
NHeLP, filed an amicus brief in Doe v. Bolton, the other decision issued on January 22, 1973. Here, Georgia law prohibited abortions, except in the cases of rape, severe fetal deformity, or the possibility of severe or fatal injury to the mother. Even in such cases, the law imposed burdensome restrictions, such as requiring three physicians to approve the procedure, and denied access completely to non-residents. NHeLP’s brief called out these restrictions: “It is an undeniable fact that abortion in Georgia and in virtually every other state in the United States is far more readily available to the white, paying patient than to the poor and the non-white.” This line could be pasted into related briefs today as abortion restrictions still disproportionately impact women who don’t have the money and ability to travel to a state with improved abortion access.
In Roe v. Wade, NHeLP’s amicus brief, written in conjunction with the American Public Health Association (APHA), noted the public health concerns raised from the Texas law that prohibited abortions, except to save the mother’s life. The brief notes illegal abortions, at the time, were the greatest contributor to maternal mortality. APHA and NHeLP recognized that women who were denied access to an abortion would often use unsafe means to terminate a pregnancy. Following Roe, the number of women treated for complications related to illegal abortion steeply declined.
Post-Roe but pre-Hyde, Medicaid and other public funding programs treated abortion as an ordinary medical service. (Imagine that!). The percentage of women of color obtaining legal abortions nearly doubled and the percentage of unmarried women also significantly increased.
But, Henry Hyde recognized that while he couldn’t win the victory of taking away abortion rights, the low-hanging fruit was to restrict abortion access for low-income women. (After all, what is a right without access?) The Hyde Amendment took us back to the problem that existed pre-Roe—low-income women, who often are women of color, often cannot access abortion.
At this writing, those who are opposed to abortion (Again!) recognize they may not be able to take away the right to an abortion, but they can trample on abortion access for the most vulnerable. It was surprising recently to see Republican women temporarily thwart the introduction of a proposed twenty-week ban bill. (I thought I was in the Twilight zone). But, I was then hurried me back to reality when the House (Again!) passed H.R. 7 to remove access to abortion for women receiving health benefits through public programs.
So, the fight continues. Today, RJ advocates benefit from the advancements many who came before us achieved. The victory of Roe is to be celebrated. However, if we are to truly apply the RJ framework, then we understand the victory is not yet won until it is won for all.