Though 40 years have passed since the Supreme Court granted women the legal right to an abortion in its landmark case Roe v. Wade, the issue is still roiled in controversy, as antiabortion groups and state legislatures attempt to chip away at a woman’s right to choose. Over the past two years, 135 new state-level abortion restrictions were enacted. Additionally, 20 states are allowing insurers or employers to deny women affordable contraception by refusing to comply with Obamacare’s birth-control mandate.
In spite of those hurdles, pro-choice advocates have not given up in their fight for reproductive justice. The passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, for example, was certainly a victory for those who want to make family-planning tools accessible to all women because it increased health insurance coverage for women while lowering their health costs. Thanks to the health care reform law, millions more women of color have access to contraception starting in August 2012.
Yet, as the following facts show, there’s still work to be done to ensure that all women—especially women of color—can access their legal right to decide when and whether to be a parent. Below are the top 10 reasons why women of color have a particularly significant stake in the conversation on abortion and reproductive rights.
1. Though access is increasing, many women of color still face hurdles in getting and regularly using contraceptives. Women of color are far less likely than white women to have access to contraception and to consistently use it properly because of economic restrictions and a lack of information about contraception, as well as geographic, cultural, and linguistic barriers. Women of color are also far less likely to have health insurance, and many women of color are therefore unable to afford contraception, leading to a greater occurrence of unintended pregnancies. Under the Affordable Care Act, women of color will have greater access to this vital health service because the law requires insurance plans to provide no-cost coverage of FDA-approved contraceptives.
2. Women of color are still more likely to face poverty and instability, which can pose a barrier to consistent contraceptive use. Women of color report living in poverty at much higher rates than white women: In 2012 poverty rates were more than double for women of color than for white women. Black women and American Indian and Alaska Native women have the highest poverty rates among women, at 29.6 percent and 31.2 percent, respectively. Women in poverty face life events such as moving and relationship changes at much higher rates than those who are not, directly impacting their ability to use birth control consistently.
3. Women of color have the highest rate of unintended pregnancies and seek the highest number of abortions. Due to these disparities in access to and effective use of contraception, 69 percent of pregnancies among black women and 54 percent of pregnancies among Latino women are unintended—compared to 40 percent of pregnancies among white women. Since almost half of all unintended pregnancies in the United States end in abortion, similar disparities exist among races and ethnicities in abortion rates.
4. Cost is still a barrier for women of color seeking abortions. Though the Affordable Care Act has greatly increased access to contraception for women of color, remaining funding restrictions on abortion still exist, meaning that 57 percent of women who seek abortions still have to pay for the service out of pocket. Since 42 percent of women who seek abortions live below the federal poverty level—disproportionately represented by women of color—cost remains a significant barrier for women of color seeking abortions. Fifty-eight percent of abortion patients say they would have preferred to have their abortion earlier on in their pregnancy but waited because of the cost; nearly 60 percent of women who delayed an abortion cite the time it took to make arrangements and save up the money to cover the bill as the reasons for the delay. While legal abortions are still safe, delaying the procedure increases the medical risks for the woman.
5. The majority of people of color believe that abortion should stay legal, and that the availability of contraceptive services should be expanded. According to a recent poll, 63 percent of Americans—including 67 percent of African Americans—believe that the Roe v. Wade decision should not be overturned. A separate poll shows that 92 percent of African Americans and 85 percent of Latinos favor expanding access to birth control for those women who cannot afford it.
6. Faith leaders across the country support access to abortion rights. This week 19 faith leaders signed a public statement in support of abortion rights, citing as a key factor their work to reduce inequities in our health care system that disproportionately affect low-income women and women of color. A poll released earlier this month shows that few religious groups actually want Roe v. Wade overturned. In fact, a substantial number of white Protestants (76 percent), black Protestants (65 percent) and white Catholics (63 percent) say the ruling should not be overturned, according to that same poll.
7. Increased access to abortion should be coupled with an expansion of health care services to better serve women of color. Access to abortion is crucial for all women. It should not only remain legal, but policymakers should focus on increasing the accessibility to abortion by removing the financial barriers to abortion, which disproportionately impact women of color. Additionally, we need reform to expand health care services and narrow racial and ethnic health disparities such as disproportionately high rates of HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and heart disease among women of color. A big step toward closing some of these disparities was taken with the Affordable Care Act, which ensured that women of color will have greater access to health insurance coverage. Another effective way of minimizing health disparities is through community health centers, which provide crucial care to underserved populations and have successfully begun to reduce racial and ethnic health disparities in the broader population.
8. The United States has the leading rate of teen pregnancies in the developed world, disproportionately accounted for by women of color. Though teen births have been declining in recent years, in 2011 a total of 329,797 babies were born to women ages 15 to 19. These rates are highest for black, Latino, and Native American teens. Together, black and Latino youth comprised 57 percent of U.S. teen births in 2011. While some populations are more supportive, many teen moms continue to carry significant social and economic costs from their pregnancies, including cost of prenatal care and child care. Teens have far fewer resources than older adult women—who tend to have greater family stability and higher incomes to help them deal with an unintended pregnancy—and often end up dropping out of school and stunting their career opportunities as a result.
9. Women of color are still more likely to die in childbirth due to substandard care. Roe v. Wade has certainly enabled safer abortions, but the ruling has little effect on the health disparities facing women of color. For the past 50 years, black women in the United States have been approximately four times as likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than white women. This does not simply reflect a greater prevalence of complications from pregnancy in women of color; rather, women of color are still less likely to receive lifesaving treatments in the face of such complications. Data also suggest that 25 percent of pregnant women do not receive adequate prenatal care, and this figure rises to 32 percent for black women and 41 percent for Native American and Alaska Native women. Women who receive no prenatal care are three to four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than women who do.
10. Women of color fare worse than others in every aspect of reproductive health. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the high number of reproductive health disparities among women of color must be seen in a larger context in which significant racial and ethnic disparities persist for a wide range of health outcomes, including unintended pregnancy rates, abortion rates, and other health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, and HIV. In 2002 the Institute of Medicine reported, “Minorities are less likely than whites to receive needed services, including clinically necessary procedures.” Though black and Latino women represent one-quarter of the U.S. female population, together they account for 80 percent of reported female HIV/AIDS diagnoses. These high rates of disease are linked to women of color’s limited access to health care services. For instance, women of color are less likely than white women to receive regular Pap smears, a crucial screening mechanism for cervical cancer, and are therefore more likely to die from cervical cancer. Equitable access to reproductive health care remains a crucial issue that particularly affects women of color.
As we celebrate 40 years of increased reproductive justice for women, we must acknowledge the challenges that still face women of color. We must eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities and increase access to a full range of reproductive health care tools in order to support our underserved communities.
Sophia Kerby is the Special Assistant for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress. Morriah Kaplan is an intern with Progress 2050.