On Friday, January 22, thousands of anti-abortion activists will descend on Washington, D.C., for the annual March for Life, a day-long event of rallying, advocacy, education, and lobbying for the elimination of abortion rights. This year’s event coincides with the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that affirmed women’s constitutional right to abortion.
Advocates who support abortion access often lift up the Roe anniversary as a chance to discuss how access to reproductive health care helps ensure optimal health outcomes, economic security, and basic human dignity for women and their families. Meanwhile, attendees of the March for Life rally will be engaged in events and messaging around the chosen 2016 theme “Pro-Life and Pro-Woman Go Hand-in-Hand”—a deceptive statement that hides the devastating effects of abortion restrictions and anti-abortion rhetoric on women’s reproductive health and, too often, on women’s lives.
The March for Life website asserts that “life is the empowering choice for women. It’s best for women and families facing unplanned pregnancies, and it’s best for developing female babies in the womb.” The claim that these dangerous laws and restrictions are “pro-woman” is not only misleading but also dangerous and demeaning. As more than 1,200 faith leaders and organizations asserted in a recent amicus brief to the Supreme Court, “Being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term not only exposes a woman to greater health risks, but is also an affront to her right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy, in accordance with her faith and values.”
Access to abortion is essential to women’s health
Forty-three years after Roe, the absence of women’s access to the full range of legal reproductive health care services can still literally be a matter of life and death. In March 2015, the Supreme Court will hear Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, a case challenging Texas’ H.B. 2—a law that placed dramatic restrictions on state abortion clinics and currently threatens to reduce the number of abortion clinics in the state from 50 to 10 or fewer. Since H.B. 2 was passed in 2013, more than 130,000 and up to 240,000 women report having attempted to self-terminate a pregnancy without consulting a medical professional. These staggering figures prompted some Texas lawmakers to protest the bill on the floor of the state Legislature by holding coat hangers—a chilling symbol of pre-Roe at-home abortions that often left women maimed, infertile, or dead.
In 2015, Tennessee lawmakers passed Amendment 1, a law denying women a guaranteed right to abortion under the state constitution. Since then, the state Legislature has introduced a number of new bills and passed at least two laws designed to severely limit the ability of Tennessee women to access abortion. Currently, a Tennessee woman named Anna Yocca faces charges for attempted murder under the state’s “fetal homicide law,” which can be used to prosecute women for any actions that could harm a fetus. Police arrested Yocca after she was admitted to the hospital with severe bleeding following a failed self-induced abortion using a coat hanger.
Anti-abortion sentiment hits the most vulnerable women the hardest
Anti-abortion and anti-woman sentiment is never just about abortion—it is about a broader effort to reduce a woman’s ability to make the right decisions for herself when it comes to family planning. And restrictive abortion policies hit the most vulnerable women the hardest. Tennessee and Texas not only carry significant restrictions on abortion access but also are home to a significant number of low-income women. In Texas, 16.7 percent of women live in poverty, while, in Tennessee, 18.1 percent live in poverty. Texas voted last year to deny state funding to Planned Parenthood, whose clinics provided health care to 45 percent of low-income women through the state’s publicly funded Women’s Health Program. Tennessee lawmakers have prohibited insurance policies in state exchanges from covering abortion. The state also forbids the use of state funds to pay for abortions except in limited cases. Consequently, a safe legal abortion is out of reach for many low-income women in Tennessee.
The pro-woman stance of anti-abortion activists provides both support and a cover for policies that stand deeply at odds with a woman’s well-being—with far broader effects for women’s reproductive health in general. Tennessee and Texas are only 2 of 20 states that refuse to expand Medicaid, which provides significant family planning and health care resources to low-income women. Texas alone is home to 25 percent of the 3 million American adults who fall into the health insurance “coverage gap” caused by the refusal to expand Medicaid. Although the current Hyde Amendment prevents public federal dollars from covering abortions, Medicaid coverage has been shown to sharply reduce unintended pregnancy, birth rates, and abortion rates in states with expanded coverage.
Not unlike the March for Life, conservative federal lawmakers also claim to be pro-women while working to slash funding for family planning. The 2016 House Labor Health and Human Services Subcommittee spending bill completely eliminated funding for the Title X Family Planning Program, which was funded at $286.5 million in 2015 and serves approximately 4.7 million Americans. At the same time, state legislatures are making it increasingly hard for women to plan their pregnancies or access an abortion. However, this will not stop women desperate to end an unplanned pregnancy—even at the risk of their own lives.
In contrast, real pro-woman reproductive health policies honor a woman’s ability to make the decision that is right for her when facing an unplanned pregnancy. This means ensuring that all women can access and afford the health care they need—including safe legal abortion. From a reproductive justice standpoint, pro-woman policies seek to empower a woman to decide whether and when to become a parent, as well as to parent with dignity through social policies that ensure economic security and the ability of her children, family, and community to flourish. Real pro-woman advocacy includes calling for policies such as Medicaid expansion, paid family and medical leave, a higher minimum wage, and the elimination of the wage gap. Pro-woman policies such as these offer the best chance for a woman to make the right decisions for both herself and her family.
Carolyn Davis is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.