During last Sunday’s episode of “Downton Abbey,” Lady Edith Crawley, a blueblood daughter of white British aristocracy, sought an illegal abortion because the father of her baby — a married man — had disappeared in Munich and was nowhere to be found. Once in the discreet waiting room, Lady Edith changed her mind about the abortion after hearing the cries of a woman in the doctor’s office. It was 1922 London, and abortions were afforded to the very wealthy.
Ninety-two years later, history reminds us that women in a variety of different races and circumstances are still seeking the right to have an abortion — though most are not in the same socioeconomic position as the fictional Lady Crawley.
Republicans in the House of Representatives recently passed a bill that many claim discriminates against black women. The “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” prohibits low income individuals who receive tax subsidies for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act from purchasing coverage for abortion services, even when using their own funds.
It is but one of hundreds of bills to restrict abortion passed by the Republican Congress and Republican-dominated state legislatures in the wake of the 2010 elections. The State of The States 2013 report presents abortion restrictions across the country in graphics.
We do not typically think of abortion as a civil rights issue. But we should.
Much has been made of the Republican assault on abortion as being a “war on women.” An examination of who has abortions suggests that these restrictions are more accurately characterized as an assault on the poor.
Sixty-nine percent of women receiving abortions have incomes either below or just above the poverty line. Most are already mothers: 61 percent of women who have abortions have one or more children. They are adults: a mere 6.4 percent of women who receive abortions are minors under the age of 18.
And finally, the majority of women receiving abortions are Black or Latina. Only 36 percent of abortion patients are non-Hispanic white women.
The abortion restrictions championed by the Republican Party force poor Black and Hispanic mothers to bear children that, given the circumstances of their lives, they may not want and certainly cannot afford.
During Black History Month this assault on black women is unconscionable. The purpose of this calendar dedication is to acknowledge history that has been ignored or suppressed. A piece of that ignored history is the work of Black politicians, such as New York’s Percy Sutton and Michigan’s Coleman Young, who led the legislative campaign to legalize abortion in the 1960s.
Black politicians (nearly all of them men), introduced legislation to repeal or reform state abortion laws in New York, Illinois, Oklahoma, Michigan, Tennessee and Wisconsin. These men acted, in part, because of the suffering illegal abortion disproportionately inflicted on Black women.
In 1969, when Rep. Charles Chew (D-Ill) introduced legislation to repeal the Illinois abortion law, he recounted a trip to the morgue to identify his niece, who had died from an illegal abortion.
When Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm became the Honorary President of NARAL (then the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws), she cited research which showed that illegal abortion caused 25 percent of deaths of pregnant white women in New York City, but nearly half the deaths of pregnant Black women.
To be sure, some would argue that those who campaign to keep abortion accessible to poor women but fail to also campaign to make resources available to poor families so that women don’t need to abort for economic reasons, are cynically telling poor women that they should kill their unborn because our society does not want them. They are right.
“Choice” is a cruel word when the only choice offered is ending a pregnancy. But this pales in comparison to the current Republican program of cutting aid to the poor (including food stamps) while forcing poor women to give birth to a child who will grow up in poverty.
The claim that Black women are discriminated against when access to abortion is denied is the basis of Thurgood Marshall’s vehement dissent in the 1977 court cases that allowed states to deny Medicaid funding of abortion.
Marshall wrote: “The enactments challenged here brutally coerce poor women to bear children whom society will scorn for every day of their lives … I am appalled at the ethical bankruptcy of those who preach a “right to life”that means, under present social policies, a bare existence in utter misery for so many poor women and their children.”
The Guttmacher Institute recently reported that the number of abortions performed in the United States is the lowest since 1973. The decline in abortions coincides with declines in the overall birth rate and an increase in the use of effective contraceptives. A decrease in unwanted pregnancies is cause for celebration – and for continuing to make effective contraceptives available to all women.
History repeats itself if we do not heed its lessons. The lesson taught in the years of illegal abortion is clear: poor, Black women suffered and died. In early 20th century, white English women also died as a result of botched, illegal abortions.
It is not advisable to move back in time regarding any woman’s reproductive rights. Rather, its is best to move ahead out of the shadow of history.
Nicola Beisel is Associate Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, where she is a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project. She is the author of Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America.
Photo credit: PBS.