New GOP Abortion Restrictions Disproportionately Impact Women of Color

Interview with Dr. Barbara Hudson Roberts, longtime pro-choice activist, conducted by Scott Harris

After the U.S. Senate confirmed Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court last year, anti-abortion activists and their allies in state legislatures across the country doubled their efforts to pass more aggressive restrictions on access to abortion. Their thinking was that with Kavanaugh replacing Justice Anthony Kennedy, they would now have the fifth vote needed to uphold new limits on abortion or even overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion in 1973.
On May 15, Alabama’s legislature passed, and Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a bill that bans all abortions outright, with no exceptions for rape or incest. The only exemption permitted in the legislation is “to avoid a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother.”  Seven other states – Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas and Utah – have all passed new abortion restrictions with the aim of challenging a woman’s right to have a legal abortion before the Supreme Court.
Dr. Barbara Hudson Roberts, Rhode Island’s first female adult cardiologist, became active in the pro-choice movement, before the Roe v Wade decision. She helped found the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition and was the keynote speaker at the first national pro-choice demonstration in Washington, D.C. in November 1971. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Dr. Roberts, who explains why she believes that new abortion restrictions imposed by state governments would disproportionately impact women of color, and those who are economically disadvantaged.

DR.  BARBARA HUDSON ROBERTS: You know, I was a medical student and a young house officer in the late ’60s and early ’70s before abortion was legalized. And what I saw in those days really radicalized me. I saw women who had to put themselves in the hands of the back alley butchers and come into the emergency room with septic shock, with perforated wombs, with their bowels hanging out of their vaginas because they were desperate to end pregnancies and their own physicians were prevented by law from doing so. And I became active when I was a resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Barbara, I did want to find out a bit about your views on what we see going on in states across the country. Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Texas and Ohio are among the states imposing restrictions. Some would say illegal restrictions on abortion, given the Roe vs. Wade decision by the Supreme Court many years ago.

DR.  BARBARA HUDSON ROBERTS: Right. Well, Scott, I think, and I hope that what we’re seeing by these actions by these male legislators – and they’re almost all male – who were introducing it, although the governor, I believe it was in Alabama, who was the woman who signed the bill. What I think we’re seeing is the last gasp of a misogynistic patriarchal society which has oppressed women for millennia. No groups in power give up power without a struggle.

But what is very interesting to me, particularly considering Alabama and Georgia, are that laws restricting or outlawing abortion have a greater negative impact on black, minority and poor women than they do on white women. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that two of the three states that have recently banned – essentially banned all abortions – were Confederate states which fought to keep slavery legal in the South. The Civil War was won by the North and slaves were emancipated. But then across the South, a wave of terror started led by the Ku Klux Klan, who moved to terrorize blacks and prevent them from achieving equal rights.

And if we look at the history of lynching in the United States, over 4,000 black southerners were lynched during the period from the end of the Civil War to just after World War II. Five hundred eighty-nine of those lynchings occurred in Georgia and Alabama, and counted for 361 of them. Ohio itself had 35 lynchings. So not only are these anti-abortion laws an attack against all women, they preferentially are harmful to black, poor and minority women. For example, we know that in 1962, nearly 1,600 women were admitted to the Harlem Hospital with incomplete abortions, which is a common complication of illegal abortions. And there was one abortion-related hospital admission for every 42 deliveries at the hospital that year. From 1972 to 1974, the mortality rate due to illegal abortions for non-white women was 12 times that for white women. So the people who are going to be most impacted by these draconian abortion laws are minority and poor women. Even before Roe v Wade, a wealthy woman could always get an abortion even if she had to fly out of the country to do it. It was the poor and the minorities who were most affected and died most often.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you believe the women’s rights movement and groups like Planned Parenthood are fully prepared to take on these these anti-abortion groups, which are moving very quickly in these states that have imposed these restrictions on abortion to bring these cases to the Supreme Court in order to challenge Roe v. Wade to either weaken it or overturn it?

DR.  BARBARA HUDSON ROBERTS: If Roe v Wade is overturned, I think you will see a mass movement that will make the Suffragist movement and the second wave of feminism of the early 1970s seem puny by comparison. I really believe that. You know, I think young women can’t remember what it was like before Roe v Wade, but they’re the ones who are going to be affected if abortion becomes illegal. And I think you have so many women now who would be so outraged at this blatant taking away of their ability to control their own reproductive lives that I think it could spell the end of the Republican party. I really believe there will be a mass movement like nothing we have seen before.

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