Race, class, and abortion: Why repealing Roe won’t be felt equally

Protestors in Alabama rally against the state’s anti-abortion legislation in 2019. Photo courtesy of Julie Bennett

Regressing back 50 years of legal precedent has serious implications, and it’s not just a “women’s issue”

Right now, the entire world watches as the U.S. readies itself to roll back protections long asserted by the United Nations as a human right; the freedom to safe and legal abortion. There is no question that this is a moral affront to all women and abortion-seeking people, but the practical implications of this decision will not be felt equally for this entire class of people. As we move into this new segregated era of abortion access, we must understand exactly what regressing back five decades of legal precedent means in law and in effect, and which segment of the population will be harmed the most.

Two years ago, after the extra judicial murder of George Floyd, we experienced the largest racial uprisings in human history, cementing the work of ending police violence within the abolitionist cannon. Repealing Roe v. Wade is not separate and outside of police violence or the over-incarceration of the American BIPOC (that is Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) population, rather it is the next chapter in understanding state-sanctioned violence against this community. Abortion is an issue of abolition because repealing abortion rights will certainly lead to the incarceration of more BIPOC individuals.

Let me explain. Sometime in the next or months so, we are expecting the 1973 court case that provided the constitutional right to an abortion, Roe v. Wade, to be overturned. This does not mean abortion will be criminalized nationwide. It means the federal government will no longer prohibit states that wish to criminalize abortion from doing so. This is an important distinction, and we all need to understand what it means legally and for individuals.

From a legal perspective, states will split along party lines. Most “red states” or those with conservative leadership, will completely or nearly, ban access to abortion, some through what are called “trigger” laws, that will snap into place immediately after the ruling. Many already have laws on the books or are passing them now in emergency legislative sessions. These policies will ban abortion even in the cruelest of situations, like rape or incest. Ohio is one of these states. Alternatively, “blue states,” or states led by democrats, will become so-called “destination” states that will codify abortive services for their citizens and anyone who might travel within their borders.

This means for individuals who may find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy, their ability to access abortion will be linked directly to where in the U.S. they live and their income, and they’ll fall within one of two groups. The first group, who will retain abortion access, are those who live in blue states where abortion will remain legal, who will be joined by those who live in red states where abortion has been criminalized, but have the means to travel. The second group, those who will lose abortion access, live in red states where abortion will be criminalized and won’t be able to afford to travel to blue states. In reality, although the repeal of Roe applies to all, it will only affect the poor, who will be trapped within their states, without the means to travel.

In the U.S. it is well established, that discussions of race and poverty go hand-in-hand, because in our 246 years as a nation we have allowed white supremacy to become systematically entwined with our public policies. Here in Cleveland, it appears in our housing codes, healthcare, and equal access to education and has resulted in a society that consistently leaves BIPOC individuals suffering from poverty at rates far greater than white people. Today, in the era of endless diversity trainings and celebrations of individual Black CEOs that, at times, feel more performative than productive, the wage gap is identical to what it was in 1950, which is that the average Black American man earns $0.51 on every dollar that the average white American man earns.

As this relates to abortion, data shows that wealthy women encounter unwanted pregnancies less often than poor women and are far more likely to receive abortions because of their overall access to contraceptives and health care. Yet, when Roe is repealed we can expect abortion-seeking people in BIPOC communities to be affected much harder. Due to the disproportionate impact of poverty, the practical implications of traveling out of state are much more severe; working hourly jobs without paid time off, potentially finding child care, travel and lodging expenses – these are just a few of the differences dividing wealthy and poor women from access that will make this abortion ban inherently class and race-based.

In addition, history bears out that criminalizing abortion will not prevent it, it will only create an underground market. So when a person can not access safe and legal abortion, they will be faced with two choices: have a child against their will, or commit a criminal act. Not only does this put them at greater risk of literal mortality, as being pregnant is actually more dangerous than having a safe and legal abortion, but it also puts them at greater risk of entering the carceral system. In recent years we have become acutely aware that there are two U.S. criminal justice systems, one for the elite, predominately white, and one for BIPOC people. As it stands, Black women are incarcerated at around 6 times the rates of white women. As this ban takes effect, the issue of abortion and race-based incarceration will collide, as poor individuals, particularly BIPOC women are forced to turn to illegal methods to access the safe and legal care they formerly had the constitutionally protected right to.

My point is this, banning abortion is an egregious affront to anyone concerned with equity and freedom, and it’s not just a “women’s issue.” If the murder of Black people by the state compelled you to exercise your constitutionally protected right to dissent in 2020 this should too, because Black lives do matter, and they will be directly affected by the repeal of abortion. Roe is 49 years of judicial precedent that is rooted in the fundamental right to privacy, and tearing it out not only ends abortion protections, but makes vulnerable any right that flows from it including interracial marriage, gay marriage, contraceptive access, and other liberties. Its ripple effects will have incredible implications. I discuss only one of them here.

Author: Emily Forsee

Emily Forsee is an advocate, organizer, and current law student at Cleveland-State University College of Law, where she is one of five founding members of the CSU-National Lawyers Guild Chapter. Emily’s passion for equitable justice and civil rights began in Columbus Ohio, where she began her career advocating for the wave of families who lost their homes during the “Great Recession.” After moving to Cleveland, she's done Community work touching on reproductive justice, emergency food, and political education. Currently, she is a central coordinator of Right the Record; Exposing Police Violence in Cleveland. Her knowledge base centers around socio-economic systems, public benefits policy, and race, class & gender dynamics. She holds a Masters of Public Administration with a focus in Economics and Urban Management, and a Bachelors's in NonProfit Administration from Cleveland State University, but values her education from reading grassroots scholars at the library the most. She believes in building infrastructure to support liberation movements working to dismantle social harms that have historically pushed out communities by systems of power.

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