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Abortion bans could have far-reaching impacts on the Black community in the Midwest

Black Midwesterners are more likely to be impacted by abortions restrictions, such as those recently enacted in Wisconsin and Missouri.
Chandler Johnson / Kalimizzou
Black Midwesterners are more likely to be impacted by abortions restrictions, such as those recently enacted in Wisconsin and Missouri.

When Jasmine Burnett got pregnant as a young college student in Indiana in 1998, she didn’t know exactly what her future would look like.

However, she did know those plans would not include the man who got her pregnant.

“I knew that him being a part of my future would involve levels of control and manipulation that I wasn't ready to sign up for,” she said.

Burnett had an abortion at around eight or nine weeks of pregnancy.

She said it changed her life – for the better.

“I'm thankful that my abortion provided me with that opportunity to be very embodied and very clear in my life,” she said. “I've had a beautiful life, and I’ve had a life that I've chosen.”

Since graduating college, Burnett has made a career working in abortion rights.

Earlier this year, when she heard about the leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, she got upset thinking about how other Black people might no longer have the same choice and control over their bodies the way she did.

“I was also crying because I was like, ‘People are going to die – people are going to die trying,’” Burnett said.

How structural racism affects abortion rates

As more states take steps to crack down on abortion, the restrictions are likely to affect people of color the most – in particular, the Black community.

Black women nationwide seek abortions at a rate that’s more than three times higher than white women, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2019, the most recent figures available.

The reasons why fall under one general umbrella – structural racism, said Monica McLemore, the interim director at the Center for Antiracism in Nursing at the University of Washington.

Structural racism means society ultimately has set up Black Americans with fewer tools to support children, she said.

They’re already more vulnerable to living in poverty and intimate partner violence.

“If you don't have the financial and social supports to be able to parent, then abortion seems like a relatively decent option for you,” McLemore said.

And even before a pregnancy, she said, structural racism means Black Americans are also set up to be less prepared to prevent unintended pregnancies in the first place, due to limited access to comprehensive sex education and lower rates of insurance coverage.

“When you think about just insurance access, [it] allows people to have access to health care and other preventative health services – things like contraception,” McLemore said.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, McLemore and other experts worry new abortion restrictions will only create more obstacles for the Black community going forward.

Growing concerns about Black mothers dying

To start, many Black people who live in states with restrictions could have a harder time getting abortion care, which may involve travel, said Rachel Hardeman, the director of the Center for Antiracism Research for Health Equity at the University of Minnesota.

“They're disproportionately in that lower-income category… only having access to jobs, for instance, that don't offer paid leave, or don't offer time off to access the care that they need,” she said.

Ultimately, Hardeman said this could lead to more Black mothers dying.

Maternal mortality rates nationwide for Black women are already three times higher than what they are for white women, a disparity that persists across education levels.

“When you have more people that are forced to be pregnant, you have more people in the risk pool for adverse outcomes,” Hardeman said. “And so from a sheer numbers perspective, what we're going to see is continued rising rates of maternal mortality.”

peer-reviewed study published last year predicted the rate of Black women who would die from pregnancy-related causes would increase 33% in the years following a total abortion ban, compared to just 21% for the general population.

Ripple effects beyond health care

No states have enacted a total abortion ban so far. But some – like MissouriWisconsin and Kentucky – are close.

Across the nation, 12 states have abortion bans with no exception for rape or incest in effect, while two states – Ohio and Georgia – ban the procedure entirely at six weeks of pregnancy, according to the New York Times.

Some activists for reproductive rights said they’re concerned abortion restrictions could lead to criminalization of people who turn to self-managed abortions or travel to another state to access abortion services.

Black Americans are already incarcerated at rates significantly higher than white Americans.

“What we're really looking at is criminalizing women for their own bodily autonomy … [and] for their reproductive health,” said Luana Nelson-Brown, the executive director for the Iowa Coalition for Collective Change, an anti-violence group that works with marginalized communities.

As more Midwestern lawmakers consider passing abortion restrictions, Nelson-Brown said it’s important to have more Black voices at the table to discuss their reproductive health care.

“If we're talking about reducing the disparities of Black maternal health and reproductive health, then let Black women lead that,” she said, “and we haven't done the best job reaching Black women.”

This story comes from a collaboration between Side Effects Public Media and the Midwest Newsroom — an investigative journalism collaboration including IPRKCUR 89.3Nebraska Public Media NewsSt. Louis Public Radioand NPR.

John, News Editor for LPM, is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email John at jboyle@lpm.org.

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