Anti-abortion laws: a war against poor women

[This article was originally published on 6 february 2020.]

The political fight against anti-abortion legislation is in fact a class battle, and the reality is that abortion is only illegal for poor women. Women with resources can always interrupt their unwanted pregnancies. Either they know a doctor who performs medical abortions for an exorbitant price, and they have the resources to travel to a place where abortion is legal, or they have the means to buy an abortion pill in their own country or elsewhere.

Restricting access to safe abortions keeps poor women in poverty, perpetuates the cycle that prevents them from social mobility and allows wealth to remain in the hands of the rich, particularly white men.

Deciding if and when to have a child is essential for a woman’s economic and psychological well-being: it has implications for her education and for entering the workforce.

In a 2018 study based on interviews with 813 women in the United States throughout five years, researchers found that women who had abortions denied to them were more likely to be in poverty within six months compared to women who were able to interrupt the pregnancy. Women who were denied abortion were also less likely to have full-time work and more likely to depend on some form of public assistance. Both effects “remained significant for four years.”

The study concludes that “women who were denied an abortion were more likely than women who received an abortion to experience economic difficulties and insecurity for years. Laws restricting access to abortion may lead to worse economic outcomes for women”.

The most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the world

In Latin America, this scenario is exacerbated by the huge inequalities of the region, which makes poor women and minorities invisible to those who are creating public policies. Indigenous women, for example, are disproportionately affected by adverse sexual and reproductive health outcomes.

The rates of unwanted pregnancy and teenage pregnancy are high among indigenous populations and indigenous women also face greater risks of complications related to abortion such as injury or death than the general public.

Poor, young and ethnic minority women suffer the physical and social costs imposed on them by the restrictive anti-abortion laws of Latin America the most. Latin America is home to six countries that criminalise abortion in all cases, even in situations where a woman’s life is at risk. In El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname, women have to carry a full-term pregnancy even if it means they could die in the process, which is an explicit violation of their human rights.

This makes Latin America the region of the world with the strictest anti-abortion legislation. The only other two places that fully penalise termination, even if the procedure is medically necessary to save the woman’s life, are Malta and the Vatican.

El Salvador made headlines in 2019 when Evelyn Hernández was acquitted of a murder conviction related to the death of a foetus. She had been sentenced to 40 years in prison for giving birth to a stillborn baby. In this central American country, at least 159 women have received sentences of between 12 and 40 years of prison for violating the country’s anti-abortion laws. About 20 remain in jail today, and none of these women comes from rich or economically stable families. All are poor.

The race factor

The political-economic order is made up of many variables, and race is amongst the first. In the United States, black women have the highest abortion rates in the country. This is a consequence of the serious wealth gap between white and black families, which remains constant even amongst poor families.

A white family that lives near the poverty line generally has a yearly wage of around US$18,000, meanwhile, black families in similar economic situations usually have a near-zero average wealth. While all women suffer the consequences of the battle against abortion, class reality means that women of colour feel the effects disproportionately.

Numerous studies show that access to safe abortion in the United States had more visible positive effects among black women. After the legalisation of the procedure, the entry of black women into the workforce increased 6.9 percentage points, compared with 2 percentage points amongst all women.

The legalisation of abortion in the United States reduced adolescent fertility amongst all women. However, black women and girls experienced an increase in the high school graduation rate and college admission, while legalisation did not improve educational outcomes for white women and girls. This is another indication of how inequality disproportionately affects women of colour.

The highest abortion rates are found in developing countries, specifically in Latin America. Leading the list is the Caribbean, with 59 per 1,000 women of reproductive age, followed by South America, with 48. As expected, the lowest rates are found in North America, with 17, and in Western and Northern Europe, with 16 and 18, respectively.

Given the amount of research that shows how ineffective punitive laws are in curbing the number of abortions women carry out, it is difficult to imagine any other reason that they exist, other than to keep women out of the workforce and in poverty.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published on openDemocracy