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The United States prides itself on the values of “liberty and justice for all.” But from the moment women are born, our bodies are controlled. As early as nine, we start menstruating, forcing this contrived transition from girl to woman, and our actions are restricted to embody womanhood. We are told to cover up, but not so much that we do not look appealing; to be smart, but not so smart that the man feels threatened. Though many of these lessons are so ingrained in society that they seem implied, certain policies, such as abortion bans, hidden behind the guise of “pro-life” sentiments, are really an explicit reinforcement of the subordination of women.
In the case of Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court legalized abortion. Since then, the debate over a woman’s right to get an abortion and have this procedure be included in reproductive healthcare has raged on. Although none have been enacted this year, nine states have already passed early abortion bans, where each state decided their own exceptions, including medical emergencies, incest, or rape. These laws overall prohibit women from getting abortions beyond six to eight weeks of pregnancy.
Not only do women have restricted access to reproductive healthcare, but women of color and those from low-income households are disproportionately affected. According to the Center for Disease Control, 23% of births were unwanted for black women in comparison to the 9% for white women. Black women also had higher rates of going through with an unwanted pregnancy. Many of these disparities stem from limited access to contraceptives in majority-black communities and a lack of knowledge and teaching on how to navigate the complex healthcare system. Additionally, studies cited that some women turn to unsafe methods because of high costs and not knowing how to obtain a safe and legal abortion. Therefore, expanding access and education to quality reproductive healthcare for all would assist in addressing the unmet needs and parental choices of lower-income communities and women of color.
On the other side of this debate, however, are those who claim that a person’s right to live “during a period of temporary dependency” should not be decided based on the wanted or unwanted nature of the fetus. Although this can be considered valid, we must also consider this right in the context of public health: Everyone has the right to a healthy life. If the pro-life movement were really about promoting healthy lives, we should also be seeing a greater push for free birth control, education and access surrounding reproductive healthcare, and improving the foster care system. Moreover, studies have shown that restricting a woman’s right to safe and legal abortions does not decrease the number of abortions that occur, but rather increases the number of unsafe abortions. Restricting a woman’s pregnancy choices also increases the health risks they face, including poor pregnancy outcomes, psychological trauma, and remaining tied to abusive partners. Another study also studied women who were either approved or denied abortions and found that those who were denied were more likely to be unemployed and in poverty after continuing with their unwanted pregnancy.
Overall, it is our duty to question the system that is marketed as equitable yet enables the oppression of women. Women should not have to argue with men about their rights to bodily autonomy. We should empower women and girls to make choices that are best for their health. And we should fight for equal access to quality care, including abortion care, and vote for representatives that reflect these values because our rights to our bodies should not only be accepted when our lives are in danger or when we have been violated by a man.
UW student, Public Health-Global Health 2021