Now that Roe v Wade has been overturned, the legal status of abortion is back in the hands of state lawmakers. And this will have especially damaging consequences for Black women.
It’s no news that being forced to carry a baby to term can be a death sentence. From ectopic pregnancies to other life-threatening complications, pregnant people in these situations are often faced with a choice between their own lives and that of their unborn baby.
In the case of African Americans, that risk of death is much higher. According to the CDC, Black women are over three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related complication than white women are. And in some parts of the country, this disparity is frighteningly worse. A report by the District of Columbia’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee, for instance, found that Black people accounted for 90% of pregnancy-related deaths in DC, despite constituting only half of all births there. On top of this, Black women are also at a higher risk for pregnancy complications and postpartum issues, such as pre-eclampsia and eclampsia.
A report found that Black people accounted for 90% of pregnancy-related deaths in DC
The historical racism embedded within the American healthcare system accounts in large part for why birthing is so much deadlier for Black Americans. They are routinely dismissed, ignored and have their concerns denied while seeking medical care and intervention. Black women also fall behind in other social determinants of health including housing, employment and socioeconomic status, all of which can affect their capacity to have safe, healthy pregnancies and care for a child.
But even for Black people who have access to the kinds of resources that should set them up for a smoother ride than their more socioeconomically disadvantaged counterparts, giving birth can be a minefield of potential disasters. A-list celebrities such as Beyoncé and Serena Williams have spoken candidly about their traumatic, near-fatal birthing experiences. Back in 2018, Williams became an advocate for Black maternal health following a pulmonary embolism she suffered after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia. The tennis star said that when she asked for assistance (she’s had embolisms in the past) medical professionals initially dismissed her and assumed her pain medication was making her confused.
So what happens when Black women, with all of these odds already stacked against them, become pregnant and are told they can no longer access safe, legal abortions? A 2021 study published in the journal Demography may hold some answers. In it, the University of Colorado sociologist Amanda Stevenson looked at how a total abortion ban would affect pregnancy-related mortality. According to her results, banning abortion nationwide would lead to a 21% increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths for all women and a 33% increase among Black women specifically. So, abortion bans put all women at greater risk of death, but based on Stevenson’s research, “the additional mortality burden is estimated to be greatest among non-Hispanic Black women”.
These numbers, grim as they may be, are important to see. But the need for abortion access isn’t just about maternal mortality. Black women are the likeliest of any demographic to have an unintended pregnancy, and to have one that results in birth. At the same time, research has shown that women who are denied abortions and ultimately give birth are more likely to experience economic hardship and insecurity lasting years. With abortions banned, many poor Black women will be forced to endure unwanted pregnancies, keeping them locked in cycles of systemic poverty.
Black women in America already exist in a society that doesn’t value them or see their struggles as real. Their lives are precarious enough without being forced to carry pregnancies that could ultimately kill them or dramatically affect their lives.
Tayo Bero is a Guardian US columnist