Low Income Women Hurt Most by Abortion Bans

By Sharanya Sekaram, Sri Lanka, June 5, 2019, Women’s Media Center

Watching the incredibly restrictive abortion bans unfold from Sri Lanka has been eye-opening. The United States’ bans propose even more intense punishment than those that currently exist in Sri Lanka. For example, Alabama’s bill would make performing an abortion at any stage of pregnancy a felony punishable by up to 99 years in prison. In Sri Lanka, the punishment for all abortion procedures that are “not caused in good faith for the purpose of saving the life of the woman,” is up to seven years and/or a fine.

Undoubtedly, American women will still attempt to access abortion even if Roe v. Wade is ultimately overturned. This reality begs the question: If women are going to seek an abortion no matter the legal status of abortion in the country they live in, who will illegal abortion hurt the most? The answer can be found in examining how significant a role class plays in a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

Class impacts every decision a woman makes about her body from the second she finds out she’s pregnant. Imagine that you are a 35-year old mother of two living as one of the urban poor in low-cost housing. You are struggling to make ends meet. It’s very likely that you work in the in the informal economy, and therefore lack access to paid maternity leave and/or flexible work hours. Having another child would mean that you would potentially need to stay home for months without an income to care for a newborn. This is not an option for many women whose families cannot survive without their additional income and for whom childcare is not an affordable option. Of course, this decision may also be further complicated later in a woman’s pregnancy if it is found the child will be born with significant fetal abnormalities or disabilities and therefore require sustained full-time care which the families cannot afford to give.

This difficulty is compounded in if abortion is illegal. Women with a substantial income can afford to travel to places where abortion is legal and thus infinitely safer. Some can even find providers in their own communities who will perform the procedure for a substantial fee. Impoverished women don’t have these options, and so are forced to seek abortions outside clinics, which may lead to complications, or to resort to dangerous home remedies that can include everything from papaya leaves to bicycle spokes.

Evidence shows that a woman’s socioeconomic success is intrinsically tied to their reproductive lives – even privileged women see their career trajectories tied to their child-bearing. Studies show that forcing women to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term quadruples their odds of living below the poverty line, and laws that restrict abortion access have proven to deteriorate economic outcomes for women. This is to say nothing of the negative impact on the health, opportunities, and emotional well-being of the children born into these situations.

Are we having the right conversation about abortion? Are we placing the realities of women and their children at the forefront of our conversations, or are concerns over a debatable and relatively abstract sense of morality more important than their lives?