Abortion bans prove yet again there is no race-neutral policy

Earlier this summer, in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court finalized the proposed overturning of landmark cases Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey which have protected the right to abortion in the U.S for decades. As a result, twenty-one states already have or are in the process of restricting abortion access completely. Other states will soon follow, resulting in the denial of abortion in over half the country. Though this decision was unsurprising, the blatant disregard by the Justices of the negative economic effects this decision will have on millions of women continues to be shocking.

Abortion bans negatively impact women’s economic well-being in various ways, from future earnings, college completion, and the broader issues of economic security and mobility. Though it’s clear this issue will negatively impact all women in this country, it is important to note that Black and Brown women are likely to face the negative economic consequences of this decision at a disproportionate rate.

Some have attempted to frame the Supreme Court ruling and the subsequent loss of rights as a ‘race-neutral’ issue because the policy impacts people seeking abortions as a whole, rather than any one specific race or ethnicity. Additionally, the wording of the policy does not directly address race, and that makes it easy for some people to assume the issue is race-neutral, and that the impacts will be evenly felt.

This is inaccurate. Centuries of systematic and structural racism have made race-neutrality an impossibility in this country as policies motivated by racist ideologies will always systematically disadvantage Black and Brown communities on a larger scale. Because Black, Hispanic, and other women of color in this country face numerous structural disadvantages in the economy, in health care access, in the political system, and elsewhere, abortion restrictions added on top means that this Supreme Court decision will be another example of a policy that will disproportionately harm women of color despite a façade of race neutrality.

In order to understand how the loss of abortion access will impact demographic groups differently, we must look at who receives abortions in the first place.

Non-Hispanic Black women have an abortion rate, the number of abortions per 1,000 women in a given population, of 38.4 percent. This puts them at  the highest abortion rate in addition to being the racial group that accounts for the largest percentage of all abortions in most states.

It is crucial to examine abortion access alongside other economic and health indicators. As we can see from Figures A and B in addition to the 2019 Bureau of Federal Justice Statistics data, Black and AIAN women experience higher rates of incarceration, less access to health care, and higher rates of poverty compared to non-Hispanic white women. Even before the overturn of Roe, there were numerous studies that showed the economic disadvantages of denying women abortions in addition to noticeable racial disparities within these disadvantages. As a result, it is not surprising that these groups would be disproportionately affected by the Supreme Court decision to decrease abortion access in over half the country.

The overturning of Roe will compound, interact with, and increase the already heightened negative economic effects Black, Hispanic, and AIAN women have and continue to face as a result of centuries of economic disadvantages and exclusion from equitable opportunities. 

Figure A

Due to the connection between abortion, economic security, and health care access, Black women are disproportionately likely to receive abortions in many states

State White  Black  Hispanic Other
Alabama 30.40% 61.90% 5.40% 2.40%
Alaska 49.00% 7.10% 4.40% 39.50%
Arizona 38.40% 10.90% 40.80% 9.90%
Arkansas 44.00% 47.20% 6.50% 2.30%
Connecticut 37.40% 33.00% 23.60% 6.10%
Delaware 42.50% 41.90% 12.00% 3.50%
Washington D.C. 18.80% 53.40% 16.20% 11.70%
Florida 30.90% 34.60% 29.70% 4.80%
Georgia 21.20% 64.90% 8.70% 5.20%
Idaho 67.50% 2.80% 24.90% 4.90%
Indiana 51.60% 31.60% 9.10% 7.70%
Kansas 54.00% 23.70% 14.50% 7.80%
Kentucky 55.70% 33.70% 6.90% 3.60%
Michigan 39.90% 51.60% 3.90% 4.50%
Minnesota 46.80% 27.90% 10.20% 15.10%
Mississippi 19.50% 74.00% 3.00% 3.60%
Montana 82.50% 9.10%
Nevada 37.00% 18.40% 32.60% 12.00%
New Hampshire
New Jersey 26.70% 38.80% 17.80% 16.70%
New Mexico 27.60% 4.80% 56.30% 11.30%
New York
North Carolina 30.70% 49.20% 12.50% 7.60%
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina 48.80% 39.00% 7.70% 4.60%
South Dakota 62.60% 11.10% 9.70% 16.70%
Tennessee 38.90% 51.00% 6.30% 3.80%
Texas 26.30% 27.80% 38.80% 7.00%
Utah  60.40% 4.70% 27.40% 7.50%
Vermont 89.70% 4.00% 2.70% 3.50%
Virginia 33.60% 45.50% 10.30% 10.60%
West Virginia 83.40% 12.90%
Wyoming 60.70% 28.60%

"Abortion Surveillance - United States, 2019," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 2021. 

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The Criminalization of Pregnancy will Increase Pre-Existing Racial Disparities in Incarceration Rates

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists define the criminalization of pregnancy as “the punishing or penalizing of individuals for actions that are interpreted as harmful to their own pregnancies, including enforcement of laws that punish actions during pregnancy that would not otherwise be criminal or punishable.” Despite certain weaknesses, the federal protections provided by Roe protected many women from this criminalization. The lack of protections resulting from the fall of Roe could cause more women to be fined, jailed, and punished for actions that are not criminal.

The lack of explicit guidelines for actions that can be legally punished while pregnant further introduces the potential for law enforcement to disproportionately charge Black and Brown women based on their own racial biases. Women of color face significantly higher incarceration rates than their white counterparts. Disproportionate incarceration, compounded with higher rates of abortion, can contribute to the perception of higher rates of criminalization among these groups of women. The disproportionate criminalization of Black and Brown women also has serious economic implications. A criminal record decreases a person’s ability to get a job, buy a house, and  have access to various public benefits. As these women already face employment and housing disparities, relative to white women, this only adds another contributor to the disproportionate economic vulnerability experienced by Black and Brown women.

Since almost 60 percent of women who received abortions already had one or more children, the children of disproportionately criminalized Black, Hispanic, and AIAN women are also more likely to suffer. One study shows that 44% of Black women and 32% of Black men reported having an incarcerated family member compared to only 12% of white women and 6% of white men. Contact with the criminal justice system is shown to increase family instability, unemployment, financial hardship, and mental health problems. These negative effects are even more amplified for their children as these children already face more socioeconomic disadvantages comparatively.

Loss of abortion will increase poverty, which is already disproportionately experienced

Economic research and surveys have revealed major consequences of being denied an abortion including:

  • a higher likelihood of poverty years after birth,
  • A lower likelihood of being employed full-time,
  • and increases in unpaid debt.

As shown in Figure A, Black and Hispanic women already face higher rates of poverty compared to white women. Higher poverty is linked to numerous negative consequences such as increased homelessness, inadequate education, and greater risk of behavioral and mental health issues. Because Black and Brown women systematically face higher poverty, the increased poverty associated with the denial of abortions will continue to systematically disadvantage Black and Brown children even more, making them more vulnerable to these negative consequences.

Figure B

Black, Hispanic, AAPI, and AIAN women face higher rates of poverty in many states

State White Black Hispanic AAPI AIAN
Alabama 11.50% 23.60% 24.40% 10.70% 15.60%
Alaska 6.90% 14.90% 24.00%
Arizona 9.20% 17.50% 18.20% 11.50% 29.00%
Arkansas 13.40% 28.90% 20.10% 12.50% 15.50%
California 8.40% 19.30% 15.00% 9.00% 20.30%
Colorado 7.00% 19.70% 14.30% 8.20% 18.10%
Connecticut 5.80% 18.40% 22.00% 8.80%
Delaware 7.30% 17.30% 21.10% 8.40%
Washington D.C. 5.10% 23.40% 8.90% 12.60%
Florida 9.20% 19.80% 15.70% 10.20% 13.90%
Georgia 9.10% 19.10% 19.70% 9.60% 23.20%
Hawaii 10.10% 13.70% 9.10% 55.30%
Idaho 9.60% 18.60% 19.90% 27.40%
Illinois 7.90% 24.10% 13.60% 10.20% 20.90%
Indiana 10.00% 25.00% 15.30% 13.30% 18.40%
Iowa 9.90% 30.50% 18.40% 11.70% 39.10%
Kansas 8.90% 20.80% 20.80% 12.70% 22.20%
Kentucky 15.00% 23.60% 21.10% 12.60%
Louisiana 12.50% 29.40% 25.30% 11.00% 18.80%
Maine 10.20% 29.10% 9.20% 15.10%
Maryland 6.20% 12.80% 11.60% 8.10% 18.00%
Massachusetts 6.50% 17.80% 19.20% 10.70% 36.50%
Michigan 9.90% 26.70% 19.80% 10.40% 21.90%
Minnesota 6.60% 26.90% 14.80% 9.40% 35.50%
Mississippi 11.70% 30.50% 30.80% 11.00% 36.20%
Missouri 11.00% 20.00% 17.70% 13.60% 25.20%
Montana 10.90% 22.70% 33.80%
Nebraska 8.10% 14.60% 19.80% 15.10% 21.40%
Nevada 9.90% 21.20% 16.80% 9.90% 14.50%
New Hampshire 7.30% 10.90%
New Jersey 5.60% 16.30% 15.70% 5.80%
New Mexico 11.40% 22.10% 20.80% 12.80% 27.20%
New York 9.10% 19.10% 18.50% 13.40% 25.80%
North Carolina 9.50% 21.10% 21.60% 7.90% 26.80%
North Dakota 8.30% 15.70% 38.00%
Ohio 10.00% 27.00% 23.70% 9.80% 21.10%
Oklahoma 12.40% 28.20% 22.10% 15.00% 19.40%
Oregon 10.10% 27.30% 16.10% 11.80% 18.50%
Pennsylvania 8.70% 24.60% 27.10% 12.70% 32.20%
Rhode Island 7.10% 24.30% 21.90% 6.20%
South Carolina 9.20% 23.20% 21.30% 9.00% 21.00%
South Dakota 7.70% 42.70%
Tennessee 11.20% 21.30% 24.90% 7.20% 28.10%
Texas 7.90% 18.40% 18.70% 9.20% 12.00%
Utah 7.40% 43.80% 15.80% 12.20% 23.40%
Vermont 9.80% 36.20% 11.80%
Virginia 7.70% 16.10% 12.50% 7.00%
Washington 8.10% 15.70% 16.30% 8.20% 18.90%
West Virginia 15.00% 27.40% 19.20%
Wisconsin 7.50% 24.50% 19.40% 10.70% 23.60%
Wyoming 8.80% 14.50% 15.10%

Source:Poverty Rates by Race/Ethnicity,” Kaiser Family Foundation, 2019. 

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Abortion bans will likely cause Black, Hispanic, and AIAN children to be impacted by adverse health conditions

Another noticeable disparity associated with the higher poverty seen in some communities is lower access to health care

Black, AIAN, and Hispanic women are much more likely to be uninsured compared to their white counterparts. This noticeable difference in insurance coverage can be attributed to many different things. One reason is that Black and Brown workers are more likely than white workers to work lower-wage jobs with employers that do not offer private insurance coverage.

While the ACA has significantly expanded insurance coverage among those groups, historically, the lack of coverage combined with other social determinants of health results in disproportionate negative health outcomes for Black and Brown communities that have persisted over time. This includes lower life expectancies (for Black and AIAN people), higher infant death, and higher rates of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

These communities are typically at later stages of sickness at the time of diagnosis making recovery less likely. This is because Black and Brown patients typically wait longer to visit doctors or hospitals because of lack of health coverage or distrust of the medical community.

Furthermore, the lack of minority representation in the health care field often makes these groups more hesitant to visit institutions due to a lack of trust or prior experiences with inadequate treatment. 

Lastly, many patients of color visit hospitals closer to their racially and economically segregated communities. These hospitals will often have fewer resources than those in more affluent communities, resulting in less adequate treatment for the patients.

Another very noticeable health disparity relevant to this Supreme Court decision to decrease abortion access is the gap in maternal mortality.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines maternal mortality as “the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management.” Black and AIAN women have persistently had a maternal mortality rate about four and three times higher than white women respectively. Disproportionate lack of health care in addition to heightened rates of many diseases associated with pregnancy-related deaths make these women more prone to maternal mortality.

Access to abortion has prevented many women from encountering fatal pregnancy related complications. It is inevitable that the Supreme Court decision to restrict abortion will result in higher maternal mortality rates for all women and especially for Black and Brown women. One University of Colorado study estimated that the banning of abortion nationwide would lead to a 21% increase in pregnancy related deaths overall and a 33% increase in these deaths for Black women alone. These higher maternal mortality rates will also negatively impact the resulting children as they will be born without a mother, which is associated with numerous negative economic and emotional hardships.

The first step in correcting the harmful consequences of assuming race-neutrality is recognizing how the structure of systems in this country make it impossible. Many people treat the overturning of Roe and the subsequent bans on abortion as a women’s rights issue, but it is essential to acknowledge the intersection of race. Black, Brown, and AIAN women will be disproportionately harmed by this policy because these women systematically face higher levels of poverty, less access to health care, and higher rates of incarceration. These systematic disadvantages compound the already proven negative effects of being denied an abortion even more for these groups.

Policymakers must dismantle these harmful systems and create policies to aid the groups that are the most negatively impacted by them which in this case and many others is women of color.