In 2016 researchers at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a public health project focused on reproductive well-being, made headlines with their “Turnaway Study.” The groundbreaking longitudinal study was comprised of nearly 8,000 interviews with 1,000 women who had either been “turned away” from abortion because they were past a clinic’s gestational limits or had successfully received abortions. Through interviews conducted every six months over a period of five years, the study compared the life circumstances of study participants following these two reproductive outcomes. The study, the first of its kind, sought to quantify the effects of being denied a wanted abortion.
Contrary to anti-abortion claims about the supposed psychological harm of ending a pregnancy, researchers found that obtaining an abortion did not increase women’s risk of developing PTSD, depression, or anxiety. Those denied abortions, on the other hand, did not fare as well. They were almost four times more likely to have a household income below the federal poverty level, more than three times more likely to be unemployed, and far more likely to need public safely net programs to be able to pay for basic necessities such as food. The study systematically tallied the costs of being denied an abortion, debunking the longstanding anti-abortion slogan, “Abortion harms women.”
When I first read the results of the “Turnaway Study,” I thought of scholar and activist Angela Davis’s essay “Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights,” one of the chapters in her groundbreaking 1981 book Women, Race & Class. The publication is considered a classic text, theorizing Black women’s changing position within U.S. history and illuminating the consequences of feminist movements weakened by white myopia and class elitism. “Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights” was written in the wake of the 1977 Hyde Amendment, which barred the use of federal funds to pay for an abortion (except to save the life of the mother), effectively making the medical procedure available only to those who could pay for it outright. At the same time, Medicaid continued to cover the far costlier procedure of sterilization. Davis recognized this as coercive and linked it to the historic abuse of poor women of color, which she felt must be addressed in any successful movement for reproductive rights.
Already Davis could see the direction that legal attacks on abortion would take, going after the rights of the most vulnerable, least powerful women first. Davis wrote in part to alert the “almost lily-white” abortion rights movement that its analysis was deeply flawed. Abortion rights activists had failed to understand how legal abortion—like other forms of birth control—could undermine the reproductive autonomy of “Black, Puerto Rican, Chicana and Native American women, together with their impoverished white sisters” if racism and class exploitation went unchallenged.
Davis accused the movement of treating abortion as a panacea for gender oppression, acting as though “legal abortions provided a viable alternative to the myriad problems posed by poverty.” The availability of legal abortion would do little to improve circumstances that kept poor women from keeping wanted pregnancies. In the higher rates of abortion amongst poor Black and Latina women living in New York City both before and immediately following Roe v. Wade, for example, Davis saw a story “not so much about their desire to be free of their pregnancy, but rather about the miserable social conditions which dissuade them from bringing new lives into the world.” Such misery could cause women to “relinquish the right to reproduction itself.” The abortion rights movement was repeating past harms of early twentieth-century birth control advocates when it willingly prescribed abortion to poor women and motherhood to those who could afford it.
Davis’s essay remains a timely, vital lesson about how racism and elitism within feminist movements make their claims of universal justice ring hollow (recent reporting on the racism and other hostile working conditions within major abortion rights organizations reveals that many still have yet to grasp the urgency of Davis’s cautionary tale). Her indictment helps us to understand how racism and exploitation produce everyday forms of coercion that cause people to end pregnancies they might otherwise want to keep. While the reproductive justice movement has been steadily working since the 1990s to bring such insights to the center of conversations about reproductive rights, the idea that having children and the means to raise them should be meaningful rights is far from commonplace. Instead, most people treat parenthood as something reserved for those who can provide on their own.