(Debra Sweet/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
(Debra Sweet/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
(Debra Sweet/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – When she was five months pregnant, past the point where she could obtain a legal abortion, 23-year-old Kenlissia Jones of Albany, Ga. ordered prescription abortion pills from a Canadian website. When Jones started feeling pain, she was rushed to the hospital.

En route, she delivered the fetus in the backseat of her neighbor’s car. The fetus died 30 minutes later. Instead of being comforted in her hour of loss, Jones was arrested at the hospital and charged with murder.

With agonizing stories such as Jones’ in the news, reproductive rights issues are again coming to the forefront of public attention and are certain to be an issue in the upcoming presidential election.

That battle is already being played out at the state level. Since 2010, legislators in 31 states have passed almost 300 abortion-related laws, more than 50 of them in this year alone.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, White women accounted for 55 percent of all legal abortions in 2011. Black women accounted for 37 percent. Still, reproductive policies disproportionately affect African Americans. They report more unintended pregnancies, have a maternal death rate three-times that of White women, and often lack the health insurance that fully covers women’s care.

“These new restrictions are changing the circumstances under which abortion is provided and how abortion is accessed. We also seeing real access issues, depending on socio-economic status and racial status,” said Elizabeth Nash, who analyzes state policy at the Guttmacher Institute, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit advocating for reproductive rights.

“Low-income women have fewer resources on which they can rely, and these restrictions are having more of an impact on them,” she continues, adding that middle- and upper-income women can afford the procedure, which typically costs around $500, have flexible jobs that allow for time off, and have the resources to travel if need be.

Data from the Pew Research Center supports the notion that Black people tend to be socially conservative on causes such as gay marriage and abortion, out of religious belief. But according to surveys conducted by In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, a national policy organization, there’s another overlooked factor.

“Overwhelmingly Black Americans, by numbers of 80 to 95 percent, support a women’s right to determine for herself when she will have children, and how she will have those children,” says Dazon Dixon Diallo, founding partner of the In Our Own Voice agenda and founder and president of SisterLove, an Atlanta-based reproductive justice organization.

“Regardless of religion, regardless of political ideology, regardless of education level or income level, and age…Black folks overwhelmingly support statements that, when it comes to abortion, ‘We should trust Black women to make the important decisions about themselves and their families.’”

As part of a new effort to challenge women’s care provisions built into the Affordable Care Act, 31 states have enacted Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers policies, or “TRAP laws,” which set requirements for abortion clinics and/or medical professionals who perform the procedure.

The laws share a few commonalities across states. For example, physician offices and clinics must obtain a license from the health department, which makes the licensee subject to random searches of their offices and client medical records.

But in general, the requirements vary widely. In Missouri, for example, doctors cannot work in a clinic unless they are also on the staff list at the nearest hospital. In North Carolina, a clinic must meet specific standards for the air quality, flow, and vent placement in recovery rooms. Some laws require clinics to meet hospital standards. Some require medically unnecessary ultrasounds or mental health services before an abortion, while other states shrink the window of time a woman can obtain one.

Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the lone clinic in Mississippi that offers abortion services, has become the stage for a possible U.S. Supreme Court battle. One of the state’s 2012 TRAP laws requires abortion physicians to have privileges at a local hospital. The Jackson center would not be able to meet that requirement and would be forced to close. The court case argues that this closure violates the 14th Amendment rights of women in Mississippi.

The case is on hold until at least the fall, when the court will reconvene and decide whether to consider it.

“When we’ve seen TRAP laws go into effect, we’ve seen clinics close for no good reason. That law does no good for any woman and is not justified in any sense of the word,” said Nash, referring to the Mississippi law in question and others like it. “What would make a lot of sense is for this law to be repealed so the clinic can remain open.”

Abortion is often only one of a range of services physicians and clinics provide, including providing contraceptives, prenatal care, sex education, affordable or free STD testing, and infertility services. Laws targeted at abortion also disrupt access to these services when they threaten clinics’ existence.

Kenlissia Jones’ murder charge was later dropped; although Georgia has TRAP laws, terminating a pregnancy is not a criminal act. As the Supreme Court and state legislatures recess for the summer, various advocacy and social justice groups are mobilizing and educating citizens on the issue in preparation for the election and legislative seasons this fall.

“We have to be a lot more engaged, and especially among Black women as leaders…that we’re able to articulate these issues from within our own communities and on our own behalf,” Diallo explained. “And that when we know these kinds of issues come up – like with Kenlissia – we are proactively ready for any legislative work that needs to be done, before we have to react to punitive legislation that may be working to close any kind of opportunities for women to be self-determining and have autonomy in their own bodies.”


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