The Criminalization of Abortion Has Always Penalized Marginalized People
On April 11, a Texas prosecutor filed a motion to dismiss murder charges against a Texas woman over allegedly “intentionally and knowingly causing the death of an individual by self-induced abortion” (Texas Public Radio). The 26-year-old woman was arrested and held on a $500,000 bond before being released Sunday. The Starr County Sheriff’s Department initially charged her after she was accused of “self-induced abortion.” The department was notified of the alleged incident back in January by a reporting hospital. However, in a statement from the district attorney’s office, it was later determined that “in reviewing applicable Texas law, it is clear that [the woman] cannot and should not be prosecuted for the allegation against her” (Facebook). Following her release, five Texas district attorneys condemned the recent efforts at criminalizing abortion with the current Texas anti-abortion law and “pledged to not prosecute personal healthcare decisions” (Twitter).
As more conservative states pass aggressive anti-abortion legislation, surveillance of pregnancy and criminalization of end-of-pregnancy outcomes is not only an assault on reproductive health — it puts the lives of poor pregnant people at higher risk. [Editors note: while abortion is frequently described as a women’s issue, people of any gender identity can get pregnant.]
• Donate to organizations like Right By You and Jane’s Due Process that provide teens with information and services on abortion and reproductive health.
In 2021, Texas passed “the heartbeat bill” prohibiting abortion at six weeks of pregnancy, including in cases of rape, abuse, and incest. “Incentivizing bounty hunting,” the law leaves enforcement to private citizens who can sue anyone, including doctors and health center workers, who performs or assists in the termination of a pregnancy. Individuals could be rewarded at least $10,000 for successful lawsuits (ACLU Texas). The law joins a wave of restrictive abortion bills from Republican-led states. Oklahoma just made it a felony to perform an abortion, punishable by up to 10 years in prison (NPR).
However, Texas’s law doesn’t make abortions entirely illegal. And pregnant people receiving an abortion, including those who self-induce or end their own pregnancies, are exempt from the prosecution. Despite this, many, specifically low-income women of color, have been persecuted under anti-abortion restrictions since long before recent legislation.
Access to affordable reproductive care, let alone safe abortion care, already disproportionally excludes Black and Brown women in low-income neighborhoods who already lack adequate health care and have a poorer quality of life (Teen Vogue).
In 2020, abortion pills accounted for most abortions nationwide, as they are more affordable and accessible than traveling for a clinical procedure (TIME).
As such, marginalized people like immigrants, people who have experienced abuse, minors, LGBTQ+ folks, and people of color were more likely to self-induce abortions through medication. Heightened scrutiny of such abortions means violations of doctor-patient confidentiality, arrests, incarcerations, and deportations will disproportionately affect pregnant people from marginalized backgrounds.
“For every person who gets caught up in the legal system for a suspected abortion, there will be another ensnared for a pregnancy loss that was not intended. As the Guttmacher Institute reports: ‘The mere existence of medication abortion is providing some legal authorities reason to conduct fishing expeditions to go after not only women who have clearly terminated a pregnancy, but also women whom they suspect have done so.’ When abortion is made a crime, every pregnancy loss becomes a potential trial” (If/When/How).
If/When/How uncovered 18 people arrested for ending or helping others end their pregnancies.
Purvi Patel was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide and child neglect in 2015 after self-inducing an abortion in 2013 (IndyStar). The conviction was overturned because the feticide laws were not intended to criminalize pregnant women for their abortions.
Bei Bei Shuai was charged with attempted feticide and murder after a suicide attempted while pregnant led to a miscarriage. She served 435 days in jail before being released (USA Today).
Kenlissia Jones, Latice Fisher, and Brittney Poolaw were similarly criminalized because abortion restrictions systematically exclude pregnant people of color from proper channels and then punish them for taking control of their bodies and handling their healthcare and pregnancy outcomes.
The Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey rulingsestablished the constitutional right to safe and legal abortion while prohibiting restrictions that put an “undue burden” on access (New York Times). However, there’s always an “undue burden” on access that systemically puts people in poverty at a disadvantage.
In 2018, financial hardships related to the costs of obtaining an abortion out-of-pocket in Texas affected more than half the women surveyed. One in five avoided buying groceries to pay for an abortion. 8% skipped or delayed rent payments. The financial burden affected mostly patients with low incomes (American Journal of Public Health, New York Times). And as laws and restrictions pass in Republican-led states that enable criminalizing abortion, the prevalence of abortion clinics decreases (Washington Post). Currently, 22% of women in poverty in the U.S. would have to drive for over an hour in order to have access to an abortion clinic.
“Many poor women don’t have a car,” Ushma Upadhyay, a researcher at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health located at the University of California at San Francisco, said. “They don’t have money for gas. They don’t have money for buses or trains. That also means time off of work, which is an even greater burden for lower-income women.”
We don’t have to wait until Roe v. Wade isoverturned to see pregnant people effectively denied reproductive health care. Marginalized pregnant people are already cut out from a system we were told is our constitutional right.
If you or anyone you know needs assistance self-managing a miscarriage or abortion, please call the Miscarriage + Abortion Hotline at (833) 246-2632 for confidential medical support or the Repro Legal Helpline at (844) 868-2812 for confidential legal information and advice.
• Anti-abortion restrictions create a surveillance state on pregnant and formerly pregnant people.
• Criminalizing abortion is already affecting marginalized people who are being persecuted for having autonomy over their bodies.
• For marginalized people, the effects of Roe v. Wade overturning are already being felt.