Reproductive health care is a human right

As a sociologist who has researched reproduction and reproductive technologies for the last 12 years, I’ve learned that individuals are only one part of the equation. The choices people make are never removed from public policy or the resources — or lack thereof — made available by state and federal government.

In September, a new law took effect in Texas, banning abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy, when cardiac activity can be detected in the embryo. On Oct. 6, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order on Texas enforcing the law. Then on Friday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the restrictions to resume.

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People often don’t even know they are pregnant this early on, and doctors have explained that the cardiac activity detected on an ultrasound is not a true heartbeat. This law harms people who are already at vulnerable margins in our society: teenagers, low-income people and people of color.

It also puts power into the hands of private citizens by urging them to enforce the law, instead of the government.

And since its passage, other Republican states — including Florida, South Carolina, and Arkansas — have moved to emulate Texas’s blueprint.

In response, the House of Representatives recently passed the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2021. HR 3755 codifies the right to an abortion and protects providers who offer abortion services.

The House bill recognizes an intersectional reproductive justice framework, which people of color especially have diligently worked to implement.

“To all the Black women and girls who have had abortions and will have abortions,” Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., said during the Sept. 30 House hearings, citing how she received an abortion after being sexuallly assaulted as a teenager. “We have nothing to be ashamed of … we deserve better.”

This outlook is especially important as reduced abortion access often limits access to other services such as contraceptives, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs), LGBTQ+ health services, and referrals for intimate partner violence and prenatal care.

In Indiana, for example, one-third of counties are considered “maternal care deserts,” which means there are no practicing obstetrician-gynecologists and no hospitals with a labor and delivery division in the immediate area.

In Iowa, approximately 38 out of 99 counties are maternal care deserts; in Texas, less than half of the rural hospitals in the state deliver babies. In total, 4.8 million women in the U.S. live in counties with limited access to maternity care.

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States and local governments have passed nearly 500 abortion restrictions, severely limiting access to doctors and facilities since 2011, with 2021 setting the record for the most abortion restrictions signed into law in a given year. For too long, a small minority of conservative elected officials have dictated the conversation about reproductive health. But a broader lens would change this by highlighting the breadth of reproductive issues and how they are impacted by race, class and gender. Passing HR 3755, which will soon go before the Senate, is an essential step toward ensuring improved access for all.

Elizabeth Ziff is an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Indianapolis and a public voices fellow through The OpEd Project.

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