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Abortion Access Lane: Only Some Women Allowed

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, met with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner at the Trump golf course in New Jersey. Kushner told Richards that if Planned Parenthood stopped providing abortions, the organization’s federal funding would be allowed to continue and might even increase.

Richards rejected the deal and, as she reveals in her memoir Make Trouble, marveled over the couple’s ignorance of basic information about women’s health care. Never mind that as the largest organization in America providing sex education and birth control, Planned Parenthood prevents more unintended pregnancy and the need for abortion than any health care provider in America—and that except in very limited circumstances, federal funding isn’t used for abortion in the first place because of the Hyde Amendment. Over three-quarters of Planned Parenthood’s patients have limited income; most patients can’t afford to get care elsewhere.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner made it clear that pregnant women in need of abortion care are expendable political bargaining chips. In their minds, some women deserve access to abortions while others do not. And who deserves access? Those who are white and financially comfortable—those who have the resources to overcome the astounding number of political obstacles the government has put in the way of women who are pregnant and do not wish to be so.

If you’re white, urban, in a secure job, and have a financial safety net, congratulations—you are entitled to an abortion. You can afford to take off several days from work (which may be necessary depending on where you live because of state laws that for no medical reason mandate two separate visits two or even three days apart), pay for child care (59 percent of abortion patients are mothers) and the procedure itself, and either live near an abortion provider or can travel to one.

But if you are low-income, rural, or a woman of color, the government and much of the public expect you to give birth against your will, even if this means devastating effects on your children, education, daily life, and future financial security. Over three-quarters of abortion patients are “poor” or “low-income,” and 61 percent are women of color.

Perhaps the most dramatic recent example of a vulnerable woman denied an abortion is that of the 17-year-old refugee who was barred from obtaining an abortion by Scott Lloyd, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Lloyd, who has denied at least one request for an abortion from a girl who says she was raped, oversees the assistance program for tens of thousands of refugees who seek shelter in our country.

But even white, middle-class women lucky to get an abortion because of their privilege can’t necessarily escape stigma and hostility. In her excellent new book Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice, Rebecca Todd Peters, a Presbyterian minister and religious studies professor at Elon University, spells out which abortions are considered justifiable and which ones are not. Not wanting to bear a child is simply not a valid reason to seek an abortion, according to many Americans.

“The public has developed rather rigid perceptions about when abortion is morally acceptable and when it is not,” Peters writes. “Prenatal health, rape, incest, and life of the mother are accepted as ‘justifiable’ reasons for abortion.” However, “almost three-quarters of the women seeking abortions in the United States” do so for other reasons. “These women are routinely characterized as selfish, irresponsible, immature, or sexually immoral.”

Abortion is acceptable, according to public opinion, only when one can make a persuasive argument that her own abortion is necessary. In short, women are assumed to irresponsible and immoral until proven otherwise. We have a “failure to trust women to act as rational, capable, responsible, moral agents,” says Peters.

Women with racial and financial privileges are also burdened with the need to “prove” their abortion is justified—but at least they have a fighting chance of getting the procedure.

If Ivanka Trump had a pregnancy she didn’t want, for any reason, she would get an abortion. And for all we know, perhaps she has; nearly one in four American women will have an abortion by age 45. And if one woman can get an abortion, all women should have the same access.

—April 12, 2018