Published On: Tue, Aug 13th, 2019

White conservative women have played key role in abortion policy changes this year

The main storyline on reproductive rights for months now has been this: Men, many of them conservative, have moved to curtail access to legal abortion and even ban it, imposing their will upon women.

The truth, however, is more complicated.

White women have joined men, mostly but not exclusively in the Deep South, in using their conservative majorities in multiple state legislatures to make sweeping changes to abortion policies this year.

Those laws that survive legal challenges will most deeply affect women too poor to travel or move to a state with better access to abortion services. That’s a group that is disproportionately black and Latino — and, in the case of black women, a group that tends to support access to legal abortion. This gap between those making the decisions and those affected by them, experts say, is a dynamic with deep roots in American history.

The role of white women — long key players in dictating and constraining the reproductive choices of others — is too often discounted and overlooked, experts say. In 2019, new abortion restrictions were passed in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana after white women co-sponsored them, many voted for them and in one state, signed the changes into law. (In those four state legislatures, 48 women — almost all of them white — voted for the restrictions.)

“These abortion laws, in combination with other policies, pretty much ensure that women who are already poor will remain poor with little chance to climb,” said Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote the book “They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South.”

Among the reasons: Women who don’t have complete control of their fertility cannot make firm career or economic plans. And working parents must also find ways to cover the cost of child care, in which fees are typically assessed per child.

In Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the overall share of people living in poverty ranges from 12 percent to 17 percent. White poverty rates in those states are lower, between 7 percent and 10 percent, while black and Latino poverty rates are higher, ranging from 17 percent to 31 percent.

Exacerbating these disparities are weak social safety nets and worker protections in these four states, three of which have no state minimum wage and decided not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Last month, the Trump administration also announced plans to alter eligibility guidelines for federal food aid and school lunches, a decision that opponents say will put more financial pressure on families already struggling and receiving little in the way of government assistance.

Jones-Rogers describes the recent efforts to curtail abortion without expanding access to birth control or other social services as part of a lengthy history of policies and practices that have affected black women’s reproductive rights in America, dating back to slavery. These decisions, largely made by white men and women, had the effect of creating or maintaining a class of black workers who could not rise out of poverty — or, in the case of slavery, had no life choices at all.

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