When it comes to the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I have this deep, yet complicated sense of gratitude to people who poured their hearts into the issue of making abortion a legal right. It is humbling to think about all the work that came before this moment in the civil rights, social change, and social justice movements.
As a young woman of color and an activist, it can feel like being a tiny, relatively unimportant drop in a formidable tide of change. But one thing makes me certain I must continue to do this work: somehow, women of color, young women, low-income women, immigrant women, and women in rural areas are still waiting while barriers to sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion, continue to trump legal rights and provision of health services, human dignity, and self-determination.
After college, while working on public policy related to reproductive health, I began to see a gap in the way our institutions treat people of color, and believe that I must do something to help change the situation. I volunteered for ACCESS Women’s Health Justice in 2007, providing rides and housing to women traveling long distances because they could not access abortion services in their area. On a very basic level, I volunteered because, were I to need help, I would want someone to be there for me.
I grew up in a conservative area and had internalized some challenging attitudes about abortion, poverty, and the death penalty — attitudes aligned with policy that worked against my (and my family’s) interests. Still, I discovered that I was ready to drop everything for a friend who needed my help. Eventually, I learned to hold this level of compassion for complete strangers, too.
While volunteering, I had the honor of meeting incredible, resilient women who chose to terminate their pregnancies. The most striking part of this experience was when I realized that despite how seemingly different each woman is, we are also all deeply connected by the human experience, and that I needed to check my assumptions at the door.
Here are some things I learned when I began to leave my assumptions behind.
1) Teens often include their parents and have their parents’ support in making decisions.
One of the first young women who came to stay with me was still in high school. She came to the San Francisco Bay Area on a bus with her mom. They didn’t have a suitcase and had to borrow her mom’s boyfriend’s duffle bag and cell phone to make the journey. The mother was exhausted from a long bus ride from the Central Valley, but she really needed someone to talk to about her daughter. The mother also told me that she got pregnant and had her daughter at her daughter’s age. Things had been difficult raising her daughter, and she wanted a better life for her. At least, she wanted her daughter to have the opportunity that she never had — to graduate from high school. It was hard for her to see her daughter pregnant, feeling sick, and vomiting, knowing that this was only the beginning.
2) Real life is not a movie or a story with a neat conclusion.
The same mother and daughter both called me to say they felt relieved and exhausted after the daughter’s pregnancy termination. They had made it all the way home, but someone stole their bags, including the lunches I packed for them, their clothes, their money, and the mother’s boyfriend’s cell phone. The mother and the daughter were moving forward, but the lost phone and bag seemed like it would put a strain on their relationship with the mom’s boyfriend. I quickly learned that helping someone access abortion services is but one moment in their broader lives.
3) Many women who get an abortion already have kids.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I became worried about continuing to volunteer and putting women in a potentially uncomfortable position being around someone who wanted to keep a pregnancy. But I continued, and one day I picked up a woman in Fresno who was proud of her three kids. She and a friend who came with her (who had two kids of her own) gave me all their tips on what made them feel better from pregnancy to pregnancy. They could see I was pretty freaked out about the prospect of labor and coping with pain. They were brutally honest about what it was like for them and how hard the recovery can be, but helped me to know I would be just fine. They also had a great sense of humor about what the first year could be like, depending on the child, since every kid is so different.
4) Economic and health barriers compound the problem of access for pregnant women seeking abortion services.
Low-income women and women of color are more likely to experience diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and obesity, all of which may contribute to difficult pregnancies and high health care costs. Furthermore, these women may struggle to access abortion services in their area and must often travel long, expensive distances to find a provider and receive care.
For example, I worked with a woman in West Oakland who worked in a salon. The salon only paid her commissions, which meant she earned around $8.00/week — not per hour, per week. She had two adorable children that she struggled to support and was pregnant with a third. She wanted an abortion, but was unable to have one nearby because she had diabetes. The closest place she could go was San Francisco, but she had never been on BART before in her life. Despite its close proximity, San Francisco may as well have been a world away.
5) Terminating a pregnancy is not the only pressing medical issue a woman is dealing with.
A woman and her husband came to stay with me, and in the middle of the night they came to wake me up. I thought maybe there was a complication and I was getting ready to take her to the hospital. But then her husband let me know that she was in an enormous amount of pain from her teeth. Since she was laid off from her job and he had limited work doing construction, they couldn’t afford insurance. She was in excruciating pain, but was unable to see a dentist.
What I’ve learned and experienced has been a gift in my life. But I’m still overwhelmed by the thought that women are forced to make tough health care decisions for themselves and their families without adequate supports and services. This is simply unacceptable.
I am now the Executive Director of ACCESS. When I think of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it strikes me that ACCESS is receiving an increasing number of calls from women in California who face tremendous barriers in accessing all reproductive health care — not just abortion. Persistent social inequity is at the root of my mixed feelings around this anniversary, and it is why I am honored to continue working for reproductive justice for all people.
Photo from KJGarbutt licensed under Creative Commons