Over and over again, we have seen committee rooms and panels full of mostly white men making decisions about women’s access to basic reproductive health care. This has devastating and sometimes deadly consequences for women and the choices they can make about their own bodies, especially for women of color and women in poverty.
Since the founding of our nation and the drafting of our Constitution, decisions about what life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness mean have been made largely by tables of men. But as pioneering political advocate Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm would say, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
As immediate threats to Roe v. Wade intensify fears that abortion will become illegal in the United States, the women of Vermont are bringing a folding chair to the tables of power. There are two important bills making their way through the state Legislature.
H.57, the abortion rights bill, would ensure Vermonters have the same access to safe, legal abortion that we have had for 46 years. Another, even more historic bill, Prop 5, would amend the Vermont Constitution to guarantee reproductive liberty for all Vermonters, because every person should have the right to control their life, body and future.
Some may think these are unnecessary steps to codify what is already in practice, but we know the loss of this right at the federal level will impact us all if it comes to pass.
Those who would suffer the most are those in marginalized communities: women of color and those living in poverty who are less likely to have health insurance and access to affordable birth control.
Black women face multiple barriers to accessing quality, affordable health care, which leads to higher rates of both unintended pregnancy and abortion than among their white counterparts. Black women also deserve equal care and safety as they bring a wanted pregnancy to term, but currently, they are three to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women. The right to reproductive freedom and liberty does not just mean ending an unwanted pregnancy, but having equal access to safe, affordable maternal health care.
According to the Turnaway Study, which examined the effects of unintended pregnancy on women’s lives, many women were already experiencing economic hardships at the time they sought an abortion — half had incomes below the federal poverty level and three-quarters reported not having enough money to pay for basic living expenses. Women who were denied a wanted abortion were more likely to be enrolled in public safety net programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food assistance (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC), compared to women who received abortions.
To address racial and economic bias in access to health care, we must work to provide women with important information about sexual health, including helping them select the appropriate form of contraception, if that is a choice they would like to make. Improved access to reproductive health services, as well as addressing overall economic challenges, will go a long way to combating disparities in marginalized communities.
This is the Legislature’s opportunity to communicate to Vermonters that they will be heard, protected and supported in their reproductive freedom. Passing these bills will acknowledge that we are all better off when people have access to the full range of reproductive health care, without interference from the government.
While there are many women leading the Legislature, we have a long way to go to make up for centuries of women going unheard and unconsidered in policy decisions. This is our time to bring a folding chair by supporting both H.57 and Prop 5, because being in control of our own reproductive destiny will ultimately give us more permanent seats at the table.
Kesha Ram is a Planned Parenthood of Northern New England board member.