Black Lives in the Balance: How Abortion Restrictions Escalate the US Black Maternal Health Crisis

The relentless assault on abortion access is not just an attack on choice—it’s a direct hit on maternal health, especially for Black women. Take the tragic tale of Olympic gold medal sprinter, Tori Bowie. At just 32, her promising future was abruptly curtailed, likely due to preeclampsia. Bowie’s untimely death falls into a disconcerting trend of rising maternal mortality, where Black women bear the brunt of the crisis.

There’s nothing like the icy jolt of seeing another Black woman succumb to childbirth, a stark reminder of the deathly gamble we undertake when deciding to bring new life into this world. Black women grapple with an inordinately high risk of pregnancy-related complications. We are three times more likely to die in childbirth compared to our white counterparts.

Why is this the case? Systemic racism, for starters. This manifests in health care providers’ racial biases and the lack of adequate health insurance. Pre-existing disparities in reproductive health care are rife amongst Black women, even before pregnancy comes into the equation. For instance, more than half of us aren’t adequately informed about all our reproductive options by healthcare professionals. This problem isn’t exclusive to the less fortunate or less educated; it runs across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Even Black celebrities with access to the best health care money can buy have shared chilling accounts of their pregnancy journeys. Beyoncé, Serena Williams, and Allyson Felix have all openly discussed their health complications during pregnancy and feeling dismissed when expressing their concerns. If these powerhouses feel unheard, what does that mean for the rest of us?

The double whammy here is that as Black maternal deaths are on the rise in the U.S., we’re simultaneously witnessing a rollback of crucial reproductive rights, with abortion bans and restrictions being ruthlessly enforced. It’s not coincidental that the states with the highest Black maternal death rates also have the strictest abortion laws. These bans disproportionately impact people of color, underlining the need to recognize abortion services and maternal health as two sides of the same coin: reproductive justice.

The narrative of abortion care as a “choice” fails to acknowledge the bigger picture of accessing a broad spectrum of reproductive resources, an issue recognized by Black feminists back in the 90s. For us, abortion care is just one piece of the puzzle in achieving our reproductive rights, which also encompasses contraception, sexual education, STI prevention, and treatment options, and prenatal care. The current myopic focus on abortion fails to recognize the impact of anti-choice policies on the broader aspects of reproductive health.

Growing up in the South, the link between abortions and maternal health was painfully apparent as I grappled with accessing reproductive services. In South Florida, sexual education was laughably inadequate, and without parental backing, getting contraceptives was a challenge. This left unwanted pregnancies as a haunting reality, illuminating how poor sexual education is linked to higher rates of unwanted pregnancies and dismal maternal health outcomes.

Moreover, attacks on reproductive health centers are curtailing access to a broad range of reproductive services. In underserved communities like mine, clinics like Planned Parenthood served as our first line of defense, offering a gamut of reproductive care from pap smears and contraception to prenatal care. As these centers are forced to shutter, communities lose vital reproductive resources.

Abortion laws are also driving OB-GYNs away from conservative states, leaving a healthcare vacuum that disproportionately impacts Black mothers. Worse still, when pregnancy complications arise, abortion restrictions can handcuff healthcare providers from delivering life-saving interventions.

The unjust loss of lives like Tori’s and countless other Black women is a sharp sting, fueling frustration against the systemic inequalities, medical racism, and restrictive policies that continue to fail us. It’s time to widen the conversation and assert the crucial correlation between access to abortion and maternal healthcare—both critical elements under the banner of reproductive justice. Let’s follow in the footsteps of organizations like Sister Song, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity, and the Ms. Foundation, and stand up against these continued attacks on maternal health.