She was 14 years old and going into the 9th grade. From the moment she learned she was pregnant, she contemplated what to do. Not comprehending how to even deliver a baby (let alone how to take care of a child for the rest of her life) prompted grave fears about her future.
Being the eldest of an immigrant family of seven, she learned early to take on the role of her family’s translator and primary caretaker. She could not fathom how she would tell them about her pregnancy. She pondered the level of disappointment her family might feel and the distress she would put on them with the possibility of a baby. Not knowing the options available to her, she withheld her pregnancy from her family and friends. She had never felt so alone, confused and afraid. The days passed and her belly grew. Knowing what she had to do, she finally found the courage and sought help from her grandmother and aunt. At 21 weeks, my cousin found the proper care and support to have an abortion.
January 22nd marked the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the monumental U.S. Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal. There is much to celebrate in the advancement of women’s reproductive rights. However, we cannot ignore the barriers that continue to limit women’s access to viable resources regarding their reproductive health. A number of issues such as restrictive laws and lack of federal funding continue to make it difficult for women to seek help. If my cousin had been aware of the resources available to her and had felt comfortable enough to discuss her teenage pregnancy, she could have sought help sooner. But beyond my cousin’s experience, the choice to have an abortion is a fundamental right that should be readily accessible to every woman. Yet the layers of societal stigma, governmental interference and other hardships make it increasingly difficult for women to access this right.
It is no surprise that the women who are hit hardest are young, low-income women of color. The National Abortion Federation found that “87 percent of all U.S. counties have no identifiable abortion provider. In non-metropolitan areas, the figure rises to 97 percent.” Consequently, women have to travel long distances to find the nearest abortion provider. Furthermore, “a shortage of trained abortion providers; state laws that make getting an abortion more complicated than is medically necessary; continued threats of violence and harassment at abortion clinics; state and federal Medicaid restrictions; and fewer hospitals providing abortion services” all become inescapable deterrents for a woman wanting to terminate her pregnancy.
It is a basic right for families and individuals to make responsible decisions, without hindrance, about the number, timing and spacing of their children, and to have the correct, accessible information to do so. A woman’s decision about her health and her family’s health is personal and should be respected. Yet public and governmental interference continues to impact women’s access to such necessary resources.
With the persisting obstacles and restrictions regarding abortion, some questions to ponder are: Which populations have access to sexual and reproductive health? Which populations are being affected by these restrictions? Whose bodies are we governing? And, of course, why? The disproportionate access and ongoing conflict over regulating sexual and reproductive health send the message that women’s bodies need to be controlled. Ultimately, every woman has the absolute right to the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health care without discrimination, coercion or violence.