Roe v. Wade’s Promise Must Reach Immigrant Women

Ever since the Supreme Court legalized abortion across the United States on this day in 1973, that right has been gradually eroding. Now, in 2020, the right to have an  abortion is facing an existential threat. In March, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in another legal case concerning abortion, June Medical Services v. Gee, and newly appointed Justices with horrible records on reproductive health and rights give us little reason to assume that the right to end a pregnancy will remain intact.

But pregnant immigrants have never felt the full promise of Roe v. Wade.

(Peg Hunter / Creative Commons)

The right to abortion has been more tangible for some people in this country than for others—namely women of color, immigrants and people with fewer resources. We’ve seen how immigrant women have been targeted by the criminal justice system for their pregnancy outcomes. In Indiana, Bei Bei Shuai and Purvi Patel were both incarcerated for their pregnancy outcomes. States continue to pass an onslaught of racist sex-selective abortion bans, that will be weaponized to racially profile pregnant Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) women—even though Roe still stands, and abortion is a right.

Every anti-abortion law that closes a clinic or makes care harder to pay for—the Hyde Amendment, passed only three years after Roe v. Wade, bans coverage for abortion for anyone insured through the federal government—falls hardest on those the least able to travel far distances, pay out of pocket and ask for financial or other support from their family and friends. This is especially true for pregnant immigrants. 

Worse, access to healthcare is unfortunately contingent on immigration status. Under current law, green card holders face a five-year bar before they can even consider getting a healthcare plan—and for undocumented immigrants, there is no pathway to health insurance whatsoever. Without insurance, immigrant women are denied access to no-cost contraception, preventative cervical cancer screenings and other critical care.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, one-third of non-citizen immigrant women ages 15 to 44 are uninsured, and for low-income women with low incomes, that proportion grows to almost one-half. Right now, more than 2.3 million AAPI women are uninsured.

Obtaining reproductive healthcare is just not a reality if it isn’t affordable. For uninsured immigrant women, the costs associated with a routine check-up or preventative care often mean foregoing the appointment altogether. An abortion is even further out of reach for immigrant women who are barred from getting a health care plan and can’t pay out of pocket for the care they need.

As an immigrant woman, I am proud to have raised my own child in the United States. I know that to achieve true access to abortion, we need a government that works on solutions that reflect the needs of families like mine. Everyone should be able to get the health care they need, including abortion—no matter where they live, where they came from or how much money they make. 

In October, Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Deb Haaland introduced a bill that would help immigrants access health care: The Health Equity and Access Under the Law for Immigrant Women and Families (HEAL) Act would eliminate the five-year bar on applying for Medicaid and allow immigrants of undocumented status to purchase health insurance through the online Marketplace. In this way, it would build upon the right to abortion established by Roe by transforming a right into access in real life. 

The layers of affordability, immigration status and race collide to complicate the reality of who is able to exercise their right to abortion under Roe. Today, on its anniversary, we celebrate the courageous work of those who first fought for the right to abortion while also committing to the continued fight in front of us.

Make no mistake: I have no doubt that if Roe were to fall, our communities would feel this tragedy. But our fight is to not only protect the right established by Roe v. Wade, but to widen it, so that our most marginalized communities may take part in this fundamental freedom. 


Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the nation’s only organization dedicated to building power with Asian American Pacific Islander women and girls. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. You can follow her @schoimorrow.