How Black Women Legislators Are Fighting Abortion Bans and Trumpism in State Legislatures

Republicans in state legislatures across the country are waging an “all-out assault” on the rights of women and pregnant people to make their own decisions on abortion.

black women legislators, abortion bans, state legislatures, south carolina mia mcleod, ohio erica crawley, kentucky attica scott
A 2019 Stop Abortion Bans Rally in St Paul, Minnesota. (Lorie Shaull / Wikimedia Commons)

In January, feminists were relieved to see the blue sweep of the White House and both bodies of Congress. But, as the saying goes, something’s gotta give—and this election season, that “something” was state legislatures.

During the most recent election cycle, at the local level of state legislatures, Democrats fared poorly, while Republicans either maintained or grew state-level power. Currently, 30 state legislatures are controlled by Republicans, compared to just 18 controlled by Democrats. In 16 of these state legislatures, Republicans hold a veto-proof supermajority.

With almost all state legislatures now in session, Republicans are using this unchecked power to propose and pass an incredible amount of anti-abortion legislation aimed at curbing access and forcing pregnancies to term by any means necessary—from Arizona’s 10 different pieces of legislation attacking reproductive freedom, to states like Arkansas, Idaho and North Dakota, all of which are eyeing total bans on abortion. (Trans rights and voting rights, among others, are also under attack at the state-level.)

These efforts could not be more out-of-touch: Seventy-seven percent of Americans, across party lines, support the landmark abortion ruling in Roe v. Wade, and 78 percent support abortion in at least some circumstances—solidifying a decisive outpouring of support for legal abortion.

At the federal level, the Biden administration has made clear its desire to codify Roe v. Wade. But while many wait for federal legislation like the EACH Woman Act, which would ensure abortion access doesn’t depend on income, or the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would create a safeguard against bans, the lives of pregnant people on the ground—Black and brown women in particular—hang in the balance.

So for now, the fight to secure abortion access is left to state lawmakers. Ms. editor Roxy Szal was lucky enough to speak to three of them.

Ohio Rep. Erica Crawley, a member of the state Black Maternal Health Caucus, has proactively fought back against abortion bans and restrictions in her state to protect and expand reproductive rights in Ohio. Rep. Crawley has also spoken up about her experience with sexual assault in response to an abortion ban without exceptions for rape in 2019.

South Carolina’s Sen. Mia McLeod has a strong record of championing reproductive freedom in the state, which has passed some of the most extreme abortion legislation in recent years. Just this week, the state of South Carolina is gearing up to pass a six-week abortion ban—a de facto ban on almost all abortions.

Kentucky Rep. Attica Scott, the first Black woman to serve in the state’s legislature in more than 20 years, has led legislative efforts to address the maternal mortality crisis and ensure Medicaid coverage of the cost of doulas. Rep. Scott was also among protesters in Louisville who were arrested after the officers who killed Breonna Taylor weren’t indicted.

Sen. McLeod and Reps. Crawley and Scott broke down how these laws came to be and the tools and steps feminists must take to fight back.

Roxy Szal: Last month, a Born Alive Bill became law in Kentucky, which would put in place requirements for the care of infants born after failed abortions and could send doctors to prison if they fail to comply. Meanwhile, the South Carolina legislature is about to finalize legislation that would ban abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy. And a recent Ohio law forces fetal remains to be buried or cremated, and abortion providers who don’t comply could face jail and a fine. 

How did these laws come to be?

State Rep. Attica Scott (D-Ky.): I began serving in the legislature here in Kentucky in January 2017, and from that first day until today there has been an all-out assault by the Republican supermajority on the rights of women to make their own reproductive health decisions. So, I’m not surprised, but I am disgusted by the latest attempt to basically harass and lie about what really happens when a woman choose to have an abortion. Instead of our legislative body focusing on the real issues like eliminating poverty, we’re focusing on how to have power, domination and control over other people’s bodies.

State Sen. Mia McLeod (D-S.C.): I can’t begin to imagine what goes through the minds of our South Carolina GOP leaders, but this is nothing new. It’s not new to South Carolina. I’m sure it’s not new to other states across the country. There’s been this war on women’s reproductive rights since I’ve been voting, and I know that those assaults have preceded me.

But to make this bill a number-one priority when, in our state right now, we’ve had over 7,000 COVID-19-related deaths and about 450,000 exposures to the virus in less than a year. Our vaccination rollout has been abysmal, and these are the same people who refuse to wear face masks to protect the living, but they call themselves pro-life. So, I don’t ever refer to them as pro-life, because they’re not.

They are pro-birth, and they’re anti-women. And I’m baffled at the level of hypocrisy, because the very next day they pushed through a pro-death penalty bill. They have no regard for the living. They don’t care that George Floyd was asphyxiated by a law enforcement officer and murdered in broad daylight. They can’t even say Black Lives Matter. They always cut the very programs that women, and their babies, and their families need to survive. They refused to spend any time even debating raising the minimum wage.

I also have a bill that would raise the amount for unemployment, when I realized that some individuals who are currently unemployed receive as little as 42 dollars a week, which is unconscionable. We’re at a place where we’ve got to focus on the things that actually move our state forward for everybody in it, and I’m not seeing that. Haven’t seen it in my years of service, and I’m still not seeing it. And if we’re not seeing it during a global pandemic, then that really puts a damper on the hope that we can have for the future if nothing changes.

State Rep. Erica Crawley (D-Ohio): If you’ve just been tracking Ohio over the last six years, maybe eight years, there’ve been 21 different pieces of legislation that have restricted access to abortion care or reproductive healthcare, and this is just another one of those bills. There is an obsession here among older white men in being involved in decisions between women and their doctor.

So this was just another one of those, and they were trying to create another burden for women. Any way that they can make it hard to access care, they will do that, as well as shame women. And because we are in the super-minority, where they have 64 members to our 35, there’s not much we can do, other than making a case in committees and using the press to raise awareness.

black women legislators, abortion bans, state legislatures, south carolina mia mcleod, ohio erica crawley, kentucky attica scott
“Support and amplify the legislators, particularly Black women, who are the most underrepresented in state government across this country … while at the same time calling out the hatred that we’re seeing from these state legislative bodies,” Rep. Scott told Ms. (@atticascott4ky / Instagram)

Szal: What tools or strategies do you have as a state legislator to stop these bills from becoming law? Are you able to play offense and defense—you know, introducing good bills on access—or are you staying busy just fighting the horribles?

Rep. Scott (Ky.): What I have chosen to do as a “reptivist”—which people called me when I got elected, because I come from an activist and organizing background—is really work to educate people about what’s happening in state government. A lot of folks focus mainly on what’s happening in D.C. and sometimes overlook what’s happening at the state level.

So, my role from the beginning has been to be as an educator—working with groups that are mobilizing and organizing to support them in amplifying their message for people to take action, to know who their elected official is and to contact those individuals to make it clear that they are opposed to these efforts to strip power from us to make our own decisions about our body.

I know that it makes a difference because even when we lose these battles, people still are engaged and they’re increasing in their engagement—particularly in this global pandemic when so many people are tethered to technology anyway. More and more people are engaged. In fact, I had a state rep say to me that he had gotten more emails about one of the bills I’m working on than he’s ever gotten before. So, if we talk about building collective power, then that’s what we’re doing. We may have lost the fight so far to fend off some of these anti-abortion actions and deny women the right to make their own health care decisions, but we’re winning in the power that we’re building across Kentucky.

Sen. McLeod (S.C.): The horrible bills always keep us busy, but I try not to give into the distractions, because that is what they are designed to do, is to divide and distract. I will say that we are facing an uphill battle with these and other issues now. We were able to defeat them when they brought this matter up a couple of years ago, and that had never been done. We fought like hell to keep them from passing this legislation, and we won.

Unfortunately, we lost three seats on the Democratic side of the Senate. So, our ability to stop them or even slow them down has diminished significantly. Before, we tried to keep bills off the calendar, that was a tool that we had to at least slow the bill down. But now, they have the votes to push it on special order without us, because [the Republicans] have a supermajority.

In addition to having introduced the Viagra bill in 2016 [to make it almost as hard to get erectile dysfunction drugs in South Carolina as it is to get an abortion] when I was in the House, knowing that it would go nowhere, I’ve also introduced another bill that would give Republican lawmakers an opportunity to put their money where their mouths are. If they’re going to force women to have babies, then I think the state should pay for it. I’m really going to push for them to at least have a hearing on the Pro-Birth Accountability Act, because I think it’s important for not only our Republican lawmakers, but our Democratic lawmakers too, and the public at large to understand that if we want to talk about heartbeat as the beginning of life, then there are expenses that come along with that heartbeat.

As that fetus grows, as that baby is born, the state has a responsibility. As a woman who’s had two children of my own, I know that not only are there expenses related to the fetus that you’re carrying, but also your health and wellness. And when that baby gets here, he or she needs food, and clothes, diapers, all of the things that so many women cannot afford.

Rep. Crawley (Ohio): We counteract these pieces of legislation with other pieces of legislation. Ohio has one of the worst infant mortality rates in the state. We don’t have a great maternal mortality rate, either, and so we try to shame the majority who say that they are pro-life, but are okay with babies dying—especially Black babies, who are dying at three times the rate of white babies. And in the last report out of our pregnancy-related deaths, 57 percent were determined to be preventable.

We don’t have any measures in place to make sure that we have access to data and reporting as well as making sure that there’s racism training, cultural competency training. So we keep introducing that legislation, and it doesn’t go anywhere. So, any time that they bring up abortion bans, we bring up, “You say you’re pro-life, but you’re really anti-abortion, because if you were pro-life, the other pieces of legislation dealing with maternal health and infant health would fly right through.”

“There is an obsession among older white men in being involved in decisions between women and their doctor.”

Szal: What do you think will be the real-life impact of these laws and others like them? 

Rep. Scott (Ky.): As a state representative who represents part of a predominantly Black area in Louisville, I know that the impact of bills like this so-called “Born Alive” bill—which is really a lie—is to instill fear in people to pursue abortion access. We’re talking about people who can’t afford to be a parent—especially in this pandemic, women in Kentucky are now the largest percentage of people pursuing unemployment insurance. So, they say, “We’re going to force you to give birth but we’re not going to address any of the bills that would actually support you should you choose to have a child.”

So, it’s really designed to instill fear in people like Black women, who are my neighbors, but who the supermajority may never, ever engage in conversation with or know their life experiences. So, I have to be responsible to and responsive to Black women who are wondering, “What does this mean for me?”

But it also is designed to rowdy up that base that we saw on January 6 that stormed the United States Capitol building. These kinds of bills really are designed to go back to people who believe that they have the right to continue to control people’s bodies like they did during slavery, to rile them up, to make them think you’re really doing something to continue to push forward their regressive and repressive agendas. You’ve seen it because these very same people have come to the capital multiple times over the past year in our state capital in Frankfurt. So, we’ve seen that their efforts are playing out in parallel ways to what we saw happen on January 6 in Washington DC.

Rep. Crawley (Ohio): When women who have an abortion have to bury the remains—one, they don’t have money. We know that Black and brown women especially already have access to care issues when it comes to waiting times and paying for services, and then to have to pay for cremation is just another burden. And then to think about that mental health impact that goes along with that, it could create toxic stress and possibly impact negatively future pregnancies.

Another way that this impacts women is that an abortion ban passed last year that didn’t take into consideration rape or incest. We will have women who take measures into their own hands, and that can lead to a loss of life or having to travel to other states that may not have the best safe practices to have a safe and accessible abortion. 

These measures don’t stop abortions. What they do is increase the chances of death or serious injury for women who are seeking abortions.

“[Anti-abortion laws] are designed to rowdy up that base that we saw on January 6 that stormed the United States Capitol building.”

Szal: Extreme abortion laws are popping up at the state level across the country. Why now?

Rep. Scott (Ky.): Well, at the same time we just had someone introduce a resolution in our State Senate applauding Trump for his service as President of the United States—it’s terrifyingly connected. You have very harsh anti-choice measures being passed and you also have people affirming someone who was the president who incited a riot. That’s all happening at the same time that you see this rise in white nationalism and white racial hatred. 

So, I’m not surprised that we’re also seeing these anti-abortion measures happen in different parts of the country and increasingly so. I think it’s an aggressive “This is our country. We stole it, we own it, just like we stole people and owned them and let’s get back to that.” Because when I think of Make America Great Again, the message was: “Let’s make it what it was when Black people had no voice. Let’s make it what it was when we were able to abuse women without real repercussions.” That’s what I hear.

Rep. Crawley (Ohio): I think this is a way for the white majority to stay in power, and I think Black and brown women are impacted disproportionately by these bans and these barriers that are put in place. If you look at the national level, where there continues to be conversation around immigration and banning people from coming into this country who do not look like the majority, that threatens the white men in power. To keep the majority, you have to have more babies being born, and so that’s why I believe you see this cropping up at such an exponential rate in state legislatures.

But also, most of these legislatures are up for redistricting, and these extreme laws have only been able to pass because of gerrymandering. So, as our districts are re-mapped, we will end up taking up more seats. The voter turnout [in Ohio] tends to be 51 percent Republican, 49 percent Democrat—but they hold 64 seats. That will change here in the next few months. So, this term, you will see even more extreme legislation coming out of Ohio because they’re losing their supermajority.

black women legislators, abortion bans, state legislatures, south carolina mia mcleod, ohio erica crawley, kentucky attica scott
“Black and brown women are impacted disproportionately by these bans and these barriers that are put in place,” Rep. Crawley told Ms. (@EricaCCrawley / Twitter)

Szal: Will there be any legal challenges to the new law in your state? 

Sen. McLeod (S.C.): Absolutely, and [the proponents of the S.C. bill banning most abortions] are aware. That was acknowledged on numerous occasions on the floor when we debated this bill. These Republicans are aware that that bill will not go into effect even after the governor signs it into law, and of course, he stated that he would, can’t wait for it to come to his desk.

They are well aware that this bill will be enjoined. There will be legal action taken as soon as it’s signed. They’re well aware that the state will spend countless dollars to defend the lawsuit, and to fight it all the way up to the Supreme Court, and they’re okay with that. 

[State] Senator Cash (R-S.C.), one of the lead sponsors, is reported as having said, “When it comes to saving a life, there’s no amount of money that’s too much.” And I committed that to memory, because I want to be able to recall that, as soon as I have an opportunity, as soon as they cut the program, and sources, and support to women and children.

Szal: What is something you wish people understood about abortion?

Rep. Scott (Ky.): I wish people understood that this is a really hard choice for someone to make and it’s not made lightly, and we don’t know the reasons why people make the choices that they make. Oftentimes, people make choices based on the options that are in front of them. 

It’s also none of our business why someone makes the choice that they do to have an abortion. My mother had an abortion and it’s not my business to know why she did, but I also know that she struggled with addiction to both alcohol and drugs and died from an overdose when I was 16.

So, this is deeply personal and we are failing as a society in addressing some of the basic human needs like housing, shelter, food, utilities, water, that people have and yet we want to force someone to give birth because we think we have the right to do that.

Sen. McLeod (S.C.): I wish that people understood that the reason that these Republicans push this issue is not because of abortions themselves. Right now in South Carolina, in less than a year, we’ve had way more people die of COVID-19 than we have had fetuses aborted. But they have hijacked this issue, and framed it in a way that is to their advantage politically, and for the sake of getting reelected, they have made it their number-one priority.

But I think the broader discussion is, or should be, the fact that the government has no place in this discussion. I mean, we are very quick to remind the general public about our rights when it comes to gun laws, and our constitutional rights and freedoms when it comes to wearing a face mask, and all of these freedoms and liberties that they, that the very proponents of this bill, seem to take for granted and insist on for themselves.

But when it comes to this one issue—and it just happens to be an issue that they know absolutely nothing about, because the God that they claim to serve didn’t give them the capacity or the ability to carry or deliver a child—it’s just amazing that we, as a state, would be willing to just jump on that bandwagon.

I get emails from people across South Carolina who say, “Please support the heartbeat bill, killing an innocent baby is wrong.” Well, yeah, killing an innocent baby is wrong, and I’m not pro-abortion, but I just don’t believe that I’m God either, and it’s not my decision to make. I just wish that people would leave that to God, because we should not be playing God on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays of every legislative week.

I also believe these men don’t care enough to even hear about the fact that organizations that provide abortions also provide women’s reproductive health care services, and for some women, that’s all they have—for contraception, for annual pap smears and other exams. They have shown repeatedly that they really don’t care whether we have access to the services that we need.

Rep. Crawley (Ohio): I wish that people understood that abortion is just like any other health care service that we seek, and that people use the excuse of religion or try to take this moral high ground, but it has absolutely nothing to do with someone not being religious or amoral. It is just people having access to their own bodily autonomy. 

Forcing women to give up their right to make a decision for their own bodies, I akin it to being like during slavery—especially for Black women who did not have access to their own bodies, who were forced to bring children into the world just so they could be slaves and serve their masters. Bringing pregnancies to term is another way to have control over women and take their own rights away, and I think that’s a slippery slope.

“We are failing as a society in addressing some of the basic human needs like housing, shelter, food, utilities, water, that people have. Yet we want to force someone to give birth because we think we have the right to do that.”

Szal: What’s the disconnect? Why don’t people understand the reality of abortion care; is it a messaging problem, an education problem?

Rep. Scott (Ky.): Going back to the whole idea of maintaining that power, domination and control on people’s bodies. I will always remember my first session in our legislature in 2017 on the last day, all the Republicans had those red MAGA hats on their desks. Unbelievable. I’m the only Black woman there and this is what I’m having to face down. 

So for me, it is that continued belief that white people have the right to decide, to choose for themselves what everybody is going to do with their bodies and with their lives. It’s difficult to break through that kind of white nationalism and that white racial hatred and also that belief that if you’re not of a certain economic or educational status then you don’t get to make choices anyway. It’s only reserved for the elite of us who are in political office or have financial wealth.

Rep. Crawley (Ohio): I think they’re pretending because they don’t want to come across as if they really don’t care. They don’t care about providing social services to families to take care of a growing family, because if they cared, then they wouldn’t be trying to cut SNAP benefits and access to food at every turn. They don’t care about people having health care because, if that was the case, they would not be trying to get rid of Medicaid expansion, which gave access to 700,000 more people who would not have had it.

But they can’t just walk around and be like, “I don’t care about people”. They have to come up with a reason or an excuse for their actions, and so it’s “You’ll be damned to hell, and it’s a sin against God, and we have to protect the unborn because they can’t make decisions for themselves.” 

black women legislators, abortion bans, state legislatures, south carolina mia mcleod, ohio erica crawley, kentucky attica scott
Republicans “have hijacked this issue [of abortion], and framed it in a way that is to their advantage politically, and for the sake of getting reelected,” Sen. McLeod told Ms., pictured here with Vice President Kamala Harris. (@MiaforSC / Twitter)

Szal: What can Ms. readers do to take action?

Rep. Scott (Ky.): I hope they will support the bills that are about making a difference in people’s lives. Support and amplify those pieces of legislation. Support and amplify the legislators, particularly Black women, who are the most underrepresented in state government across this country. Support their work. Support our work because we’re filing maternal care acts. We’re working on issues around infant mortality. We’re working on issues like Breonna’s Law to address violent policing which is another form of control over our bodies. We’re doing that work. So, acknowledge that, while at the same time calling out the hatred that we’re seeing from these state legislative bodies.

My daughter always says to me, “We don’t move in fear.” So, I encourage Ms. readers, don’t move in fear. You have every single right to challenge, to question, to call out legislators who are attacking our bodies and our right to make our own decisions. You have every right to say I’m going to support the Black women, who against all of these odds are still showing up every single day and fighting for all of us.

Rep. Crawley (Ohio): We have our advocates, and our allies, like NARAL and Planned Parenthood, but it can’t just be the same people as usual. Everybody has to be on the front lines, men and women, because this affects everyone. We need to be in the committee hearings. We need to be making phone calls until they turn the phones off. We need to be flooding them with emails. We need to show up at the U.S. Capitol or the state capitol and have our voices heard. 

We need people to run for office. We just need more people to run for office at every level of government, because the more people that we have running for office who care about these issues, that means that there are less people on the other side who are trying to restrict access to care.

Sen. McLeod (S.C.): I think the short-term strategy would be to just engage women, people that these bills impact directly. A lot of them don’t have the luxury of really tuning into everything that is happening around us that impacts us. Half of our population is women and girls. And out of the 5-point-whatever million people we have here, about 1.2 million of those women are registered voters. So, we really need to expand that, because we’ve got some room for growth, in terms of expanding the electorate there, and I think that’s key.

I’m definitely not one who will ever roll over and say, “We’re outnumbered, we can’t, there’s nothing else we can do.” I’m going to fight to the death, that’s just who I am, but I think that that is a pivotal starting point. If we want a new beginning, we’ve got to change the players, because as long as we have these folks who care nothing about transparency, accountability, or our rights…I mean, we’re talking about abortion, but for me, as a Black woman, they don’t care about my life, my sons’ lives.

And it’s just time for a change. We have to be that change, and we have to take it to the people who are impacted by this, and inspire them, mobilize them, and energize them, and help them to understand that it’s all about serving and doing what you can where you are. Everybody can’t run for office, but everybody can make a difference. Everybody can speak up, everybody can reach out to their elected officials at the state level, at the local level. 

It’s all about getting in where you see an opportunity, and where you want to engage, and at the level that you want to engage. It’s past time to make sure that people are armed with the information that they need to be able to do something, and to help them understand how they can make a difference.

Katie Fleischer contributed editorial assistance with this article.

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Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.