June 27, 2018 began like an ordinary workday. A recent college graduate, I was spending the summer interning at NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, doing grant research.
I was sitting around a table with the staff pitching my initial findings when our phones buzzed. A breaking news alert: Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy had announced his retirement.
The calls from concerned Texans started pouring in immediately. Kennedy was a decisive swing vote on abortion and other issues of reproductive health. What would his retirement mean for the future of reproductive rights?
Many of the callers worried that whoever replaced Kennedy would vote to repeal Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that recognized the constitutional right to an abortion.
These fears were not unfounded. On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump had promised to appoint “pro-life” judges and said Roe would be “automatically” overturned. The prospect of losing this constitutional right is absolutely terrifying.
Yet, as we approach the 47th anniversary of Roe this week, it is important that we also grapple with the reality that, for many, the promise of this landmark decision was never realized. A fixation on Roe alone obscures the fact that the Court doesn’t need to overturn it for abortion to become inaccessible. For far too many, it already is.
State-level waiting periods, parental consent laws, and targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws, designed to shutter clinics, means that abortion is already inaccessible. Millions of individuals living in states with these restrictive laws are forced to drive hours to the nearest clinic, paying for hotels, piecing together childcare, and risking the consequences of missing work or school. Reproductive rights and economic justice are inextricably linked—and illustrate how the Court doesn’t have to overturn Roe to push abortion out of reach.
Last spring, we witnessed a surge in state-level abortion bans. Nine states enacted gestational age bans, many as early as 6 weeks — before most people know they are pregnant. While every ban has since been blocked by the courts from taking effect, the fear and misinformation surrounding these bans means that many individuals may be too scared to seek care.
Discriminatory federal policies also undermine the legal right to an abortion. Approved annually by Congress for the past 43 years, the Hyde Amendment prohibits federal health insurance coverage of abortion. Hyde makes abortion unaffordable for pregnant individuals enrolled in Medicaid and other federal health plans and programs, and disproportionately impacts low-income communities, Native Americans, and other individuals with marginalized identities.
These barriers exist even as Roe still stands.
So, what does this mean for those of us who care about reproductive rights today? Leaders of the Reproductive Justice movement, founded and led by women of color, have been urging us to broaden the focus of our advocacy efforts for years.
We cannot treat reproductive rights as an issue that is separate from other social justice issues, including racial, economic, and immigrant justice and LGBTQ equality. We must work to build relationships across lines of faith, race, and other differences to create a future in which everyone is able to access the reproductive health care they need. Together, we can create an intersectional movement and fight Hyde and the state-level restrictions that fall hardest on rural Americans, low-income communities, and people of color.
Access to abortion is critical. At the same time, we can’t lose sight of other reproductive rights issues. We must address a maternal mortality rate that has been steadily rising for the last three decades, and the unacceptable reality that Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts, regardless of income, education level, or other socio-economic factors. We must advocate for comprehensive sex education, which is essential for young people to make informed decisions about their bodies and futures. We cannot be complacent when we hear about religion being used to justify discrimination in health care.
Recognizing this reality, the Reform Jewish Movement has committed to incorporating a reproductive justice framework, in partnership with communities of color, through the Women of Reform Judaism-Religious Action Center Reproductive Health & Rights Campaign. Our congregations and women’s groups are educating themselves and their communities and taking action on a wide range of reproductive health and rights issues. I have the privilege of working with dedicated lay leaders and clergy every day to advance our Jewish values of kavod ha’brioyot, the inherent dignity of each individual, on a local, state, and federal level.
If we want to honor the promise of Roe, we must be willing to acknowledge where we’ve come up short, and redouble our efforts to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, class, geography, or other identity factors, is able to shape their reproductive lives with dignity. On the eve of Roe’s 47th anniversary, I hope you will join me in continuing the fight to realize the promise of abortion and reproductive health access for all in the years to come.
Ally Karpel is the Women of Reform Judaism-Religious Action Center Reproductive Health & Rights Campaign Associate, where she drives strategy around the Reform Movement’s reproductive health and rights advocacy.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.