Members of U.S. Senate panel fight over effects of abortion ruling on Black patients

By: - July 12, 2022 9:37 pm

During a tense U.S. Senate hearing on abortion access, Democrats recalled abortion providers and clinic workers killed by anti-abortion zealots, while Republicans condemned violence against anti-abortion pregnancy centers. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday began wading through the dozens of state laws that have taken effect in the two weeks since the Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to an abortion, and heard from witnesses who said the effect on Black patients will be especially harsh.

“People of color, specifically Black people, will feel the impact of the court’s decision in Dobbs more than any other racial group,” said Khiara M. Bridges, professor of law at UC Berkeley School of Law, referring to the decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women due to multiple factors, including structural racism.

But Bridges’ comments led to an acrimonious exchange with Republican senators in which they questioned whether she was advocating for more abortions among Black patients.

“You believe there ought to be more Black babies aborted, is that right?” Texas Sen. John Cornyn asked her. Bridges, who is Black, responded that the government ought to create conditions so that people can “lead lives filled with dignity and humanity.”

Witnesses and sharply split Democrats and Republicans in the tense hearing also argued over the protests, vandalism, violence and other crimes that have existed in the shadow of the abortion debate for decades.

Democrats recalled abortion providers and clinic workers killed by anti-abortion zealots, while Republicans condemned violence against anti-abortion pregnancy centers.

The hearing is one of four this week in which congressional panels will look at the shifting health care and legal landscape after conservative justices ruled late last month that the court would no longer uphold the fundamental right to abortion that existed nationwide for nearly five decades.

Democrats questioned how the ruling might harm patient health and increase maternal mortality, while Republicans contended the ruling should be celebrated for returning the contentious issue to state legislatures.

Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it is possible that GOP state lawmakers could soon pass laws to imprison women who seek to terminate a pregnancy.

“Some Republican state lawmakers have even sought to punish women seeking abortion,” Durbin said. “For example, in Louisiana, Republican legislators sought to advance a bill in May that would have subjected women who terminate pregnancy to charges of criminal homicide.”

Anti-abortion groups have long said they view patients who get abortions as victims and have claimed they believe criminal laws should focus on the health care providers who perform abortions.

Women of color

Tuesday’s hearing included testy exchanges over the impact state abortion restrictions will have on women of color.

Bridges said the abortion rate for Black people is three to four times that of white patients. That, she said, is a direct result of a higher rate of “unintended pregnancy, which in turn is due to higher rates of poverty among Black people.”

Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, a Democrat, said abortion clinics in the state have seen the number of patients traveling from out of state double in the two weeks since the court released its opinion.

Stratton said she expected that number to increase as additional state laws take effect in the coming weeks and months.

Stratton, who is Black, also expressed concern about how abortion restrictions and bans would affect the health of Black women, who are more likely to experience maternal mortality than white or Hispanic women.

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The CDC says those factors include variation in quality health care, underlying chronic conditions, structural racism and implicit bias.

“A post-Roe America will be devastating for Black women, whose maternal mortality rate is already two to three times higher than that of white women because of structural racism and misogyny,” Stratton said.

Stratton later expanded on what legal, safe abortion access means for Black women in response to a question from New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker.

Booker, who is Black, said GOP senators made it sound like “access to safe abortion care is somehow racist against African Americans.”

Having access to safe abortions, Stratton said, is “liberating for Black women.”

“To be able to have bodily autonomy and the ability to decide what’s best for their bodies for their lives and their futures,” Stratton said.

Cornyn, a Texas Republican, asked Bridges about the structural racism she mentioned earlier in the day that has led to higher instances of abortion among Black patients, and asked if she believes “there ought to be more Black babies aborted.”

When she said conditions need to be created so people can lead lives of dignity, Cornyn followed up, asking if in her way of “thinking, that happens when more Black babies are aborted?”

Bridges responded that she trusts Black people with the capacity to think through the implications of pregnancy. “I think they have agency, they have intelligence, they know what is best for themselves and I would love to create the conditions under which they can live lives that are filled with dignity and humanity.”

Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee spoke out in support of the Supreme Court ruling and against abortion, saying that the choice to end a pregnancy falls disproportionately on women of color.

“I hope to see states enacting stronger protections for life, including among other things laws prohibiting abortions based on the race, sex or disability of the baby,” he said. “I hope these laws would protect all babies, including Black babies.”

Violence condemned

Durbin and ranking member Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, began the hearing condemning violence, saying it is not the answer.

Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton brought up protests outside Supreme Court justices’ houses in the Washington, D.C., area, as well as property crimes against anti-abortion pregnancy centers and other organizations, before asking the five witnesses to condemn the violent acts.

“All across the board, violence is unacceptable,” Stratton said. “We know that arson, bombings, assaults, which have increased exponentially, stalkings, have gone up 600% since 2020 against those that are abortion providers.”

“So I condemn any acts of violence and absolutely do not believe anybody should experience threats to their wellbeing and safety. But that should apply equally across the board.”

Denise Harle, senior counsel and director of The Center For Life at the conservative and anti-abortion legal group Alliance for Defending Freedom, said she condemned violence but added that she believes abortion is an act of violence.

Bridges condemned violence, before citing statistics that showed increases in blockades outside abortion clinics, planting of hoax devices that resemble bombs, invasions at clinics, and assault and battery.

Heidi Matzke, executive director of the Alternatives Pregnancy Center in California, which has doctors and nurses on staff and says it “offers hopeful alternatives to the abortion choice,” said “violence should never be carried out on anyone, at any time.”

“Pregnancy centers recently since the overturning, the violence has been overwhelming that we sustained and the amount of money we’ve had to protect ourselves… is unbelievable,” Matzke said.

Dr. Colleen P. McNicholas, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, said she appreciated Cotton’s outrage for violence before reading off the names of nine abortion providers and clinic workers who have been killed because they provide abortion, or were in a clinic.

“Echoing all of my fellow panelists here, I absolutely condemn violence against everyone, including abortion providers,” she said.

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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.

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