Ever since the passage of Roe v. Wade, conservative legislators in states around the country have been steadily chipping away at abortion access. Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court brings additional focus to the fight to protect reproductive health. Barrett has previously signed on to a call for Roe v. Wade to be overturned, and with the Supreme Court scheduled to hear a challenge to the Affordable Care Act on November 10, her confirmation puts the healthcare of millions of Latinx people at risk.
One of the most insidious abortion restrictions is not the result of a recent state-led attack, but a national ban that has long been in the books. According to Elizabeth Estrada, New York Field and Advocacy Manager at the Latina Institute, the Hyde Amendment—which blocks federal Medicaid funds from covering abortion care—was written to target women of color, including Latinas, who are the lowest wage earners in the country and are more likely to rely on Medicaid.
“Hyde is a discriminatory law and it was passed with the intent of banning our communities from access,” Estrada said. “Henry Hyde wanted to ban abortion altogether, but he settled on banning it for poor women.”
Since it was passed in 1976, the Hyde Amendment has had devastating consequences for Latinas, leaving them desperate for alternatives and pushing them into dangerous situations. That’s what happened to Rosie Jimenez—a 27-year-old college student who, months after Hyde was passed, found that her Medicaid coverage wouldn’t cover a safe and legal abortion. Tragically, she died after seeking an unsafe abortion.
What happened to Jimenez is echoed in the stories of many other Latinas, who decades later, are denied abortion access simply because they are poor. It is their stories that inspire the Latina Institute and many other reproductive justice organizations to fight for legislative efforts like the EACH Woman Act which would repeal the Hyde Amendment and eliminate one of the most significant barriers to getting an abortion.
Estrada’s approach is reflective of the overall mission of the Latina Institute, a national organization that approaches abortion access from a reproductive justice framework. That means that instead of advocating for what has been narrowly defined as “women’s issues,” the Latina Institute looks at how reproductive rights intersect with other social justice issues like housing inequity, racial disparities, and income inequality. Then they incorporate those issues into their advocacy.
Estrada understands that you can’t talk about abortion access without talking about immigrant justice. Even focusing narrowly on repealing the Hyde Amendment excludes many Latinas. “Not everyone has documentation to receive a Medicaid card,” Estrada points out. That’s why the Latina Institute also advocates for the HEAL Act, legislation that would allow many immigrants to enroll in Medicaid.
Like writer and activist, Audre Lorde said, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives.” Reproductive justice advocates have fought for issues like access to clean water, LGBTQ rights, and ending Border Patrol checkpoints—all to secure the right for all people to choose whether or not they want to become parents, and to raise families in safe, healthy environments if and when they do.
Despite the Latina Institute’s goal of expanding abortion access, when Estrada organizes Latinx residents in New York City, she doesn’t always start with abortion. Instead, she tries to help people understand that abortion access is part of a larger struggle to empower Latinx communities.
Republican-backed attacks on abortion have become more sustained—and more restrictive. In 2019, 25 new state laws were passed, some banning abortion at only six weeks before most women even know they are pregnant. Abortion providers have been subject to personal death threats, daily protests outside clinic doors, and even terrorist attacks, and violence like this is on the rise.
Shuttered clinics across the United States mean limited access to abortion for millions of women. There are currently six states that have a single abortion provider, forcing women to travel hundreds of miles to seek care. A whopping 25 states have passed mandatory waiting periods that cause unnecessary delays in receiving care—sometimes up to three days.
Due to systemic barriers that have been perpetuated for decades, Latinx workers are less likely to have paid sick days than white workers. Taking an unpaid day off work—or three—can be impossible for Latinas that are already struggling with the devastating economic consequences of COVID-19, especially since many are not just caregivers, but the primary breadwinners for their family.
The work of reproductive justice advocates isn’t just limited to changing laws and passing legislation. Advocates also aim to change cultural attitudes that have rendered abortion access taboo.
In Texas, where Latinas have borne the brunt of stringent reproductive health policies, that culture-shifting work is happening in an unlikely place: the church. The organizing tactics used there can look very different from those used by mainstream reproductive rights groups. Some mainstream advocates may encourage others to unapologetically “shout” about their abortion experiences, Latina Institute organizers in bible study groups tiptoe around the word, referring to abortion as an “interruption of pregnancy” instead.
“For a while, I thought that was a compromise,” Estrada said. “But then you go to Texas and you realize you’re meeting people where they are.”
For Estrada, the way to shift cultural attitudes is to first build trust with the community, even when that means working with people that may be wary of abortion access. “Some conservative circles have dehumanized our decision-making,” Estrada said. “Our work is impactful because we’re opening up the conversation.”
For example, many people don’t realize that 60% of people seeking an abortion are already mothers. Others might mistakenly assume that access to reproductive healthcare is only an issue championed by white women, for the benefit of white women. Many others don’t know the country’s dark history of sterilizing Latinas against their will, and how these forced sterilizations underline today’s struggle for bodily autonomy.
Latinx activists have an important and expansive role in the struggle for reproductive justice—whether as abortion providers who can deliver care in English and Spanish, abortion storytellers who are creating supportive communities, and even as a Supreme Court Justice fighting in the highest Court of the land to keep Roe v. Wade intact. Estrada emphasizes that Latinx organizers and volunteers are perhaps the best suited to bring about change for our people.
“We aren’t just doing this work during an election or campaign cycle. We’re here year-round, investing in the community because we’re part of the community,” Estrada said. “This is our fight.”
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