Today marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment and with it, White women’s suffrage. This day arrives amid a raging pandemic, global protests against White supremacy, and rampant reproductive health inequities. As a reproductive health attorney by day and voter protection volunteer by night, I understand that these wicked problems—and their solutions—are interconnected. As we approach the most consequential election of our generation, ending voter suppression is essential to our fight to end reproductive health injustice.
Long before COVID-19 struck the U.S., people faced widespread barriers to accessing comprehensive reproductive and sexual health services. The pandemic brings new challenges as anti-choice policymakers work to exploit the moment to effectively ban access to abortion care. Even well-intentioned public health responses aimed at halting the coronavirus are disrupting access to essential services.
Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and individuals who live at the intersection of identities encounter pervasive reproductive health injustice. Many lack health insurance, and with it, coverage for essential services. Black and Indigenous patients are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than non-Hispanic White patients.
Abandoned by most White former sisters-in-arms, BIPOC women spent the next forty years battling Jim Crow laws that continued to disenfranchise them.
These injustices are rooted in sustained imbalances in power, systems, and structures that prioritize White, non-disabled, cisgender, and straight lives. These imbalances exist within our own movements. The reproductive justice movement was created in response to the White-led pro-choice movement’s harmful devaluing and decentering of BIPOC, including ways in which their right to parent is constantly threatened. For nearly seven decades, BIPOC such as Ida B. Wells, Mary Eliza Church Terrell, and Zitkála-Šá fought tirelessly for women’s suffrage, yet White supremacy robbed them of the vote in 1920. Abandoned by most White former sisters-in-arms, BIPOC women spent the next forty years battling Jim Crow laws that continued to disenfranchise them. The Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 finally placed the Nineteenth Amendment’s promise within reach, but voter suppression endures. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted key VRA protections in Shelby County v. Holder. Today, voter suppression silences the voices of those most affected by reproductive injustice, enabling injustice to persist.
This election season, we must commit to advancing reproductive health care access as a right, not an option. This means centering BIPOC, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ people and following their lead. It also means dismantling the discriminatory policies that target, devalue, and dehumanize them—including those that suppress voting rights. Consider the Hyde Amendment, which for generations has severely restricted the constitutional right to safe and legal abortion care for low-income people enrolled in Medicaid, the Indian Health Service, and other federal programs. Consider the oppressive voting laws that keep BIPOC, LGBTQ+ people, and women who are disproportionately harmed by the Hyde Amendment from holding Congress accountable. If we continue as we are, we will never achieve reproductive health equity.
Meaningful voting access is essential to holding elected officials accountable for the social, economic, and political obstacles that fuel reproductive health injustice. We must invest in smart solutions: restore the VRA, expand polling place hours to better serve BIPOC communities and low-wage earners, and improve voting accessibility. We must end strict voter ID, voter purging, and disenfranchisement laws that target trans people and BIPOC. We must invest in early voting and Vote-by-Mail, which empower voters to decide when, how, and where they vote during the pandemic and beyond.
The future of reproductive health equity is only as bright as the future of antiracism and anti-oppression. By dismantling lasting racial, economic, structural, and cultural constraints on the exercise of power, we can clear the way for a healthier and more just century ahead.