President Biden got this much right: Recovery requires going big on infrastructure. But where are reproductive rights? That’s critical infrastructure, too.
As with bridges and roads, access to reproductive health care is a mission-critical resource people need to get from point A to point B. A person’s well-being, including their economic well-being, depends in large part upon their ability to control whether, when, and how to have children.
Let’s start with abortion. According to a review of empirical data by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the legalization of abortion increased Black women’s educational attainment, increasing high school graduation rates, college entrance, and college completion by 1.3 percent, 3.7 percent, and 9.6 percent, respectively. What’s more, abortion access increased women’s participation in the workforce overall.
A note: All people need reproductive rights, including transgender people who can become pregnant and cisgender people who can’t; when research refers explicitly to women, I use that term to maintain the accuracy of the data presented.
Birth control also shows related effects, with data showing that access to contraception correlates to increased attainment of postsecondary education and higher income earning levels. To be clear, people who want to avoid pregnancy in order to improve their economic outcomes should be respected.
And we must be equally clear that pushing contraceptives on people, especially people of color and people with disabilities, in the name of poverty reduction is actually population control branded as “help.” What low-income people who want to have children really need is higher wages, affordable child care, and a stronger social safety net, not coercion to use contraceptives. Children are for everyone. They are not and must never be a luxury reserved for the rich.
Social support around birth, parenting, pregnancy, and reproduction is also critical infrastructure. If people need free diapers, they should get access to them without having to depend on anti-abortion fake clinics requiring them to complete inaccurate, shaming “classes” that tell them they’re going to hell. Medically accurate sex education so that everyone understands their bodies is critical infrastructure. Access to prenatal care is critical infrastructure. And, as the COVID-19 crisis that forced parents around the world into a tailspin made abundantly clear, child care is critical infrastructure—and yet the system was broken even before the pandemic, with women of color least likely to have access to affordable child care.
In the spirit of solutions, here are a few modest proposals for how reproductive rights should be included in infrastructure packages:
- Provide financial incentives to open new abortion clinics, with additional incentives to states hostile to abortion access and to states bordering them.
- Provide financial incentives for existing health-care providers to integrate abortion into their medical practice.
- Provide financial incentives for mobile health units that provide the full range of reproductive health care in specially fitted RVs.
- Fund unbiased, medically accurate provision of comprehensive sex education in public schools.
- Fund contraception and abortion, including direct funding of pills and procedures as well as nonprofit abortion funds that, in many instances, provide not just financial support for care but logistical support, such as defraying the cost of transportation to a provider.
It may seem overly optimistic to think these things are possible when, as activists have rightfully pointed out, the Biden administration seems to have problems saying the word “abortion” and has failed to take leadership as states pass an onslaught of abortion restrictions and the Supreme Court takes up a case about a Mississippi abortion ban that could, under hostile justices, be used to eliminate the core framework of Roe v. Wade. It is true that President Biden needs to take more leadership for reproductive rights. But what better way than to start within the context of the big, bold change he champions for moving society past the deep damages wrought by COVID-19?
Reproductive rights are not theory. They are urgent, basic needs and core operating infrastructure for any society. Biden is correct to focus on shoring up our infrastructure as a nation. It’s critical for the president and all policymakers to include reproductive rights in what it means to build back better.