Post-‘Roe,’ Abortion Bans Will Increase the Separation of Black and Brown Families

"The same risks factors for being unable to access an abortion are the same risk factors for being investigated and reported to child services."

Graphic illustration of hands pulling on a rope and being separated
Banning and restricting abortion has a causal link with the poverty that yields the state-sanctioned separation of Black and indigenous families. Cage Rivera/Rewire News Group illustration

“If you’re so pro-life, why don’t you care about the 400,000 kids in foster care?”

Jasmine Wali, a social worker based in California, noticed this pro-choice talking point that magnified anti-choice movement’s hypocrisy circulating in the liberal media that implicated her work after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

Wali is the director of advocacy at JMacForFamilies, a nonprofit that provides political education for parents and children who have been impacted by the foster care or child welfare system, also known as the family policing system, and organizes them toward abolishing this system. She said asking anti-choice activists about the foster care system perpetuates an “inherent notion that overturning Roe v. Wade will lead to a spike in maltreatment, abuse, and neglect” of children of unwanted pregnancies.

“There’s an inherent assumption that parents who are unable to access an abortion will go on and abuse their child,” Wali said. “Most of these parents want and love their kids; they want to be with their children—they’re not going to inherently abuse their children.”

These assumptions are rooted in a lack of popular knowledge of the realities of the family policing system.

Seminal texts like The New Jim Crow and movements like Black Lives Matter have forced the public to acknowledge the systemic racism that undergirds the prison and policing systems. But even those who speak out against the carceral system may also believe the family policing system is beneficial: Parents abuse their children, and the state must rescue them from their maltreatment.

But this view of the family policing system is far from reality. Dorothy Roberts, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the author of Torn Apart, linked the punitive power of the prison and policing systems to the family regulation system in an episode of the podcast Truthout.

“Even systems that are supposed to be protective, supportive, and caring, like child protective services, hospitals and medical centers, and schools, are a part of a carceral apparatus that uses a benevolent narrative in order to expand state surveillance and policing and punishment of the most marginalized communities,” Roberts said in the episode “The End of ‘Roe’ Will Lead to More Family Separation and Child Disappearance.”

Wali agreed that the system affects those who are politically marginalized.

The combination of “poverty, race, class, gender, and/or disability leads to oversurveillance and overpolicing by the family regulation system,” Wali said.

The family policing system is rife with racial bias and is used as a tool of abuse to target families who, if they were a racial, gender, class, or ability minority, would not be on their radar. Black women whose families are being surveilled and investigated by Child Protective Services must show them deference or else risk being labeled as the “angry, uncooperative mother,” which would likely result in her children being separated from her. Perpetrators of intimate partner violence call in false allegations to harass their child’s other parent. One woman wrote in an op-ed in Rise Magazine about the necessity of child care after New York City’s Administration of Children Services became involved with her family because her 14-year-old watched her younger kids while she went to an appointment.

In this post-Roe world, abortion bans will force more people into the family policing system. Seventeen states have enacted total abortion bans or heavy restrictions, which will prevent undocumented, low-income, and trans people from accessing care.

“We know from decades of research that the same risks factors for being unable to access an abortion are the same risk factors for being investigated and reported to child protection authorities,” Wali said. “People who are disproportionately impacted by the family regulation system and lack of access to abortion don’t have insurance, they work in inflexible, low wage labor … there’s an overlap there.”

Not only does a lack of access to abortion care and entanglement in the family policing system stem from the same risk factors, banning and restricting abortion has a causal link with the poverty that yields the state-sanctioned separation of Black and Indigenous families. Wali pointed out an amicus brief filed in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that overturned Roe, by 150 economists that showed the causal relationship between banning abortion and poverty.

“As soon as someone gives birth, their [expected] lifetime earnings drop by one-third throughout their lives,” Wali said. “Poverty itself is criminalized by the family regulation system. Hardships, homelessness, housing instability, and lack of food, child care, and clean laundry can lead to a report [of child neglect or abuse]. So when there is a specific relationship between banning abortions and causing poverty, and then you’re using poverty as a grounds to take people’s children. That link is not well explored by the mass public at this moment.”

In this watershed moment in the abortion rights movement, advocates must contemplate whether they should prepare people who carry unwanted pregnancies to term for if or when Child Protective Services comes knocking on their doors.

“Both family regulation and lack of access to abortion disproportionally affects poor Black women and birthing people and people with disabilities,” Wali said. “All of these are very interconnected.”