Amid ongoing racist police violence, including the recent police killings of Daunte Wright, Ma’Khia Bryant, and Andrew Brown Jr., Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a bill last week that would only allow an exception for people seeking abortion care after 20 weeks of pregnancy if they have already reported their rape to law enforcement.
The law, set to take effect in the summer, comes as survivors share stories of why they didn’t report to police, and builds on the racist barriers people of color already face both to get abortion care and be believed if they report their assaults.
This law continues a long history of anti-abortion policies that require extensive policing, surveillance, and criminalization of people seeking abortion care and people who experience pregnancy complications.
Policies like this force them to interact with a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets and harms people of color. The movement for reproductive justice and safe abortion access has always been inextricably linked with the movement for abolition and decarceration. Amid an increase in state abortion bans and nationwide calls to defund the police, the intersections of these movements, and their shared visions for a society where communities are invested in and families can thrive, are more critical than ever.
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Police violence and incarceration have always been reproductive justice issues, as Black women leaders of the movement have often pointed out. Reproductive justice entails more than reproductive rights—it’s a framework pioneered by Black women asserting that each of us should have the resources and support we need to parent or not parent in safe, healthy communities, and acknowledging the disproportionate barriers people of color face in pursuit of this. Like disproportionately high Black maternal death and complication rates, losing a child to police violence or losing family members to mass incarceration both extend from reproductive injustice and its deep roots in white supremacy and the carceral state.
Laws like Arkansas’ aren’t new—bans on abortion care throughout pregnancy have always sought to punish and demonize people who face health emergencies or fetal diagnoses at different stages in their pregnancy, or who are unable to get abortion care earlier due to restrictions and barriers. Many extreme abortion laws across the country similarly offer rape exceptions, which send the false message that rape is easy to report and “prove” to police or medical professionals. Rape exceptions require survivors to put themselves in danger by reporting to a state agency that’s consistently been hostile toward them, or be forced to remain pregnant without their consent.
Other abortion laws, and even policies that may not seem directly related to abortion and reproductive rights, directly punish and criminalize people for the outcomes of their pregnancies. Currently, 38 states have laws that recognize the fetus or “unborn child” as a crime victim for cases of homicide targeting a pregnant person, or feticide. But these laws and the stigma around abortion and miscarriage are frequently weaponized against people who lose their pregnancies or self-manage their abortions with medication, in order to charge them with feticide, child endangerment, abuse of a corpse, or other charges.
In 2019, a Black woman named Marshae Jones was jailed and faced charges for manslaughter after being shot in the stomach and experiencing a miscarriage. That same year, Brooke Skylar Richardson, a white woman, was charged with aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment, and gross abuse of a corpse after she buried her stillborn fetus while still a high school student. In 2018, Keysheonna Reed, a Black woman, faced charges for two counts of abuse of a corpse after she left the fetuses of her stillborn twins in a suitcase by the side of a road. Two years before that, Katherine Dellis was convicted and jailed, charged with concealing a dead body after she, too, experienced a stillbirth.
In Indiana alone, two Asian American women have recently faced criminal charges for the outcomes of their pregnancies. Purvi Patel was jailed for allegedly taking medication abortion pills and having a stillbirth in 2013, charged with feticide and child abuse. Before her, Bei Bei Shuai faced criminal charges for losing her pregnancy from attempted suicide. In 2007, Amber Abreu, a Latina teenager, faced felony charges in Massachusetts for “procuring a miscarriage” for using a medication abortion pill. In 2011, Jennie Linn McCormack, a young mother of three, was also arrested for using medication abortion pills she purchased online.
Because medication abortion ends a pregnancy by inducing a miscarriage, if abortion were banned or criminalized—a possibility with a 6-3 anti-abortion majority on the Supreme Court, and the rapid introduction of abortion bans in state legislatures—all miscarriage and pregnancy loss could be subject to criminal suspicion and investigation. Already, at least 46 states require some form of reporting of abortion care to the state government. Earlier this year, Ohio enacted a fetal burial law that could require people who have abortions to obtain death certificates for their aborted fetus, effectively entering their abortion into public record. In 2019, it was reported that Missouri’s health director ran a program to track abortion patients’ menstrual cycles.
Several state legislatures are considering, and 11 states have enacted, “race- and sex-selective” abortion bans, which require health-care workers to report people seeking abortions to law enforcement if they suspect a patient is seeking care due to the race or sex of the fetus. These bans are rooted in racist stereotypes about Asian women preferring sons.
Communities of color, and especially Black communities, have always been disproportionately targeted by state surveillance and criminalization of abortion and pregnancy loss. This extends from the racist War on Drugs, which violently policed Black pregnant women struggling with substance use and other health complications throughout the 1980s, and persists to this day.
The struggles for reproductive justice and abolition are inseparable, as both are in conflict with a carceral, white supremacist system that surveils and punishes the pregnancies, bodies, and lives of people of color. But beyond the oppressions reproductive justice and abolition aim to dismantle, both movements also envision a transformed society where we invest in communities rather than prisons and policing, where families can thrive, and where each of us can be safe and autonomous in our own bodies.