Commentary Race

Michelle Obama Should Be Brave: Black Women and Reproductive Health Disparities in the 2012 Presidential Election

Jazmine Walker

Though choice is a significant part of gaining gender equality, I remain struck by how our First Lady, a black woman with black daughters, has yet to talk about reproductive health as broader than "choice."

Published in partnership with the Black Women’s Media Collective.

Cross-posted with permission from Furious and Brave.

During the Democratic National Convention, just after Nancy Keenan, President of NARAL Pro-Choice America, announced that the Democratic Party was pro-choice, Michelle Obama proudly boasted that her husband, Barack Obama, “believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and healthcare… that’s what my husband stands for.” Though choice is a significant part of gaining gender equality, I remain struck by how our First Lady, a black woman with black daughters, has yet to talk about reproductive health as broader than ”choice.”

I recognize that black women’s issues are marginalized, and even black women themselves were invisible throughout this election. But when a black woman as influential and powerful as Michelle Obama talks about reproductive health, I expect her to talk about it from her own standpoint. Universalizing women’s issues and minimizing her black identity does not protect her, her daughters, or the countless other women of color whose reproductive health issues are far larger than choice. 

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Although black women are less likely to develop breast cancer than white women, black women are 40 percent more likely to die from the disease. Black women are three times more likely to develop fibroid tumors. Black women have an infant mortality rate double that of their white counterparts. They are also twice as likely to die from cervical cancer in relation to white women. These health disparities are the result of more than simply a lack of about access to proper health care. Black women across class lines deal with these reproductive health disparities, borne of systemic gendered racism embedded in health care delivery, where health care providers rely upon racist and sexist stereotypes when providing care for these women. White feminists have the privilege of ignoring Michelle Obama’s race around women’s issues in a way that Michelle Obama does not, especially given how her race is hyper-visible in many aspects.

Competing controlling images are prevalent. Because she is the First [Black] Lady, Michelle Obama has to navigate the politics of respectability, while her black body prevents her from realizing full lady-hood. Despite challenging stereotypes of both the overbearing black matriarch and deviant black motherhood in discussions of her roles of wife and mother, she is still is hypersexualized and often criticized for supposedly dressing more provocatively than a First Lady should. But the criticisms don’t stop there. She has been depicted as a nude slave in Spanish magazines and has been decried by conservative whites openly lamenting the absence of a First Lady that “looks and acts like a First Lady.”

Yet, in resisting her own negative racialization, Michelle Obama has had to walk the same post-racial political line as her husband. President Obama is compelled to remind whites, and others, that he is “not the President of Black America. [He is] the President of the United States of America.” In a post-racial society these assertions are not only expected but necessary in order avoid being categorized as separatist or anti-democratic. Similarly, Michelle Obama’s universalization of women’s health issues seems like a necessary maneuver, but at what expense? Sasha’s, Malia’s, or even her own reproductive health? Certainly, this universalizing and de-racialization of women’s reproductive health issues by the First Black First Lady, is a paradoxically powerful obfuscation of the particular reproductive health issues that disproportionately affect black women and families.

As activists and scholars we have an obligation to not only demystify this notion of a post-racial society that obscures racism and racist practices in this country but also show how “post-racism” has dire consequences along gender lines. Though I am advocating for Michelle Obama to be more vocal about black women’s issues, I recognize that her silence is a consequence of two narratives that have historically overshadowed our victimhood and our resistance. Discourse around black women’s reproductive health remains on the margins, caught between a white reproductive narrative that still ignores the multifaceted needs of women of color and discourse around systemic racism that centers the tribulations of black men.

Analysis Law and Policy

After ‘Whole Woman’s Health’ Decision, Advocates Should Fight Ultrasound Laws With Science

Imani Gandy

A return to data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous "informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down two provisions of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, has changed the reproductive rights landscape in ways that will reverberate in courts around the country for years to come. It is no longer acceptable—at least in theory—for a state to announce that a particular restriction advances an interest in women’s health and to expect courts and the public to take them at their word.

In an opinion driven by science and data, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority in Whole Woman’s Health, weighed the costs and benefits of the two provisions of HB 2 at issue—the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements—and found them wanting. Texas had breezed through the Fifth Circuit without facing any real pushback on its manufactured claims that the two provisions advanced women’s health. Finally, Justice Breyer whipped out his figurative calculator and determined that those claims didn’t add up. For starters, Texas admitted that it didn’t know of a single instance where the admitting privileges requirement would have helped a woman get better treatment. And as for Texas’ claim that abortion should be performed in an ASC, Breyer pointed out that the state did not require the same of its midwifery clinics, and that childbirth is 14 times more likely to result in death.

So now, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in the case’s concurring opinion, laws that “‘do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion’ cannot survive judicial inspection.” In other words, if a state says a restriction promotes women’s health and safety, that state will now have to prove it to the courts.

With this success under our belts, a similar return to science and data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous “informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld parts of Pennsylvania’s “informed consent” law requiring abortion patients to receive a pamphlet developed by the state department of health, finding that it did not constitute an “undue burden” on the constitutional right to abortion. The basis? Protecting women’s mental health: “[I]n an attempt to ensure that a woman apprehends the full consequences of her decision, the State furthers the legitimate purpose of reducing the risk that a woman may elect an abortion, only to discover later, with devastating psychological consequences, that her decision was not fully informed.”

Texas took up Casey’s informed consent mantle and ran with it. In 2011, the legislature passed a law that forces patients to undergo a medical exam, whether or not their doctor thinks they need it, and that forces them to listen to information that the state wants them to hear, whether or not their doctor thinks that they need to hear it. The purpose of this law—at least in theory—is, again, to protect patients’ “mental health” by dissuading those who may be unsure about procedure.

The ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in 2012, in Texas Medical Providers v. Lakey.

And make no mistake: The exam the law requires is invasive, and in some cases, cruelly so. As Beverly McPhail pointed out in the Houston Chronicle in 2011, transvaginal probes will often be necessary to comply with the law up to 10 to 12 weeks of pregnancy—which is when, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 91 percent of abortions take place. “Because the fetus is so small at this stage, traditional ultrasounds performed through the abdominal wall, ‘jelly on the belly,’ often cannot produce a clear image,” McPhail noted.

Instead, a “probe is inserted into the vagina, sending sound waves to reflect off body structures to produce an image of the fetus. Under this new law, a woman’s vagina will be penetrated without an opportunity for her to refuse due to coercion from the so-called ‘public servants’ who passed and signed this bill into law,” McPhail concluded.

There’s a reason why abortion advocates began decrying these laws as “rape by the state.”

If Texas legislators are concerned about the mental health of their citizens, particularly those who may have been the victims of sexual assault—or any woman who does not want a wand forcibly shoved into her body for no medical reason—they have a funny way of showing it.

They don’t seem terribly concerned about the well-being of the woman who wants desperately to be a mother but who decides to terminate a pregnancy that doctors tell her is not viable. Certainly, forcing that woman to undergo the painful experience of having an ultrasound image described to her—which the law mandates for the vast majority of patients—could be psychologically devastating.

But maybe Texas legislators don’t care that forcing a foreign object into a person’s body is the ultimate undue burden.

After all, if foisting ultrasounds onto women who have decided to terminate a pregnancy saves even one woman from a lifetime of “devastating psychologically damaging consequences,” then it will all have been worth it, right? Liberty and bodily autonomy be damned.

But what if there’s very little risk that a woman who gets an abortion experiences those “devastating psychological consequences”?

What if the information often provided by states in connection with their “informed consent” protocol does not actually lead to consent that is more informed, either because the information offered is outdated, biased, false, or flatly unnecessary given a particular pregnant person’s circumstance? Texas’ latest edition of its “Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, for example, contains even more false information than prior versions, including the medically disproven claim that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks gestation.

What if studies show—as they have since the American Psychological Association first conducted one to that effect in 1989—that abortion doesn’t increase the risk of mental health issues?

If the purpose of informed consent laws is to weed out women who have been coerced or who haven’t thought it through, then that purpose collapses if women who get abortions are, by and large, perfectly happy with their decision.

And that’s exactly what research has shown.

Scientific studies indicate that the vast majority of women don’t regret their abortions, and therefore are not devastated psychologically. They don’t fall into drug and alcohol addiction or attempt to kill themselves. But that hasn’t kept anti-choice activists from claiming otherwise.

It’s simply not true that abortion sends mentally healthy patients over the edge. In a study report released in 2008, the APA found that the strongest predictor of post-abortion mental health was prior mental health. In other words, if you’re already suffering from mental health issues before getting an abortion, you’re likely to suffer mental health issues afterward. But the studies most frequently cited in courts around the country prove, at best, an association between mental illness and abortion. When the studies controlled for “prior mental health and violence experience,” “no significant relation was found between abortion history and anxiety disorders.”

But what about forced ultrasound laws, specifically?

Science has its part to play in dismantling those, too.

If Whole Woman’s Health requires the weighing of costs and benefits to ensure that there’s a connection between the claimed purpose of an abortion restriction and the law’s effect, then laws that require a woman to get an ultrasound and to hear a description of it certainly fail that cost-benefit analysis. Science tells us forcing patients to view ultrasound images (as opposed to simply offering the opportunity for a woman to view ultrasound images) in order to give them “information” doesn’t dissuade them from having abortions.

Dr. Jen Gunter made this point in a blog post years ago: One 2009 study found that when given the option to view an ultrasound, nearly 73 percent of women chose to view the ultrasound image, and of those who chose to view it, 85 percent of women felt that it was a positive experience. And here’s the kicker: Not a single woman changed her mind about having an abortion.

Again, if women who choose to see ultrasounds don’t change their minds about getting an abortion, a law mandating that ultrasound in order to dissuade at least some women is, at best, useless. At worst, it’s yet another hurdle patients must leap to get care.

And what of the mandatory waiting period? Texas law requires a 24-hour waiting period—and the Court in Casey upheld a 24-hour waiting period—but states like Louisiana and Florida are increasing the waiting period to 72 hours.

There’s no evidence that forcing women into longer waiting periods has a measurable effect on a woman’s decision to get an abortion. One study conducted in Utah found that 86 percent of women had chosen to get the abortion after the waiting period was over. Eight percent of women chose not to get the abortion, but the most common reason given was that they were already conflicted about abortion in the first place. The author of that study recommended that clinics explore options with women seeking abortion and offer additional counseling to the small percentage of women who are conflicted about it, rather than states imposing a burdensome waiting period.

The bottom line is that the majority of women who choose abortion make up their minds and go through with it, irrespective of the many roadblocks placed in their way by overzealous state governments. And we know that those who cannot overcome those roadblocks—for financial or other reasons—are the ones who experience actual negative effects. As we saw in Whole Woman’s Health, those kinds of studies, when admitted as evidence in the court record, can be critical in striking restrictions down.

Of course, the Supreme Court has not always expressed an affinity for scientific data, as Justice Anthony Kennedy demonstrated in Gonzales v. Carhart, when he announced that “some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained,” even though he admitted there was “no reliable data to measure the phenomenon.” It was under Gonzales that so many legislators felt equipped to pass laws backed up by no legitimate scientific evidence in the first place.

Whole Woman’s Health offers reproductive rights advocates an opportunity to revisit a host of anti-choice restrictions that states claim are intended to advance one interest or another—whether it’s the state’s interest in fetal life or the state’s purported interest in the psychological well-being of its citizens. But if the laws don’t have their intended effects, and if they simply throw up obstacles in front of people seeking abortion, then perhaps, Whole Woman’s Health and its focus on scientific data will be the death knell of these laws too.

News Politics

Tim Kaine Changes Position on Federal Funding for Abortion Care

Ally Boguhn

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back the Hyde Amendment's ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate, has promised to stand with nominee Hillary Clinton in opposing the Hyde Amendment, a ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, told CNN’s State of the Union Sunday that Kaine “has said that he will stand with Secretary Clinton to defend a woman’s right to choose, to repeal the Hyde amendment,” according to the network’s transcript.

“Voters can be 100 percent confident that Tim Kaine is going to fight to protect a woman’s right to choose,” Mook said.

The commitment to opposing Hyde was “made privately,” Clinton spokesperson Jesse Ferguson later clarified to CNN’s Edward Mejia Davis.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Kaine’s stated support for ending the federal ban on abortion funding is a reversal on the issue for the Virginia senator. Kaine this month told the Weekly Standard  that he had not “been informed” that this year’s Democratic Party platform included a call for repealing the Hyde Amendment. He said he has “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde amendment.”

Repealing the Hyde Amendment has been an issue for Democrats on the campaign trail this election cycle. Speaking at a campaign rally in New Hampshire in January, Clinton denounced Hyde, noting that it made it “harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.”

Clinton called the federal ban on abortion funding “hard to justify” when asked about it later that month at the Brown and Black Presidential Forum, adding that “the full range of reproductive health rights that women should have includes access to safe and legal abortion.”

Clinton’s campaign told Rewire during her 2008 run for president that she “does not support the Hyde amendment.”

The Democratic Party on Monday codified its commitment to opposing Hyde, as well as the Helms Amendment’s ban on foreign assistance funds being used for abortion care. 

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back Hyde’s ban on federal funding for abortion care.

When asked about whether the president supported the repeal of Hyde during the White House press briefing Tuesday, Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said he did not “believe we have changed our position on the Hyde Amendment.”

When pushed by a reporter to address if the administration is “not necessarily on board” with the Democratic platform’s call to repeal Hyde, Schultz said that the administration has “a longstanding view on this and I don’t have any changes in our position to announce today.”