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Commentary Law and Policy

The Fight for D.C. Statehood is a Fight for Abortion Access

Brooke Butler

Abortion access should not be restricted by partisan wins and losses. And the fight for statehood should not be restricted to D.C. residents.

Last week, I watched members of the U.S. House of Representatives make the case for and against D.C. statehood. Legislators named many great reasons that the District of Columbia should be made the 51st state, but one very important reason was missed: abortion access.

As a board member of DC Abortion Fund (DCAF), the only local fund for residents of the district, I see firsthand the toll that budgetary restrictions forced on D.C. by Congress take on abortion access. Because Washington, D.C., is not a state, Congress has oversight of our local budget—approving and restricting how we use our own tax dollars. Although we pay more federal taxes than residents of 22 other states, D.C. residents do not have full representation in Congress, and our own elected council members cannot decide how to allocate their budget without Congressional approval.

Take, for example, the Dornan Amendment, which was introduced in 1989 and prevents D.C. from using its locally raised Medicaid dollars to pay for abortion care. This means that people often have to delay care in order to finance it—needing to make difficult financial decisions along the way, like borrowing money, taking out loans, or making a choice between paying for their abortion and their bills. Many of those who call DCAF would be able to get their abortion without our services if the district were a state—at least 359 of the D.C. residents we served this year have been Medicaid enrollees.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, about 75 percent of people who have abortions are people with low-incomes, and 60 percent are people of color. The vast majority of D.C. residents who call us for help paying for their abortions are Black. It’s impossible to have a conversation about D.C. abortion access or the fight for political representation without noting how anti-Blackness drives opposition to both.

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Washington, D.C.—deemed Chocolate City because of the size of its Black population—has enjoyed a Black population of over 45 percent for more than 60 years. But since members of Congress from other states can introduce amendments that prevent D.C. from spending taxpayer dollars as we’d like, restrictions like Dornan disproportionately diminish the political power and will of Black residents.

At their core, abortion funding bans are a form of reproductive oppression aimed at marginalized communities—especially Black people. Black people are disproportionately likely to seek and need abortion care. Restrictions and bans are direct attacks on our ability to control if, when, and how we parent—decisions directly related to our socioeconomic mobility and well-being. In a nation that refuses to make sufficient investments in parental leave, child care, affordable housing, food justice, and equitable education, forced parenting is a surefire way to keep Black people at the margins.

That’s why, at the local and national level, Black women at reproductive health and justice organizations are leading the fight for reproductive justice. Organizations like SisterSong and In Our Own Voice have long fought for access to abortion care and better health care and support for Black women. And in D.C., Mamatoto Village provides wraparound services for moms of color and grounds its work in reproductive justice.

When people are denied access to abortion care, they have been found to experience adverse mental and physical health consequences, medical complications from pregnancy, continued patterns of abuse and interpersonal violence, and other negative outcomes, such as eclampsia and death. For the predominantly Black patients DCAF serves, these effects come on top of major health disparities—and that cannot be ignored. For example, in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, where over 90 percent of residents are Black, there is no nearby hospital for residents to access labor and delivery services, making the impact of an abortion funding ban even more dire.

We do know what it is like to have a break from Dornan. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed a budget that did not include the amendment. But in 2011, it was used as a bargaining chip. and that was that—28 people were left to scramble to find funds for their scheduled abortion the day after the amendment went into effect, and DCAF immediately saw a spike in need.

Abortion access should not be restricted by partisan wins and losses. And fighting for our statehood should not be restricted to residents of the district. With 221 cosponsors, HR 51, the “Washington, D.C Admission Act” could pass in the Democratic-controlled House. Although the U.S. Senate and President Trump are unlikely to approve the legislation, even passing it in the House would be a huge step forward.

I want my tax dollars to ensure people get abortion care. It is imperative that we see D.C. statehood as not only a fight for budgetary autonomy and Congressional representation, but as part of the fight for bodily autonomy, generally, and abortion, specifically.

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