Making Equal Access to Reproductive Health Services a Must for 2016

Equality. It's the simplest of values, and one that has evolved over the last 200 years since our nation's founding. As the country takes time this month to remember the contributions of Black leaders who have come before and fought so hard for equality -- in housing, voting, representation, and much more -- we must not forget that the fight still continues when it comes to ensuring all Black women have access to the health care that is critical to achieving true equality.

The sad truth about American history is that Black women have long been denied the resources and services to make informed decisions about their health care. And when a Black woman is unable to access the health care services she needs, those barriers stand in the way of higher education and financial stability for herself and her family. If Black women are ever going to be truly equal, disparities in access to health care -- particularly reproductive health care -- must be eliminated.

This year, the United States Supreme Court has the opportunity to ensure equal access to reproductive health care not just for Black women, but for millions of other women across the country. The highest court in the nation is reviewing a case, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, which challenges a Texas anti-abortion law that, under the guise of improving health care, has actually forced the closure of more than half of the abortion clinics in the state. A decision to uphold a woman's constitutional right to abortion, which was first declared in the court's 1973 landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, will be a victory for the more than 12.5 million Black women who live, not just in Texas, but in a dozen other Southern states with similar anti-abortion laws.

Central to the Texas law are new restrictions on abortion providers, which have been held as medically unnecessary -- and even considered harmful -- by leading medical groups including the American Medical Association, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and others. Research from the Texas Policy Evaluation Project has found that since the clinic closure law was passed, women have been forced to travel hours to access care, only to face exceedingly long wait times just to be seen at a clinic -- as long as 23 days at some clinics.

We know that these barriers disproportionately affect Black women who often face inflexible work schedules, transportation issues and other family obligations. When a woman is living paycheck to paycheck, placing unnecessary barriers to her access to reproductive health care can push her further and further into poverty. Additionally, according to the Guttmacher Institute, Black women have higher rates of unintended pregnancies than any other racial or ethnic group and are more likely to lack access to contraception and quality sex education.

It was for these reasons, our organization, In Our Own Voice: National Black Women's Reproductive Justice Agenda filed an amicus brief in support of Whole Woman's Health. Along with 11 other Black women-led reproductive justice organizations, we wanted to highlight the barriers Black women face in accessing care and the impact on our families if laws like the Texas clinic shutdown law are not stopped. Abortion should not be a right only in name.

One in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime -- and more and more women are coming forward to ensure future generations of women aren't denied the rights that generations before them worked so hard to secure.

Even Hollywood is stepping up. Thanks to Shonda Rhimes' brilliance in bringing real life to the screen, Olivia Pope, the character portrayed by Kerry Washington, faced an unwanted pregnancy. While she had the resources and access to care that allowed her to make the decision she felt was best for her, these decisions should not be a reality only with fictional characters. The personal decision to end a pregnancy must be accessible to all women -- in reality.

Time and time again, the Supreme Court has upheld a woman's right to make her own decision about whether to continue or end a pregnancy. The Supreme Court has also said that states cannot put in place barriers that make it harder for a woman to access abortion care. Let's hope the Supreme Court stands up for women's rights as they've done for more than 40 years and tells states, once and for all, that barriers to abortion access are unconstitutional. That decision will be an important step in Black women's fight for reproductive justice and equality.

Marcela Howell is the Executive Director of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women's Reproductive Justice Agenda