Women’s History in the Making: The Unequal Harm of Rolling Back Roe
By Emily Andrews
It’s Women’s History Month, yet women are under attack. Traditionally, March provides an opportunity to reflect on the trailblazing women or historic events that have advanced women’s rights. But this March, we must soberly assess the current landscape and acknowledge we are living through a pivotal moment that threatens to curtail women’s rights and further erode their economic stability. As I write, state legislatures and the courts are aggressively undermining women’s rights to access abortion. This rolling back of abortion rights exacerbates existing racial and gender inequities inherent in our policies and economic systems, disproportionately harming women with low incomes and women of color.
As it stands, women are overrepresented in jobs paying low wages and are more likely to live in poverty than men. Due to historical barriers, discriminatory hiring practices, and racism in the job market, these disparities increase for Black, Native, and Latinx women. Women consistently earn less than men for comparable work. Collectively, women earn 83 cents for each dollar a white man earns. The wage gap for women of color is even more severe, with Hispanic women earning 57 cents and Black women earning 64 cents for every dollar that white men make.
Women, who are more likely to act as caregivers for their families, lack access to critical supports like paid family leave and affordable child care. According to a recent analysis by the Center for American Progress, 6 out of 10 Black women either don’t take the leave they need or do so without pay, a decision costing Black women $3.9 billion in lost wages annually. On average, families living in poverty can spend 30 percent of their income on child care, and child care is least affordable for Black and Latinx families with low incomes. This latest blow to women’s reproductive freedom not only strikes at women’s bodily autonomy but targets women earning low incomes while threatening to drive them deeper into poverty.
The foundation of women’s reproductive rights, secured by the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, is under attack by a hostile Supreme Court. Working in tandem, state legislatures are restricting the right to abortion at a record-breaking pace. In 2021, U.S. states enacted over 100 abortion restrictions—the most in a single year. On September 1, 2021, the Supreme Court dealt a critical blow to Roe by refusing to block Texas Senate Bill 8, which bans abortion at approximately six weeks.
With women’s lives and the integrity of the court at risk, the Supreme Court could fully strike down the 49-year legal precedent this June when it rules on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case questioning the constitutionality of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. According to the Guttmacher Institute, if Roe is overturned, 21 states will attempt to ban abortion based on current law or constitutional amendments—with another five states likely to follow suit.
Already in effect, the Texas restriction has disproportionately harmed women earning low incomes and women of color. Two recent analyses show that the Texas law reduced abortion by only 10 percent, with most women finding workarounds by travelling to clinics in nearby states or ordering pills online. Those least able to afford travel—women with low incomes, who are disproportionately women of color—are being forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. This disproportionate harm will only grow as additional states restrict abortions and travel times increase.
By specifically denying women with low incomes access to abortion services, these restrictions further increase economic precarity. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that women who want—but are denied—an abortion are more likely to spend years living in poverty than women who are able to access an abortion. Furthermore, carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term quadruples the odds that a new mother and her child will live below the federal poverty line. Financial hardships are compounded by the health risks associated with pregnancies—our nation has the highest maternal mortality rate of all developed countries—and significant mental health repercussions of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term.
This Women’s History Month, Congress must protect the right to an abortion as an essential health care service and pass legislation that reduces women’s economic insecurity. This should include reinstating the expanded and fully refundable Child Tax Credit, providing affordable and accessible child care and pre-K, guaranteeing paid leave for all, and supporting workers earning low wages by increasing the minimum wage and strengthening women’s right to organize in their workplaces. Let’s celebrate Women’s History Month by making history.