The draft Supreme Court opinion that leaked last week triggered a furor over reproductive rights and revealed that 60% of people obtaining abortions were people of color – a stark reminder that  abortion bans are felt most acutely by communities of color.  

AAPI women, who have largely remained invisible in the divisive fight over abortion rights, make up 20% of immigrants seeking abortion in the US, said California Congresswoman Judy Chu at a May 13 EMS briefing that examined the impact of ending abortion rights in this community.

Abortions in America and in the AAPI Community

People of color make up the majority of those who are having abortions in this country. So, if Roe is overturned, warned Sung Yeon Choimorrow, Executive Director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), it will threaten the lives of those who depend on abortion care the most. National data shows that 35% of pregnancies end in abortion for AAPI women, making them the second highest percentage across all demographic groups.

The majority of Americans (61%) support abortion rights and 1 in 4 American women has had an abortion in her lifetime. But at least 22 states have intensified efforts to gut abortion rights as the Supreme Court prepares to release its opinion on the Dobbs vs Jackson case.

These relentless attempts by lawmakers in state legislatures to end abortion rights inspired Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal to take a public stance on a very personal choice she kept private for years.

Pramila Jayapal’s story

“I never planned to tell my story. I don’t think we should have to,” said Jayapal at the briefing. “Abortion is an extremely personal and sometimes difficult choice. I know this because I am one of the 1 in 4 women in this country who has had an abortion.”

Jayapal sought an abortion after a harrowing first pregnancy made her reconsider a second.

She shared her deeply personal story in a 2019 NYT op-ed that described the premature baby who survived an ‘extraordinary dangerous birth’ and severe medical trauma in the months that followed. Jayapal suffered undiagnosed postpartum depression and the ordeal ended her marriage – a period in her life she calls ‘rough years.’

Later, after a new marriage and despite birth control,  Jayapal conceived again. But doctors warned that the pregnancy would be high-risk and life threatening, like her first.

“I had to make a decision based on the tremendous risks that had been clearly laid out for me,”  wrote Jayapal, calling the experience excruciating and heartbreaking. “For me, terminating my pregnancy was not an easy choice, but it was my choice.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal discusses the stigma surrounding abortions in the Indian American community. (Video courtesy of Ethnic Media Services)

But Jayapal kept that decision under wraps for more than 20 years, not even telling her mother, for fear of a backlash from her immigrant community which associates abortion with stigma and shame. But that changed as lawmakers across the country began to strip women of constitutionally protected rights.

“I felt I needed to use my platform and share my story. As an Asian American woman, it is important for me to represent, by publicly telling my story, the millions of Asian Americans across this country who have been in a similar situation.”

Why AAPI women face barriers to healthcare

The AAPI community has historically faced barriers to healthcare. A survey by NAPAWF, said Choimorrow, showed that 7 out of 10 Asian Americans support legalizing abortion and 85% of AAPI women believe they should have the right to make their own decisions on reproductive health. But barriers to health significantly curtail their ability to do so.

AAPI women are overrepresented in the low wage workforce, especially in the retail, restaurant, and personal care industries. These frontline jobs do not provide health coverage, family or sick leave, making it difficult to take time off, save money for an abortion, or even buy contraception.

They confront language barriers when accessing health care – 66% of Asian American and 35 % of Pacific Islanders speak a language other than English at home. Nor is it an easy choice to make because of cultural stigma in the community and family

Aliza Kazmi, Co-Executive Director of Hearts and Girls, added that mainstream media  harbors serious misconceptions about the Muslim stance on reproductive rights. In Islam, bodily autonomy is a sacred tenet that gives a person the right to make decisions about their own health without any state interference, said Kazmi.

“Anything else is a violation of  sacred bodily autonomy. Reproductive justice is inherently Islamic.”

Black & brown women endure racial profiling

Racial profiling and criminalizing women who seek abortion care is rooted in immigrant stereotypes of sex selection, for example, of Asians preferring sons over daughters.

Black and brown women who experience pregnancy loss and need help already face suspicions that they’ve induced their own abortion. They may try to control their own reproduction through DIY methods because they are afraid of being reported. The medical professionals who do treat them for bleeding or miscarriages or for ectopic pregnancies, even pharmacists who try to fill prescriptions for miscarriages will become criminals, accused of facilitating abortion.

States such as Texas, Ohio, Alabama, Georgia, have passed punitive abortion laws that criminalize women for having abortions. Texas passed ‘heartbeat ‘ bills that ban abortions 6 weeks into pregnancy; in Georgia a federal judge struck down a controversial bill to criminalize women for miscarriages, ruling it unconstitutional. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade, women in these states may no longer have the right to choose.

Who bears the burden of a ban on abortion?

People who will bear the burden of these laws are people who can’t afford to cross state lines or afford abortion costs, said Jayapal. The most vulnerable will lose access to safe abortions.

Right now, abortion rights are under threat like never before, added Chu, referring to the Senate filibuster that blocked her Bill, HR:3755 Women’s Health Protection Act.  Advocates said it was clear that the Senate is painfully out of step with the will of the people, the majority of whom support access to safe abortions.

Abortions will not stop. But safe and legal abortions will end.

Jayapal called the leaked opinion unconstitutional and unjust. “If this does pass in the next month or so, abortion is not going to miraculously go away. The people who will pay the steepest price for this rollback, will be minorities and underserved communities.”

The only way to safeguard access to reproductive healthcare is to elect a pro-choice Senate that will “carve out an exception to the filibuster,” said Jayapal, “or get a 60-vote threshold in the Senate.” As long as pro-choice states are not prohibited by a federal ban, they can open borders to people from across the country, who want to exercise their right to get a safe and legal abortion.

Worryingly, the Supreme Court decision to overturn lawful and settled precedent has implications for other settled law such as gay marriage, interracial marriage, and Brown v Board of Education, which desegregated classrooms. Millions of people across this country will be in danger because an extremist court decided to politicize healthcare, said Jayapal.

“The assumption that the Supreme Court is some bastion of political neutrality is just false.” “We just know it’s not going to stop at abortion.”

The panel urged people to elect pro-choice candidates at every level of government in the upcoming midterms to ensure that the right to choose is never infringed upon again.

Opposing the right to choose and refusing to protect what is an incredibly intimate and personal decision is an unforgivable abomination, said Jayapal.

“I won’t forget this, and neither should you.”

Meera Kymal

Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at DesiCollective. At India Currents, she covers immigration policy and reform, civil rights, the pandemic, and climate...