Parsley. Pennyroyal. Cohosh. Tansy. Just a generation ago, these were the herbs and oils that women covertly gathered in order to end a pregnancy they were desperate not to carry to term. They brewed teas. They inserted plants. They ingested toxic oils and put their health and their lives on the line to escape a future they did not want because they had no legal medical avenue to take.
Sometimes it worked and the pregnancy ended. Sometimes it didn’t and they gave birth anyway. Sometimes, things went tragically, tragically wrong. Yet they continued to do it, because they had no options other than these bitter, bitter herbs.
Now, 41 years later, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton gave pregnant women the legal right to terminate a pregnancy she is not willing nor sometimes able to continue. The Supreme Court ruled exactly 41 years ago today that carrying a pregnancy to term is a choice, not a sentence, and that for women and girls our period of seeking unreliable and dangerous methods to terminate was over. No longer would we be forced to face those bitter herbs.
That right has been eroded, though, and pared down to a point where for many today it barely exists. For those who are poor, those who live in communities without access to clinics and doctors, and especially those in communities of color, it is a right that means little without the ability to navigate the physical and financial burdens in place in order to force our right to medical care out of reach.
An abortion is not a right if it is too expensive to afford, yet Congress has forced the poorest of our people to pay out of pocket while other medical procedures are covered by Medicaid. An abortion is not a right if there is no one who can perform it within 100 miles, yet state legislatures have been allowed to shutter clinics with medically unnecessary regulations, and federal courts reply that if patients drive farther it isn’t an “undue burden.”
It is that “undue burden” that is hurting women of color the most. Despite the continuing reduction in unintended pregnancies, Black and Latina women and teens still experience them in higher percentages. With higher unemployment rates, our communities are more likely not to have health care through employers, more likely to use public health care centers for reproductive services like contraception, centers that politicians are trying to defund and destroy. Amendments that would increase our access to full spectrum health care are used as poison pills in legislative gambits, and at the same time regulations to reduce that access is tacked on to pass omnibus budget bills and legislation.
It is a burden that continues for low income women, women in rural areas or places without access to safe medical abortions. Sadly 41 years later women are still seeking bitter herbs, home remedies, entering health care clinics and doctor’s offices for treatment from attempts that were only half successful. Today 41 years later, for many women the legal option is still inaccessible and growing more so.
Before, all we had were our bitter herbs. Now, we have legal rights but only for those with the means to access them. That is a bitter pill to swallow.
Robinson Flint is executive director of Black Women for Wellness.