If you’ve ever had to request time off of work for a doctor’s appointment and lost pay for that day, or remain one of the millions without health insurance because you can’t afford it, or don’t earn enough to pay for an annual pap smear that could be life-saving, then you deeply understand why reproductive healthcare is inherently an economic justice issue. Reproductive justice recognizes that women, particularly women of color and poor women, face intersecting oppressions based on race, ethnicity, cultural identity, class and gender identity that disproportionately burden them in most areas of their lives. These interfacing oppressions are often most visible in the economic lives of women of color, such as the struggle to find a living wage job in conditions free from discrimination and violence, securing dignified housing or accessing affordable healthcare.
The inability of women to access adequate, affordable, and culturally and linguistically appropriate health care is fundamentally an economic justice issue for low-wage workers. Latinas have one of the highest poverty rates of women in the workforce at 12.1%, in large part due to low-wage jobs. Those jobs are often hourly, where workers are not paid for time off requested, including for healthcare visits. And for a community where as of a few years ago Latinas earn half of what white men make, any additional costs in accessing reproductive healthcare automatically become unduly burdensome.
Cutting critical funding to organizations or government-subsidized healthcare facilities that provide critical reproductive healthcare services in communities of color, immigrant communities or impoverished areas inherently targets the women of those communities who may not have the resources to access healthcare elsewhere. It also directly impacts their ability to remain in the work force. For example, women who are able to determine the number and spacing of their children can better access educational and employment opportunities without unanticipated additional expenses or the stress of an unplanned pregnancy. Restrictions on access to birth control, which disproportionately burden low-income women and women of color, directly impact women’s economic security and that of their families.
To see up close the devastating impact of cuts to services and draconian policies that severely limit access to reproductive healthcare, we only have to look at the realities of many Latinas along the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the poorest areas in the country. Latinas, regardless of immigration status, have suffered through the closures of family planning clinics over the past several years in communities where they previously received free or low-cost contraception and well-women exams, which can lead to the detection of serious illnesses like cancer. As a result of these closings, women have foregone getting mammograms, pap smears and birth control.
The result has been catastrophic. In addition to the serious health consequences as a result of being unable to detect illness or delaying healthcare treatment for persistent or terminal conditions, affordable reproductive healthcare as a preventive measure is no longer a viable option. Many of the Latinas along the border live in extreme poverty, without access to reliable transportation. It is also an area that is heavily policed by law enforcement and immigration officials, which can have a deterrent effect for immigrant women seeking services.
The disappearance of affordable women’s healthcare clinics also means women must now take more time off of work to travel further distances for care, pay more for healthcare services, secure childcare for longer periods of time (and pay more for those extended periods) and pay for increased transportation costs. Since Latinas already earn the lowest median weekly income of all women, any time away from work is costly to them and their families. The accumulation of the financial burdens in accessing what was once local, affordable and quality reproductive healthcare has permanently put such services out of reach for thousands of women.
However, regardless of whether a pregnancy is planned or not, it can still affect a woman’s ability to secure a job or remain at her place of work. Women of color and low-wage workers are more likely to hold jobs where pregnancy discrimination is more pervasive than in other sectors, affecting their ability to continue earning an income at a critical time in their lives. If a low-wage woman worker lives in a state with minimal or unpaid paid family leave protections, or works in an industry with unpaid sick leave policies (typical of most low-income industries), she is forced again to choose between her family’s economic well-being and her health or that of her family. Policies like those proposed in New York state are currently trying to address the gap between federal protections for unpaid family leave and the reality of most working families who cannot afford to take three months off with no salary and a new addition to their family.
The ability of women of color and immigrant women to lead healthy reproductive lives is an integral part of the right to self-determination in all aspects of their lives and inherently impacts their economic security and independence. Policies that support the full range of reproductive choice and enable women, particularly low-wage women workers, to exercise those choices without risking their employment or benefits should be supported by all sectors – not because it’s good “business,” but because they respect, protect and help fulfill women’s fundamental human rights.
Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan
Associate Counsel, LatinoJustice PRLDEF