Higher proportions of Black, American Indian and Alaska Native women live in states with abortion restrictions than in states without, new study finds

Dozens of protesters in front of what appears to be the Supreme Court building wear pink and hold pink signs reading: Bans off our bodies and Abortion is health care.
Experts are concerned that already at-risk Black, American Indian and Alaska Native women will suffer the worst consequences of abortion bans. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Abortion bans in the U.S. have affected Black, American Indian and Alaska Native women the most, new research suggests. The new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that there are higher proportions of women of these races and ethnicities living in states with abortion bans than in states without the restrictions. So far, 21 U.S. states have banned or imposed tight restrictions on the procedure, including 14 that have made abortions all but completely illegal, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute.

The new findings have experts concerned about the health of women of color in the U.S., who already face much greater risks during pregnancy compared to white women. Here’s what to know.

Researchers from Boston University and the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health looked at the demographics in states where abortion is banned compared to those where the procedure is still available.

They found that American Indian and Alaska Native women of reproductive age — between ages 15 and 49 — make up a 17% larger share of the population in states with abortion bans compared to states without these bans. Black women comprise nearly 60% more of the population in states with abortion bans than in states where abortion is legal. There was also a slightly higher concentration of white women in the states with the strictest abortion bans compared to ones without.

The study also found that Asian, Hispanic and multiracial women of childbearing age were more likely to live in states where abortion was available in at least some cases.

“We were struck that the Black, American Indian, Alaskan Native populations, who already have the highest rates of inequity in maternal mortality and infant mortality, also have less access to abortion following state actions after the Dobbs decision [which overturned Roe v. Wade],” co-author of the study and Boston University School of Public Health PhD candidate, Demetri Goutos, tells Yahoo Life.

But the findings don’t surprise Dorianne Mason, director of health equity, reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center, at all, she tells Yahoo Life. “It just reinforces what we already know to be true: Black and brown women are most impacted by restrictions on access to reproductive care. Even in states where they may not be the majority of the population, the harms fall disproportionately on them.”

Women of color in the U.S. face more grave health risks than white women, especially during and after pregnancy. Black women are nearly three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes in the U.S., and death rates are rising. American Indian and Alaska Native women face double the risk of dying as a result of pregnancy or childbirth. Research predicts that banning abortion across the U.S. would result in a 21% increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths. And for Black women, that number would be even steeper: 33%.

In part, that’s simply because a nationwide abortion ban would mean more women get pregnant and remain pregnant in the first place, and pregnancy itself is risky, especially in the U.S. Nearly 33 women die for every 100,000 births that occur annually in the U.S. — more than any other wealthy nation. More women may also be driven to undergo illegal, unsafe abortions, which are responsible for between 4% and 13% of maternal deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

“We can't say why these policies” banning abortion “were implemented,” says Goutos, “but they are likely to exacerbate already large racial and ethnic disparities due to the populations most affected.”

Black women, as well as Latinx women, are more likely to get routine health care at clinics, as opposed to doctors’ offices, compared to white women in the U.S. Black women are also the most likely racial group to seek out abortions. With abortion clinics closing up, women of color are not only losing access to the procedure but also in many cases to the care they need to have healthy pregnancies or to get contraceptives, Mason says.

“We are already seeing the harm play out, just in the fact that many people that live in states that have stricter access to abortion care also have maternity care deserts, and Black and brown women are also disproportionately impacted by a lack of access to maternity care,” she explains. Abortion bans “mean that the places [providing] abortion care potentially close and ... pregnant people lose access to all kinds of other services that may have been offered by those clinics: prenatal care, postpartum check-ups, contraception access.”

Women of color, Mason adds, are also more likely to have fewer resources, given that nearly 17% of both Black and Latinx women and 28% of Native American women are living in poverty. “Even in states where abortion is technically legal [but restricted], care is often inaccessible, because clinics are subject to certain legal restrictions or are understaffed, or there may be transportation difficulties,” says Mason.

For a disproportionate share of people of color, “every barrier they encounter is going to be an insurmountable barrier because they don’t have the resources to navigate around it,” she says.