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Opinion Abortion access shouldn’t depend on where you live

Shaelin Nauta, a patient advocate, at Whole Women's Health of Charlottesville in September in Charlottesville. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Jennifer L. McClellan, a Democrat, represents Richmond in the Virginia Senate. Mia McLeod, a Democrat, represents Richland in the South Carolina Senate.

Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the first direct challenge to legal abortion in decades. As state legislators from Virginia and South Carolina who support abortion rights, we’ve both been asked more than a few times, “What happens to abortion access in our state if Roe v. Wade is overturned?” The short answer is that the battle for access to abortion falls back to the states.

We believe legal abortion must be protected. But the fact is, just keeping abortion legal has never been enough. Even with Roe in place, people face barriers to access — violence, stigma and judgment — and state politicians who put obstacles in their way instead of supporting their decisions, and these burdens fall disproportionately upon low-income and individuals of color. In the first six months of 2021 alone, states have passed an unprecedented amount of legislation that has pushed abortion out of reach and created a patchwork of laws that treat people differently across the country. Take our two states. We are both Black women, mothers and legislators who believe firmly in people’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies. Yet, the ability to make those decisions looks very different in Virginia than it does in South Carolina.

In February, South Carolina lawmakers passed one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country: a six-week ban much like Texas’ SB 8. However, unlike in Texas, a federal district court granted a preliminary injunction against the law in March. If this law had been allowed to go into effect, it would have essentially banned abortion for nearly 1 million South Carolinians of reproductive age.

South Carolina GOP leaders made this six-week ban a No. 1 priority at a time when there have been more than 7,000 coronavirus-related deaths and an abysmal vaccine rollout. And on top of the coronavirus pandemic, South Carolina is grappling with high rates of maternal mortality. According to the United Health Foundation, South Carolina ranks 41st nationally in maternal mortality, with Black women dying at a far higher rate than White women.

However, people living in Virginia face a very different environment. A decade ago, amid the Tea Party wave, Republican leaders passed onerous restrictions that prevented access to reproductive care. But, in 2020, Virginia passed the Reproductive Health Protection Act repealing many of those restrictions: mandatory 24-hour waiting periods, forced ultrasounds, state-mandated, biased counseling and laws designed to target clinics and shut them down. It was the first proactive abortion access legislation to be enacted in any Southern state — ever — and one of the biggest expansions of reproductive healthcare access in Virginia history.

But it’s not enough just to repeal restrictions. In 2021, Virginia passed a new law ending the ban on abortion coverage for health insurance plans offered through the health benefits exchange. This new law has increased access so that all Virginians can both afford and access the reproductive health care they need regardless of the type of insurance they have. Virginia has made substantial progress over the past several years, which we will fight to protect.

People’s access to abortion shouldn’t depend on the state they live in, but the reality is that our two states treat people very differently. This can have an incredible impact on their health and well-being. When or if to become a parent is one of the most important decisions we will make in our lives. Abortion allows people to make the decision that is best for them. When people are denied an abortion, they face more obstacles and are less able to fulfill their dreams. Why should someone living in Virginia have more options than someone living in South Carolina?

At the federal level, there’s a glimmer of hope with the U.S House of Representatives recently passing the Women’s Health Protection Act, which, if enacted, will protect the right to abortion access nationwide. But the longer we wait for federal legislation, the longer the lives and health of pregnant people are left to the political whims of their states.

So far in Texas, SB 8 has dramatically affected the lives of pregnant people, forcing them to carry unwanted pregnancies or leave the state to receive care while potentially incurring significant costs for travel, lodging and child care, in addition to lost wages from missed work. What’s happening is Texas is just a continuation of the relentless attack on reproductive rights in states hostile toward abortion. And if the Supreme Court allows the Mississippi law to take effect and further emboldens anti-abortion politicians to attack essential care, the gaps in access for people living in Virginia and those living in South Carolina will widen even further.

All eyes are on the Supreme Court, and time will tell on how the justices will rule in the Mississippi case. However the court rules, we — along with our fellow state legislators that care about reproductive freedom — we will do all that we can to make sure that everyone can access the abortion care they want without fear of harassment or being met with barriers or interference from others.