Detained Immigrant Women Are Facing A Grueling Abortion Struggle

by Lauren Holter
David Silverman/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Depending on where you live in the United States, getting an abortion can be arduous, time-intensive, expensive. But as hard as it may be getting an abortion in, say, Kentucky — where 98 percent of counties do not have abortion providers, women must be given ultrasounds before having an abortion, and there is a 24-hour waiting period after receiving "state-directed counseling," according to the Guttmacher Institute — abortion access in immigration detention centers is especially limited. Detained immigrant women are in a uniquely difficult position because a) they're being held by the government, and b) they might not be familiar with American laws surrounding the procedure.

At a base level, the abortion restrictions detained women face are similar to the ones that low-income women face across the country because of the Hyde Amendment. For more than 40 years, the Hyde Amendment has prevented women on Medicaid from using federally funded insurance to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother's life. The same type of language exists in appropriations bills and healthcare regulations for all facets of the federal government, including the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Like Hyde's exemption, ICE will only pay for an abortion in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother's life, according to the agency's medical regulations stated on its website. According to a Fusion report based on interviews with the director of migrant shelters, it's estimated that 80 percent of women and girls coming to the United States through Central America are sexually assaulted on their journey. Thus, the rape exemption for abortion is especially important.

John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images

According to ICE's Performance Based National Detention Standards, if a woman's intake medical screening indicates sexual assault, she should be immediately referred to a qualified medical or mental health practitioner. ICE spokesperson Jennifer D. Elzea tells Bustle, "ICE provides access to medical resources for pregnant female detainees who request to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy. ICE offers medical resources for the detainee to support effective recovery and follow-up care."

However, there may be a number of obstacles toward getting proper care. It's often difficult to detect or prove rape; these women might not necessarily be aware of the abortion exemption for rape; and for those who don't speak English or Spanish, the language barrier can add yet another hurdle.

Any Latina woman, whether she's detained or not, deserves access to abortion with dignity.

"It's the burden of not knowing your rights when you're here, and the burden of having to relive the trauma to prove you were raped," Ena S. Valladares, research director for California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, tells Bustle.

Although women detained in immigration centers already face significant hurdles to accessing abortions, some in Congress are trying to make it even harder. Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt has repeatedly proposed legislation that goes a step further to say ICE employees can refuse to facilitate an abortion. Dubbed the Aderholt Amendment, when it was first passed in 2012, Jessica González-Rojas, the executive director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), denounced it, saying in a statement:

Passage of the Aderholt amendment shows remarkable contempt for some of the most vulnerable women in our community ... A woman's ability to pay should not determine whether she has access to safe abortion care — and this amendment would make it almost impossible for a woman in detention to get the care she needs.

In a letter sent to the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations last year, Planned Parenthood and other reproductive rights groups asked Congress to oppose the additional restrictions. The letter, shared with Bustle by NLIRH, read:

Proposals to limit access to abortion for immigrant women do nothing to address the sub-standards conditions of detention, but are instead cruel attacks on the ability of some of the most marginalized women in our society to make decisions about their health and well-being.

The Aderholt Amendment has been consistently passed by the House since 2012, but it has been cut from the final budget by the Senate.

It's possible the Senate will one day pass the amendment, but moreover, even without Aderholt officially on the books, the Trump administration poses a potential threat to detained immigrant women's abortion access simply because the president has conveyed his intention to deport large swaths of undocumented immigrants. That would inevitably mean placing more immigrant women in ICE detention centers, leaving more people's reproductive choices in the hands of government employees.

Even though you may be crossing this man-made border, people carry with them, always, fundamental human rights, and deciding whether or not to become a parent is one of the most important in a person's life.

"Whether Aderholt language is included in a final spending bill, women in detention centers are already being denied abortion care," said Bethany Van Kampen, policy analyst for abortion access and affordability at the NLIRH. "We have every reason to believe that this horrid system will continue to inflict more suffering on immigrant women, children, and their families."

John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Van Kampen explains why it is so important to protect detained immigrant women's access to abortion care. "For women who are in detention centers, it creates a sense of 'others,' really," she says. "They don't know. Perhaps [people] don't care because perhaps they think, like women in prison, they are here for their own responsibility, so why should their access to abortion matter? But it does. Any Latina woman, whether she’s detained or not, deserves access to abortion with dignity."

Valladares echoes this same sentiment: "Even though you may be crossing this man-made border, people carry with them, always, fundamental human rights, and deciding whether or not to become a parent is one of the most important in a person's life."