Why DC Statehood Is So Important For Abortion Rights

By Steph Black
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In this op-ed, writer Steph Black lays out why the fight to make Washington, D.C. a state is so important for reproductive rights.

A jaw-dropping 243 years after our Founding Fathers fought against taxation without representation, their dreams have yet to be realized in the nation's capital. People who live in Washington, D.C. have never had congressional representation, and considering the political climate in which we find ourselves, feminists across the country should be outraged.

I moved to the district four years ago at age 18 to attend American University. Although I was initially there to study elementary education, I quickly changed my major to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies after attending feminist rallies. While watching pro-choice speakers rage against the injustices that affected women across the country, I discovered that my calling was to fight for reproductive freedom for all. It was my civic duty.

But to me, civic duty means effecting real change where you live, and I was still voting via absentee ballot in Massachusetts. I decided to register to vote in D.C. as the 2018 primaries approached, which meant I lost the right to congressional representation — and this lack of representation has a specifically harmful effect on women and nonbinary people who live in the city. Having no member of Congress to represent us means that people we didn’t elect get to make decisions about our reproductive freedom.

Congress approves D.C.’s budget, which is used for things like public transportation, affordable housing, and trash collection. But remember, none of the people voting to approve the district's budget were elected by its residents. What we do have instead is a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, the indomitable Eleanor Holmes Norton. While Norton can advocate for us to the members of the House, she cannot vote. And as extreme bans on abortion sweep the nation, it’s crucial that D.C. enter the union as the 51st state so we can begin to make decisions about reproductive freedom for ourselves.

For starters, we have no say on whether or not our tax dollars can help people who need or want to get an abortion. The district has what is called the Dornan Amendment, and like the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits any federal dollars from funding abortion, the Dornan Amendment bans any local D.C. dollars, including Medicaid, from going to offset the cost of abortions. According to Planned Parenthood, abortion procedures can cost anywhere from $350 to $950 in the first trimester, and they are even more expensive in the second trimester.

The Dornan Amendment is a budget rider, meaning that it gets tacked on to whatever budget is voted on by Congress. The amendment was struck from the budget for the first few years of former President Barack Obama’s presidency, but in 2011, Obama essentially bargained away the rights of D.C. women. That's the year that Obama made a deal with John Boehner, who was the speaker of the House at the time, to add the Dornan Amendment to the district's budget in exchange for Boehner passing funding for Title X, the federal family planning program.

For the first time in 25 years, there is something that feminists across the nation can do to help people in D.C. get the representation they deserve.

But D.C. women aren’t political pawns who can be bought and sold. No politician, including the president, should be able to trade away the freedoms of people who didn't elect that person as our local representative. The fate of abortion access in the district should be in the hands of a local representative who understands D.C. specifically.

The District of Columbia is also home to a “maternity care desert,” an area of the city that has no services for pregnant and postpartum people. Couple that with a lack of access to comprehensive and affordable abortion care, and some people in the district are forced to give birth in extremely dangerous conditions. This is a particularly grim prospect, considering the district has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the country. According to the United Health Foundation, 41 women died for every 100,000 live-births in Washington, D.C. in 2016 (75% of those deaths were Black women). This is double the national maternal mortality rate, and much higher than the rates of our neighboring states of Virginia and Maryland.

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It is bananas that there are people in this country who don’t have anyone in Congress to represent them. I am kept up at night thinking of the women, like myself, who lack basic political control over their lives. It’s unacceptable.

But finally, for the first time in 25 years, there is something that feminists across the nation can do to help people in the district get the representation they deserve. On Thursday, there will be a public hearing held by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on whether to make Washington, D.C., the 51st state. With Democrats finally in control of the House, we need people across the country to call their representatives and tell them to support D.C. statehood. You can call (202-225-3121) and ask the operator to direct you to your representative’s office.

As a young feminist, my future in the city depends on statehood, and so do the futures of the more than 300,000 women who live here. Statehood is bigger than simply representation. It’s about the rights of all people, and the safety and well-being of all women and nonbinary people. We must finally finish the work started over two centuries ago, and set out to make sure everyone is truly represented. Let’s make D.C. the 51st state.