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COVID-19 Vaccine Inaccessibility Highlights Barriers To Abortion Access

It’s not a coincidence that both barriers to the vaccine and abortion access have disproportionately affected communities of color. 

By Kylie Cheung

Throughout the United States, many COVID vaccine appointments have been made available to everyone over the age of 16. By April 19, all adults throughout the US became eligible for the vaccine. But as more and more Americans become eligible, one thing is clear: there’s a difference between qualifying for the vaccine, and being able to access it in real life. Welcome to the reality of seeking abortion access in America.

Amidst prevalent confusion and barriers to getting the vaccine, many people who have been forced to navigate the vast web of challenges, misinformation and restrictions on abortion access have recognized frustrating parallels. Like the vaccine, abortion is technically available to all adults, but excessive hurdles have long prevented actually accessing abortion from being a reality for people seeking reproductive health care. 

Today, as difficulty reaching the vaccine sparks critical and long-overdue dialogue about inaccessibility and inequity in the health system, we can’t forget about how pregnant people, especially those of color, have been up against these realities for years. Despite these parallels, the barriers faced by pregnant people of color and people struggling financially —especially in the South and Midwest — to exercise bodily autonomy have long been ignored. We can’t selectively care about health care accessibility only in cases that are applicable and relatable to cis men, white people, and the middle-class and wealthy.

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The challenges to get a vaccine are wide-ranging, and highly familiar to most people who have sought abortion care in the US in recent years. Many people who have tried to get the vaccine report traveling great distances across their state, and sometimes across state lines, to get the shot in their arm. Some have only been able to find available appointments weeks into the future, requiring them to wait a significant amount of time, while booking two separate appointments for the two doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines — requiring two separate trips — can also constitute an inconvenience for those without paid time off their jobs. There have also been significant racial disparities in who has access to the vaccine, and a trend of wealthy white people going into neighborhoods of color to be vaccinated before actual residents.

In addition to these exhausting logistical barriers, all of which working people have had to navigate on top of their jobs and caregiving obligations, vaccine access has also been challenged by widespread misinformation about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine from social media, right-wing politicians, and even friends and family. Some of this misinformation ranges from the myth that the vaccine inserts tracking devices into recipients, to the myth that it simply doesn’t work. In response, federal, state and local governments have often fallen short of giving people clear information and guidance on how to get the vaccine, and its safety and effectiveness. The responsibility has fallen largely on individuals to research and make sense of vast, often conflicting amounts of information about the vaccine without help.

All of these same challenges exist, and are often codified and institutionalized by state and local legislation, for those seeking abortion care. Ninety percent of US counties have no abortion provider, and six states have just one, requiring people in these regions to travel significant distance to get care, and shoulder the steep and inaccessible costs of transportation, lodging, child care if needed, and more. Traveling during the pandemic has also come with the added risks of potentially contracting or spreading COVID. 

Just as getting the vaccine has come with burdensome waiting periods and dangerous misinformation, many states impose mandated waiting periods on those seeking abortion care. States also mandate “counseling” sessions, requiring doctors and providers to tell patients lies about abortion care and its safety, despite how abortion is as safe or safer than most everyday health procedures, including wisdom teeth removal. 

These barriers to vaccine and abortion access exist despite how both services are urgent and life-saving. Specific to abortion care, there’s also almost nothing more time-sensitive than being able to end an unwanted pregnancy, nor anything more dehumanizing and traumatizing than being forced to be pregnant against your will. Abortion access has become especially urgent and time-sensitive as states across the country have ramped up legislative efforts to ban abortion depending on weeks of pregnancy. 

Of course, the reality is that, like the COVID vaccine, abortion and other reproductive and pregnancy-related health care are also life-saving, and abortion bans and restrictions are life-threatening. The US has the highest maternal mortality rate in the industrialized world, and these rates are significantly higher for states with more restrictions on abortion care, and for women of color and especially Black women. According to the CDC, Black women are 2 to 3 times more likely than their white counterparts to die from birth or pregnancy-related causes as a result of systemic racism in the health system.

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It’s not a coincidence that both barriers to the vaccine and abortion access have disproportionately affected communities of color, where people seeking either health service are more likely to be struggling financially, or unable to miss work or receive paid time off. There are also deep parallels between mistrust of the vaccine in communities of color — which have historically been victimized by racist state scientific experimentation — and predatory, false narratives by white supremacist politicians equating abortion with “Black genocide.” 

In a country where more than 560,000 have died from COVID and people of color are overrepresented in this jarring death toll, the denial of life-saving health care as well as health care that is fundamental to bodily autonomy is a reflection of American necropolitics — that is, who may live and who must die under white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.

Across the country, the challenges people are facing to get the vaccine for themselves and loved ones are likely to increase as federal and local governments expand who is eligible. And as vaccine inaccessibility rightfully draws widespread attention and outrage, it’s critical that this conversation is contextualized with a broader, race-gendered accessibility crisis in the health system. The challenges to getting the vaccine aren’t new just because white, cis men and wealthy and middle-class folks are now facing them — pregnant people, especially in communities of color, have weathered these realities for years.

Kylie Cheung is an author and writer on reproductive justice, survivor justice, and health care disparities in communities of color. You can follow her work on Twitter @kyliecheung15 and kyliecheung.journoportfolio.com.

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