Digital Project Proposal: Mapping Access to Abortion in D.C.

Even 40-plus years after the passage of Roe v. Wade, abortion remains inaccessible to many women across the country. State-imposed restrictions have led to fewer clinics, and a lack of resources has disproportionally affected poor women and women of color’s access to abortion.

Source: Guttmacher Institute, 2019

Reproductive justice scholars, working in tandem with activists, have long engaged in conversation on this issue. They critique mostly white feminists, who they argue wrongly champion the issue of abortion, and contend that the discussion should be less about choice and more about access. In focusing solely on the pro-life/pro-choice debate, popular narratives exclude marginalized women who, despite the legality of abortion, may not even have the right to choose. Reasons include oppressive conditions and/or a lack of options that limit their access to essential services. In shifting our conversations from choice to access, it becomes evident that access more comprehensively defines women’s lived experience and how they seek reproductive justice, including obtaining an abortion.

For my digital project proposal, I seek to work within this framework to examine access to abortion in Washington, D.C. from before the passage of Roe v. Wade to the present day. Starting in the 1960s, I will do research to find out where women could receive an abortion in D.C., whether it was at a hospital (such as Georgetown Hospital), a clinic (such as Preterm), or an individual’s discretion (such as Dr. Milan Viutch). D.C. provides a unique case study because its 1901 abortion law differed from other states; it permitted abortions necessary to preserve a pregnant woman’s life or health. Most other jurisdictions at the time had prohibitions with life-saving exceptions, but did not mention the health of the woman. The inclusion of “health” often acted as a loophole that provided justification for some cases of legal abortions in D.C.

Counselors answer phones at Preterm, D.C.’s first abortion clinic, in 1971. Source: Washington Area Spark, Flickr.

If possible, I will track down the locations of places that provided abortions in D.C. over the years and use Google Maps to visually display them. Users will be able to toggle back and forth between different years to see just how (in)accessible abortions were in D.C. over an extended period of time. Did access to abortion actually increase after Roe v. Wade? What options existed for women before Roe, when abortion itself was illegal but women could obtain “therapeutic abortions”? An additional aspect of this study is the contribution it will make to understanding social justice in the context of Washington, D.C. It will be important to note the location of institutions and other resources which provided abortions. Did some neighborhoods lack access to these resources? How do demographics, including race and socioeconomic status, inform this study?

Following the model of projects like PhilaPlace, I will embed my map in a WordPress website to provide context for my project. This will include background information on the reproductive justice movement and the history of abortion in D.C. I imagine that I will experience some difficulties in finding places where women could historically obtain abortions, and it will likely be impossible to identify all of the locations. It could thus be worthwhile to have a crowdsourcing aspect to the website, where women who have had abortions in D.C. could add sites on the map, with the option to do so anonymously. I would also like to create space for these women to share their stories on their own terms and have conversations about their experiences, along the lines of Shout Your Abortion. I plan to do a social media campaign to publicize this project, and would seek feedback (perhaps via an anonymous form) from the women who interact with the site. This collaborative aspect would demonstrate my commitment to doing this project for and with the women who have experienced abortion in D.C.

Source: ACLU

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