This article was updated at 9:17 am on March 1, 2010 to make a correction. Dr. Melissa Gilliam was earlier identified as Chair of the Board of Guttmacher Institute. Her term as board chair has expired, but she remains on the board. This article is part of a series of articles appearing on RH Reality Check, written by reproductive justice advocates responding to recent efforts by the anti-choice movement to use racial and ethnic myths to limit women’s rights and health. Recent articles on this topic include those by Pamela Merritt, Gloria Feldt, Kelley Robinson, Miriam Pérez, Maame-Mensima Horne, Susan Cohen, and Carole Joffe.
Editor’s note: Read all of RH Reality Check’s coverage of this racist anti-choice campaign.
On Friday, February 26 2010, the New York Times ran a front-page article on the charge by anti-choice organizations that high rates of abortions among African-American women are due to a “conspiracy” by reproductive health clinics to “target” black women for abortions in a campaign of “racial genocide.”
But the Times story failed on several fronts. First, it failed to explore in any real depth the factors underlying reproductive and sexual health problems among African-American women. Nowhere does the article cite the actual public health data that would immediately discredit the claims of anti-choice groups using racial wedge issues to raise money and gain power.
Second, it failed to provide context for the widespread support among African-American leaders in Congress and in the public health community for expanding access to services.
And third, the Times gave inordinate amounts of space to truly questionable characters in the anti-choice movement without exploring how these groups themselves are at fault for the problem about which they profess to be so worried. In fact, it failed to ask any questions at all about what the so-called right-to-life groups cited were doing to address the causal factors behind high rates of abortion. Nor did it really question the validity or credibilty of these groups in any real way, or ask what they’ve done to address poverty, social isolation, or broader health concerns among African- American women. The answer? Nothing.
Why is the rate of abortion among African-American women so high?
High rates of abortions among African-American women in the United States are due to one thing: High rates of unwanted pregnancy among African- American women.
Rates of unintended pregnancy among African-American women are three times higher than those of whites. In other words, says Melissa Gilliam, an African-American physician and reproductive health specialist and member of the board of the Guttmacher Institute:
[T]here is no need to resort to far-flung conspiracy theories
to explain the higher abortion rate among black women.
According to Susan Cohen, Director of Government Affairs at Guttmacher:
As of 2002, 15% of black women at risk of unintended pregnancy (i.e., those who are sexually active, fertile and not wanting to be pregnant) were not practicing contraception, compared with 12% and 9% of their Hispanic and white counterparts, respectively. These figures—and the disparities among them—are significant given that, nationally, half of all unintended pregnancies result from the small proportion of women who are at risk but not using contraceptives.
In fact, this is a reflection of our collective national failure to take sexual and reproductive health seriously, a failure for which the anti-choice movement deserves much of the blame. A 2006 study by the Guttmacher Institute shows that only one in three sexually-experienced African-American males and fewer than half of African-American females had received formal instruction about birth control before they first had sex. (White teens were only slightly better off). Honest, clear information and engagement on these issues is the first step toward reducing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in any community, but it is a step forward the anti-choice movement–including groups like Georgia Right to Life–fights at every turn.
But there’s more to the story, says Gilliam:
Across the board, African Americans often have worse sexual- and
reproductive-health outcomes than people from other racial groups. For example, we experience much higher rates of sexually transmitted infections. These disparate rates reflect broader health disparities that can be seen in high rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease or cancer.
The root causes are manifold: a long history of discrimination; lack of access to high-quality, affordable health care; too few educational and professional opportunities; unequal access to safe, clean neighborhoods; and, for some African Americans, a lingering mistrust of the medical community.
In short, African-American women have less access than do whites to health care overall, and less access to high quality reproductive and sexual health care, including effective contraceptive supplies and information.
Moreover, high rates of povery, sexual violence and coercion, and taboos against speaking about sex and sexuality are deeply rooted though often invisible causal factors in all of these outcomes, especially among lower-income groups.
But for a few quotes, the Times story did not address any of these issues in depth, nor provide any data illuminating these realities.
African-American–as well as Hispanic and Asian American–leaders in Congress and in the public health community are well aware of these challenges. As Susan Cohen of Guttmacher notes:
Perhaps it is because they are more acutely aware of the larger societal issues surrounding health disparities, members of the Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American caucuses in Congress, overwhelmingly, are strong and reliable advocates of reproductive heath and rights, including abortion rights. So, too, is an array of organizations representing women of color, including African American Women Evolving (AAWE), the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and Sistersong, among others.
The Times either did not speak to or simply failed to quote any of the Congressional leaders addressing these issues. In fact, the article did little to reveal the breadth of the reproductive justice movement–led by African-American, Latina, and Asian-American women–fighting these battles, providing space for only one quote from a pro-choice African-American woman leader, Loretta Ross, executive director of SisterSong, while providing extensive space to anti-choice advocates and their misinformation campaign. Ross is one among many strong, informed, and vocal advocates for women’s rights who could have been asked to speak to this issue.
In fact, perhaps the greatest weakness of this article–and one that is unforgivable given the stakes around women’s health and rights–is that the Times failed entirely to point out that the very groups–Georgia Right to Life is but one example of many–spend a good deal of their time and energy opposing funding of the very basic preventive reproductive and sexual health services that would reduce unintended pregnancies (and by extension, the number of abortions), reduce sexually transmitted infections, and dramatically improve the health of African-American women in these areas.
Quite the contrary. Anti-choice groups are just that: anti-choice on contraception and abortion.
The website of Georgia Right to Life, for example, states as its mission:
The fundamental purpose of GRTL is to engage in actions that will restore respect and effective legal protection for all human beings from the moment of fertilization to natural death.
Translation? GRTL joins its sister organizations in flouting science and medicine by declaring pregnancy at the moment of ferilitization (a pregnancy is established when a fertliized egg successfully implants in the uterus), and further blurs the line between science and ideology by contesting the modes of action of everything from the IUD to the birth control pill. Shut down the National Institutes of Health because GRTL has it all covered.
The Times also quoted other anti-choice agitators, such as Lila Rose and James O’Keefe III, both of whom have used questionable practices to produce questionable (and unverified) character assassination materials aimed at undermining Planned Parenthood, the very organization that provides voluntary, affordable reproductive and sexual health services (testing and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, contraception, breast exams and Pap smears, as well as abortions) to women who otherwise can’t afford health care.
It’s kind of a neat gig for people interested in promoting their own ideology, no matter the cost in women’s lives or suffering. The self-appointed and self-annointed “right to life” groups focus on abortion as “evil” while they do everything in their power to create the circumstances which lead to high rates of unintended pregnancies and abortions in the first place.
And as long as the mainstream media fails in its duty to explore either the real public health or social issues, or to expose these groups for what they are, it contributes to further legitimizing them…and further undermining the most fundamental rights and health of women throughout this country.
There’s no conspiracy. There’s only a lack of respect by the anti-choice movement for women as people, and a derelection of responsibility on the part the mainstream media to provide facts and perspective on these critical issues.
And for its part, the New York Times abdicated responsiblity by doing nothing to shed light on these issues.