Debunking The Myths About Race And Abortion

Rick Santorum recently said he found it "almost remarkable for a black man" to be pro-choice. The anti-choice linking of abortion, slavery, and genocide has always involved a cocktail of distortion and condescension. So what to do about it?

The increasingly popular rhetoric among anti-abortion activists boils down to this: Abortion is like slavery, because slaves were dehumanized. (Read Ta-Nehisi Coates brilliantly take down this solipsism, and then again today.) Abortion providers are racist and want there to be fewer black children in the world. And so on.

For the past few years, the pro-choice community has been fighting this propaganda with facts (which we've covered here, here, and here), but the message is still getting through.

Dr. Willie J. Parker, the medical director of Planned Parenthood in metro D.C., said this morning that he recently heard a young Spelman student who saw a lie-filled documentary linking Planned Parenthood to slavery and Eugenics say that if she unexpectedly became pregnant, she would keep it just to fight back against the alleged extermination. (Whether she keeps the baby or not is up to her, obviously, but making a decision based on historical propaganda and deliberate lies is hardly in anyone's best interests.)

So this morning, Planned Parenthood convened a meeting of bloggers and reporters covering health and the black community. Although the persistent propaganda linking abortion care and racism was by no means a focus of the discussion, which was about how to best address sexual health and reproductive rights concerns in the black community, it clearly underpinned the event. "This meeting is the first time we've been proactive about it," said Parker. "We've said, 'We know what we do. We'll be defended by the truth.' But you have to be proactive about getting the truth out there." He quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: "When evil men plot, good men must plan." (He then qualified it by saying good and evil weren't necessarily that simple.)

Planned Parenthood didn't have to look far in its ranks to find African-American health activists to dispute, with authority, the claims alongside president Cecile Richards: Parker, a director of African-American media, Veronica Bird; a vice president of medical affairs, Dr. Vanessa Cullins. Also there: Lynya Floyd, a senior health editor at Essence.

Overall, Planned Parenthood's proportion of African-American patients resembles that of the general U.S. population, at 15 percent. And contrary to anti-abortion activists' repeated claims, clinics offering abortion are not concentrated in black neighborhoods. Also, abortion comprises 3 percent of their overall services, which include sex education and counseling, STI testing, and contraceptive services.

The biggest fear is that all the misinformation could also prevent African-American women from seeking care at a Planned Parenthood clinic, and only worsen the current health disparities. Planned Parenthood isn't just the largest provider of reproductive health services in the country — Dr. Parker said that other doctors will often send uninsured women to his clinic for unrelated care because they know Planned Parenthood is loath to turn them away. Those disparities include higher death rates from breast cancer and cervical cancer, as well as a disproportionate share of STI cases and teenage pregnancies. Some sobering figures from materials handed out at this morning's event:

  • African-Americans, while representing 13 percent of the U.S. population, account for 71 percent of gonorrhea cases and almost half of all cases of chlamydia, HIV/AIDS, and syphilis.
  • African-American teens are three times more likely to get pregnant than non-Hispanic white teens.
  • Those teens' birthrate is more than twice that of non-Hispanic white teens; the abortion rate for African-American teens is four times that of non-Hispanic white teens.
  • The African-American infant mortality rate is more than twice that of white infants. College and graduate school-educated African-American mothers have a higher infant mortality rate than white mothers who didn't finish high school.

These statistics are depressing, to say the least, though in wielding them, journalists face a dilemma — on the one hand, they're a reality that needs to be faced; on the other, scaring people straight, as one questioner this morning put it, risks numbing your audience or even reinforcing negative stereotypes that contribute to the problem. Byrd said the obsession with statistics about black women and men and marriage make women feel like they're desperate and without options, and possibly less empowered to insist on safe sex.

Interestingly, there's been a 225 percent increase in African-American male clients at the clinics in the past decade alone. Richards said she was cheered to see more young men taking charge of their own sexual health or accompanying their partner. But there's work to be done. Even women who are empowered and proactive about their sexual health, and have access to a provider, face challenges. Parker said just last week he saw a 22-year-old African-American woman who'd previously been refused an IUD because she'd never given birth and because she wasn't married — outdated standards for this highly effective form of birth control. (Judging from what we've heard from our readers on trying to get an IUD, she's not alone.)

For now, in addition to outreach to bloggers in black communities, Planned Parenthood is focused on figuring out how to provide care for all the newly insured people that expected after health care reform goes into affect. Almost 20 percent of African-Americans nationwide don't have a usual source of health care. And 23 percent of African-American women are uninsured, compared to 14 percent of non-Hispanic whites. But of course, all of those anti-abortion activists are uniquely concerned with the health of these women, and the fact that African-American children are 69 percent more likely to be uninsured than white children.

Kidding! You have to laugh to stop from crying.

Earlier: "Womb Lynching": On The Anti-Choice Targeting Of African-American Women
Pro-Choicers Fight Back On Abortion And Race
What A Horrible Doctor Can Teach Us About Abortion In America
Justice Ginsburg, Eugenics, And Feminist Criticism Of Planned Parenthood