Billboards that highlight black abortion disparity spark debate
By Dawn Turner Trice, Tribune reporter
7:36 PM CDT, April 19, 2011
When a Texas minister came to Chicago last month to launch a controversial anti-abortion billboard campaign, he highlighted a statistic that some people found shocking.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women account for about 36 percent of the country's reported abortions, even though blacks are less than 13 percent of the population.
So why is the black abortion rate, which is three times that of white women, so disproportionately high?
Experts say it's because black women have higher rates of unintended pregnancies, and often that's a result of not having access to quality health care as well as the most effective contraception and sex education.
Gaylon Alcaraz, the executive director of the Chicago Abortion Fund, said the statistics tell only part of the story.
"The abortion rate doesn't talk about the high rate of sexual violence, such as rape and molestation, in poor black communities," Alcaraz said. "It doesn't tell you about the woman whose birth control failed or the college student who wants to finish school.
"Then there's the woman who sneaks out to get an abortion so she doesn't have to bring another baby into a house where the husband is beating her."
Cherisse Scott, health educator for the Chicago-based Black Women for Reproductive Justice, said the rate also doesn't address the overall racial disparities in health care and health outcomes.
"We know that black women are more likely to suffer or die from diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer and HIV/AIDS," Scott said. "Life Always (the Texas-based group responsible for the ads) would like you to believe that the high abortion rate is not complicated and merely the result of aggressive marketing from abortion providers. But that's just untrue.
"They believe black women have been bamboozled by Planned Parenthood, as if (the organization is) standing on every street corner in every black neighborhood promoting abortion."
On March 29, Life Always unveiled three of its anti-abortion billboards in a vacant lot in the Englewood neighborhood. Since then, at least four other billboards have been placed on the South Side.
All are identical, showing the likeness of President Barack Obama and the words: "Every 21 minutes, our next possible leader is aborted."
The Rev. Stephen Broden, of Life Always, said the group uses the statistics to show the impact that abortion providers, particularly Planned Parenthood, have on the black community.
"They've convinced our women that the answer to social injustice is to kill their babies and the answer to unintended pregnancies is to kill their babies," said Broden, who is black. "There are alternatives throughout the entire scenario."
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a private, nonprofit reproductive-health research organization in New York, the abortion rate among all women has been declining over the last decade, even though abortion rates remain higher among black women.
Rebecca Wind, spokeswoman for Guttmacher, said that one persistent reason for unintended pregnancies is that many women of color, who are also disproportionately low-income, are less likely to use the most effective methods of contraception. Such methods include the birth control pill, the patch, the vaginal ring and intrauterine devices.
"What's left out of the discussion is that black women are more likely to experience unintended pregnancies and therefore more likely to seek and obtain abortions than any other group," Wind said.
She said that because black women also are underinsured, they may be more vulnerable, since the most effective methods are often the most expensive.
But Scott said the problem goes even deeper. Many of the women and girls she encounters don't have a good understanding of their basic reproductive and sexual health. She said many don't even know how to chart their menstrual cycles.
"It doesn't matter if there's yet another form of a contraceptive method if a woman doesn't know how to use it properly," Scott said.
Another problem, said Scott, is that some contraception and safe-sex devices — such as the female condom and dental dams (used during oral sex) — are harder to find in many of the city's poorer neighborhoods. However, some public health clinics offer both for free.
Dorothy Roberts is the author of "Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty" and a Northwestern University professor who has examined attempts throughout history to regulate black women's reproduction.
She said she wonders if the black-white disparity in the abortion rate is exaggerated because the numbers for white women having the procedure have been undercounted. (Some states, including California, don't report abortion statistics to the CDC.)
"It doesn't mean that black women aren't having abortions at higher rates," Roberts said. "But if you are wealthy and middle-class, you can be more private about reproductive decisions because you can have a procedure done by a private doctor.
"And if you pay cash, you don't even have to engage your insurance. But poor women often go to public hospitals and clinics, and their reproductive behavior is under surveillance and can be more easily detected."
She said a billboard that Life Always put up in New York — it had the message, "The most dangerous place for African-Americans is in the womb" — was reminiscent of the eugenics movement and population-control policies, which deemed black women as sexually irresponsible and incapable of making good reproductive decisions.
"The thinking was they shouldn't be allowed to control their own bodies," Roberts said. "And it makes it difficult to talk about preventing unintended pregnancies in the black community or even design a public health response if the public believes stereotypes painting black women as inherently promiscuous."
The New York billboard was taken down. Earlier this month, two of the ones in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood were covered up with white fabric.
Alcaraz is organizing an event on Saturday in Englewood to clean debris from the vacant lot adjacent to the building with the billboards. She's expecting representatives from more than 30 organizations that advocate on behalf of women and women's rights to join in the cleanup, as well as pass out information and answer questions.
"Most women — rich, poor, black, white, Hispanic — don't arrive at the decision to have an abortion lightly," Alcaraz said.
"You can't just come into a community, hang a billboard and believe shaming a woman into not having an abortion is going to get to the heart of the problem. That won't even touch the surface."
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