New York Times Article on Myth of “Racial Bias and Abortion” Omits Critical Analyses

Jodi Jacobson

In an examination of rumors being spread by anti-choicers that high rates of abortion among black women are due to a campaign of "racial genocide," the New York Times once again failed to provide relevant evidence, data or balance on issues of critical importance.

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 Rewire, 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 Rewire’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.

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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. 

Period.

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.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

News Politics

Congresswoman Pushes Intersectionality at Democratic National Convention

Christine Grimaldi

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) charges that reproductive health-care restrictions have a disproportionate impact on the poor, the urban, the rural, and people of color.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

The members of Congress who flocked to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this week included a vocal advocate for the intersection of racial and reproductive justice: Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).

Watson Coleman’s longstanding work in these areas “represented the intersection of who I am,” she said during a discussion in Philadelphia sponsored by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Cosmopolitan. Reproductive health-care restrictions, she stressed, have a disproportionate effect on the poor, the urban, the rural, and people of color.

“These decisions impact these communities even more so [than others],” she told Rewire in an interview. “We don’t have the alternatives that middle-class, suburban, white women have. And we’d rather they have them.”

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Watson Coleman has brought that context to her work in Congress. In less than two years on Capitol Hill, she co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls and serves on the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, a GOP-led, $1.2 million investigation that she and her fellow Democrats have called an anti-choice “witch hunt.”

Coleman said she’s largely found support and encouragement among her fellow lawmakers during her first term as a woman of color and outspoken advocate for reproductive rights.

“What I’ve gotten from my Republican colleagues who are so adamantly against a woman’s right to choose—I don’t think it has anything to do with my being a woman or an African American, it has to do with the issue,” she said.

House Republicans have increasingly pushed anti-choice policies in advance of the ongoing August recess and November’s presidential election. The House this month passed the Conscience Protection Act, which would give health-care providers a private right of action to seek civil damages in court, should they face supposed coercion to provide abortion care or discrimination stemming from their refusal to assist in such care.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) lauded passage of the bill and the House’s thus-far unsuccessful effort to prove that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations—allegations based on widely discredited videos published by the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-choice front group that has worked closely with GOP legislators to attack funding for Planned Parenthood.

On the other side of the aisle, Watson Coleman joined 118 other House Democrats to co-sponsor the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act (HR 2972). Known as the EACH Woman Act, the legislation would overturn the Hyde Amendment and ensure that every woman has access to insurance coverage of abortion care.

The Hyde Amendment’s restriction of federal funding for abortion care represents a particularly significant barrier for people with low incomes and people of color.

The Democratic Party platform, for the first time, calls for repealing the Hyde Amendment, though the process for undoing a yearly federal appropriations rider remains unclear.

For Watson Coleman, the path forward on getting rid of the Hyde Amendment is clear on at least one point: The next president can’t go it alone.

“The president will have to have a willing Congress,” she said. She called on the electorate to “recognize that this is not a personality contest” and “remove some of those people who have just been obstructionists without having the proper evidence.”

In the meantime, what does a “willing Congress” look like for legislation with anti-choice roadblocks? A majority voting bloc helps, Watson Coleman said. But that’s not everything.

“There are lots of bills that Republicans will vote for if their leadership would simply bring them up,” she said.