Commentary Abortion

New York Anti-Choice Group Decries Abortion Rate While Opposing Sex Ed and Family Planning

Jodi Jacobson

A right-wing group affiliated with the Catholic Church hierarchy is advocating against New York City Mayor Bloomberg's new sex-ed mandate while also opposing access to family planning services and decrying the city's abortion rate.

See our other reports on New York City’s sex ed program here.

At this point, it’s no secret that anti-choice groups in the United States oppose the fundamental rights of women to determine whether and when to bear–and undertake the lifelong responsibility of parenting–a child when facing an unintended and untenable pregnancy.

Only more recently, however, has their real agenda become unequivocally clear: They are also adamantly against contraception and sexual health education, the very things that reduce rates of unintended pregnancies–and hence the need for abortion–in the first place.

But rarely do events underscore the forced birth agenda of such groups so blatantly as did the actions this month of the Chiaroscuro Foundation of New York.

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On August 16th, Chiaroscuro held a press conference strongly denouncing the city’s new mandate requiring that New York City Public Schools provide evidence-based comprehensive sex education–curricula for which always include emphasis on abstaining from sex in the first place–in both middle and high schools. This is the first time the city has put in place a mandate for systematic approaches to comprehensive sex ed. The Bloomberg mandate is important for any number of reasons, including the fact that with more than one million students entering school this year, the New York City public school system is one of if not the largest in the United States, and there is a high rate of unintended teen pregnancy in the city.

The foundation’s solution? To promote dis-proven abstinence-only programs instead.

Since their press conference, Chiaroscuro has set up a website railing against plans to teach students actual facts about contraception, safer sex practices, and non-discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender persons, and instead encourages people to complain about or opt out of the program altogether. In place of comprehensive programs, they advocate for failed programs such as ASPIRE: Live your life. Be free; Choosing the Best PATH which promotes heterosexual marriage as the only “good” kind, relies on fear and shame, and suggests that the “emotional consequences” of premarital sex include “guilt, feeling scared, ruined relationships, broken emotional bonds;” and Game Plan which promotes only heterosexual marriage and discourages critical thinking or discussions of alternate points of view in the classroom. Another Chiaroscuro favorite is WAIT Training, a part of which explains, “men sexually are like microwaves and women sexually are like crockpots…”.  Chiaroscuro’s primary “expert,” Dr. Miriam Grossman, is an ultra-religious conservative who advocates only “traditional marriage,” and “traditional roles” for girls and women.

Yet with no sense of irony, and less than a month later on September 7th, Chiaroscuro released a report, based on publicly available Department of Health data, decrying the high rate of abortion in New York City.

If this doesn’t make their agenda blatantly clear, I don’t know what does.

If you are against contraception and evidence-based sex ed, and you are also against the right of women to terminate a pregnancy, you are for forced pregnancy and birth. You may not say it this way, but you stand for eliminating all options for girls and women who may aspire to education or career plans that involve delaying or not having children; for women who feel they can not afford another child or can’t bring another child into an abusive marriage; for women who have been raped; or for women who may be at serious risk of health and possibly death from carrying a pregnancy. This is called forced birth.

This is perhaps no surprise, since the foundation’s mission is based on the premise that:

[T]he Universal Catholic Church, with the apostolic tradition and the communion of saints, is uniquely qualified to communicate the full depth of God’s word. Accordingly, we will support the Church’s effort to develop and promote its teachings, as well as form Catholics in those teachings.

The foundation, a nonprofit group, is, according to the New York Times, “financed privately by its president, Sean Fieler, an investment banker who supports religious and conservative causes, and “fight[s] for the protection of all human life from conception to natural death.” In other words, in keeping with the lobbying arm of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, they’ve changed the definition of when pregnancy begins (medically it is when an embryo implants successfully in the uterus), and also want to control how you die.

But anti-choicers love obfuscation on every level; rarely are they so blatant about their agenda. In January, for example, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who in a meeting sponsored by Chiaroscuro, adopted what the Times called a “more pragmatic goal for New York than abolishing abortion: “Let’s see to it that abortion is rare,” he said.”

But there is nothing pragmatic about denying both teens and women access to information and services to secure their reproductive and sexual health. There is nothing pragmatic about opposing evidence-based sex ed, or the expansion of reproductive health services and contraceptive supplies to all persons. Instead the real strategy is to further stigmatize women who have sex, use contraception or terminate a pregnancy.

No one disputes that New York City has a high rate of unintended pregnancies and hence a high rate of abortion. Over 60 percent of all pregnancies in the city are unintended. Fifty-four percent of all pregnancies among Latinas are unintended according to one study cited by Linda Greenhouse in the New York Times, and over 87 percent of the 20,000 teen pregnancies that occur each year in the city are unintended.

High rates of unintended pregnancies among low-income women and those with the least access to health care lead to higher rates of abortion as women struggle to manage the multiple responsibilities of family, work, community and personal aspirations, iike better education for their children and themselves, not to mention the concerns of an unstable economic environment and high rates of unemployment. Nearly 60 percent of unintended pregnancies among black women in the city end in abortion, for example. Overall the rate of abortions (as measured by the number of abortions per 100,000 live births) is highest in the Bronx at 48 percent, followed by Brooklyn (39 percent), Manhattan (38 percent), Queens (39 percent), and Staten Island (32 percent).

Given the fact that data on both unintended pregnancy and abortion in the city are widely available and that the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg has created several initiatives to reduce unintended pregnancies, the situation and the need for solutions is no secret.

But, as experts point out, as with any problem that has multiple root causes, there is no silver bullet. The solutions to unintended pregnancy are complex, and include but must go beyond comprehensive sex ed in the schools to embrace and expand various initiatives now underway.

“By focusing on New York in the way it does,” says Anglea Hooton, interim executive director of NARAL Pro-choice New York, “Chiaroscuro implies that New York is some kind of unique place as though unintended pregnancy is not a problem across the country.”

“While we have high rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion here, we also have incredible rates of poverty and of populations who are severely economically disadvantaged,” Hooton continued.

We have to address the problem of unintended pregnancy through a much more comprehensive effort based on understanding of what it means to have a large share of your population not able to access basic preventive health care. Incredibly high concentrations of unintended pregnancy and abortion are in evidence in those communities with the least access to services, in which people are most economically-disadvantaged, and have limited means, limited knowledge [of how to get health care], and limited educations. There are other factors as well in reaching populations where, for example, language barriers make outreach more difficult.  All of these issues have to be considered.

But the sex ed mandate, while not a panacea, is a critical component in combating unintended pregnancy, argues Hooton.  “It is a fact that there has never been any requirement or uniform implementation for sex ed in the public school system,” she says, and since it is arguably the biggest in the country, we have to ensure everyone has the same education according to basic evidence-based standards.” 

In reply to the Chiaroscuro Foundation, she asks: “Why are you not with us to make sure that the next generation of youth are armed with the information they need to make the best decisions about their bodies and their lives throughout their entire life-cycle?”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Planned Parenthood of New York City president Joan Malin said in January when she said: “The unplanned pregnancy rate in New York City is impacted by a myriad of societal factors, including access to information and education, access to birth control, and intimate partner violence, among others. Planned Parenthood works every day to address those underlining issues and we invite the Archdiocese of New York and its partner organizations to join in making sure that every young person in New York City has access to comprehensive sex education and access to birth control information and usage.”

My guess is their offer is still on the table.

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