Black Women Don't Need Billboards

In Atlanta, Georgia, a billboard campaign that started this month proclaims that "black children are an endangered species." On the campaign's Web site, TooManyAborted.com, the Radiance Foundation alludes to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger's support of eugenics and cites the disproportionately high number of unintended pregnancies and abortions among black women. The campaign is part of a new push by anti-choice advocates to exploit unequal access for reproductive-health services and black-genocide conspiracy theories (including the problematic history of Sanger) to further their agenda. As a quote displayed prominently on another anti-choice Web site, BlackGenocide.org, reads, "The most dangerous place for an African American to be is in the womb of their African American mother."

Poor women have four times as many unintended pregnancies as women who live above the federal poverty line. Among black women -- who are more than twice as likely to be poor than white women -- the numbers are even more dramatic. Sixty-nine percent of their pregnancies are unintended, and they have 37 percent of all abortions, a number wildly disproportionate to their representation in the population.

Black women may be having more abortions, but that doesn't prove that they're being coerced into having them. The only thing it proves is that black women are disproportionately having pregnancies they didn't intend. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the top two reasons all women give for having abortions are that they don't have the support of a partner and that they cannot afford to have a child. There's no reason to believe that black women have abortions with a different motivation.

But that doesn’t stop anti-choice groups from claiming that something more sinister is at work. In Georgia, where 30 percent of the population is black and female, nearly 58 percent of abortions are performed on black women. These numbers are distressing, and one would be hard-pressed to find a pro-choice advocate who thought they were good. But the conclusion that anti-choicers come to is even more distressing. Rather than working to end unplanned pregnancies, they advance their agenda by playing on fears and genocidal fantasy:

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New legislation in Georgia aims to reduce the number of abortions by relying on this obsession with the idea that black women are coerced. Georgia House Bill 1155, called the "Prenatal Discrimination Act," will force abortion providers to prove that they did not solicit women based on the race or sex of the child. But as the SisterSong Health Collective explains, that "could result in delayed medical services, particularly for women of color." Depending on when and how providers are forced to prove that they didn't solicit the abortion of a black child -- the bill is vague about this -- providers' ability to assist women could be compromised if they're using limited resources to follow an unreasonable law. The fear that they would be accused of targeting black women could also prevent providers from working with poor women of color. Additionally, the bill would change state racketeering laws to include abortion providers, a change that lists providers of a legal medical service alongside potential criminals.

This could prove disastrous for women whose health-care needs are already underserved. Reproductive clinics are frequently a first line of medical care for women near the poverty line. According to Planned Parenthood's annual report, only 3 percent of its services are abortion-related. Like many family-planning clinics, the organization not only provides a full range of reproductive health care to women, it also provides basic medical care -- from physicals to flu shots -- for 3 million men and women annually. Despite what anti-choicers say, the prevalence of Planned Parenthood clinics in low-income urban areas has little to do with targeting poor women and women of color for abortion. Low-income areas are simply less likely to have multiple options for health care, and the organization is filling that void.

As for what Planned Parenthood’s founder said long ago, Pamela Merritt wrote, "We should not associate contemporary reproductive health care providers or the reproductive justice movement with eugenics because of some views expressed by Margaret Sanger."

Both the billboards and the legislation seek to "help" women of color but in a way that presupposes they are targets without autonomy. By treating these women, particularly black women, as reliant on the goodwill or ill will of others hearkens back to a time when black women truly had no control over childbearing or childrearing. This strips these women of their agency and circumscribes how they enter the conversation about their own reproductive rights. Neither the Radiance Foundation's billboard campaign nor the Georgia Legislation addresses the root of the issue: unplanned pregnancies. Reaching young women on an individual level is exactly what's needed, but it's expensive and time-consuming.

Women need to be allowed to make decisions for themselves and given accurate education and resources to do so. But there’s more than just the decision of whether to carry out an unintended pregnancy to completion. Women also need to decide, for themselves, whether they wish to become pregnant in the first place.

A program in a rural South Carolina high school, where one in every seven girls had a baby in 2004, shows how focused engagement with poor women of color can produce an almost ideal outcome. Six years after the Sea Island Teen Opportunity for Prevention Program (STOPP) began, the number dropped to three babies born to students in a school with more than 200 girls. Pediatrician Janice Key writes that most teen pregnancy programs, which are generally a mix of sex education and information on birth control, don't work. According to Key, "Those that do work require intensive services over a long time to reach kids on an individual level."

In this program, clinic workers checked in with the girls every 12 to 14 weeks, mediated sessions with parents and daughters, and pulled extended families and churches into the fold. They also provided counseling about healthy relationships for both boys and girls and even offered support to those who were already teen mothers. This last element is key because teen mothers are more likely to drop out of school and because 60 percent of women who have an abortion already have children. In addition to gains in reducing the number of girls who got pregnant, the program's clinic was able to spend more time on other needed services, like giving physicals to the college bound.

Expanding programs like this one could even provide better reproductive health for all. By acknowledging and supporting the autonomy of young, poor women of color -- the group most likely to have unplanned pregnancies and abortions -- pro-choice activists can fight the structural reproductive injustice that affects all women.

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