Update on the Abortion Wars

Heath care includes abortion.
Photo of protest sign by http://www.flickr.com/photos/clockworknate/ / CC BY-NC 2.0

The abortion wars rage relentlessly on, in the United States and elsewhere. Consider these abortion-related items in the headlines the first days of March:

  • After months of wrangling and immense concessions from abortion rights supporters, abortion still has the capacity to derail Congressional passage of a health-reform bill, as some House anti-abortion legislators remain dissatisfied with the actually quite onerous funding restrictions of the procedure in the Senate measure.
  • A woman in Nicaragua, mother of a 10-year-old girl, is denied an abortion even though she is a suffering from cancer, and is not allowed to start chemotherapy as long as she is pregnant.
  • The sponsor of antiabortion legislation in Utah withdrew it for revision in the wake of massive national criticism. Why the firestorm? Because the measure would have permitted life imprisonment for a woman “whose intentional or reckless behavior” caused the death of her fetus. In other words, if implemented the bill could have made suspect every miscarriage occurring in that state.

Such legislative proposals seem like parodies, but sadly they aren’t. Indeed, one of the few genuine abortion parodies around–The Onion‘s hilarious fictional account of a law requiring women seeking abortions to first name the baby and paint the nursery–is not far removed from a real-life incident I recount in my book, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars. In this case, a pregnant woman with the life-threatening condition of deep-vein thrombosis (a blood clot in the leg) was scheduled for an in-hospital abortion. While hospitalized for a flare-up of her condition several days before her scheduled procedure, she was forced by an anti-abortion doctor to tour the nursery for newborns!

Perhaps the most sensational of the current clashes over abortion are the events now transpiring in Atlanta, where billboards posted around the city proclaim that “black children are an endangered species.” These are part of a special “minority outreach” effort by Georgia Right to Life, capitalizing on the fact that the abortion rates of African-American women are higher than those of Latina women and four times higher than those of white women.

The current campaign is only the latest in a longstanding effort by the anti-abortion movement and allies within the African-American community (primarily based within churches) to argue that abortion providers in general, and Planned Parenthood in particular, have “targeted” black women and are engaged in a “black genocide.” A particular talking point is the location of Planned Parenthood clinics in low-income, minority communities.

These conspiracy theories have been countered in several ways. The reason that black women have higher abortion rates is that they have much higher rates of unintended pregnancy than other groups. The reason, for this,  as Dr. Melissa Gilliam, an African-American gynecologist, has argued, lies in the larger health care disparities facing this community: not only lesser access to contraception, especially the more-effective and more-expensive methods such as pills, but also lower availability of quality primary care and effective sex education.

Loretta Ross, executive director of the Sistersong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective in Atlanta, has forcefully responded to the charges of racism directed against Margaret Sanger, the foremother of Planned Parenthood. As she recently told the New York Times, “The reason we have so many Planned Parenthoods in the black community is because leaders in the black community in the ’20s and ’30s went to Margaret Sanger and asked for them […] Controlling our fertility was part of our uplift out of poverty strategy, and it still works.”

A point never acknowledged by those seeking to demonize Planned Parenthood is that only 3 percent of its services involve abortions [PDF]. The remainder include contraception, cancer screenings, treatment of sexually transmitted infections, sex education and, in some affiliates, prenatal care. For many poor women in this country, Planned Parenthood has become their only source of health care. When grandstanding legislators cut Planned Parenthood’s state contracts, poor women in their 60s lose the opportunity for pap smears and breast exams.

The Atlanta billboard fracas should be a teachable moment. The high rate of unintended pregnancies facing African American women in Georgia and elsewhere offer irrefutable evidence of the need to pass a health care bill that assures primary care (including contraception) for those without it. Moreover, the unintended pregnancy rate should open  a conversation about sexual violence, including birth control sabotage, that explains some portion of unintended pregnancies [PDF].

But the only lesson to be drawn from this whole mess so far, unfortunately, appears to be that the abortion wars show no signs of abating.

Adapted with permission from the author’s blog at Beacon Broadside.

Learn more about the anti-abortion movement via Ms. coverage.