Abortion: black and white issue?

A fair piece on abortion? Believe it or not, it can be done. I was pleasantly surprised by the ground covered in Saturday’s front-page article on anti-abortion groups courting blacks in The New York Times. This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, but it has been in the news lately because of 80 billboards appearing in Georgia (right).

A search on nytimes.com suggests this is the first time the Times has covered Lila Rose’s work and made more than a brief mention of Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King Jr. Here are the key paragraphs from reporter Shaila Dewan:

The factors fueling the focus on black women–an abortion rate far higher than that of other races and the ties between the effort to legalize and popularize birth control and eugenics–are, at heart, old news. But they have been given exaggerated new life by the Internet, slick repackaging, high production values and money, like the more than $20,000 that Georgia Right to Life invested in the billboards.

Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that black women get almost 40 percent of the country’s abortions, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the population. Nearly 40 percent of black pregnancies end in induced abortion, a rate far higher than for white or Hispanic women.

Overall, the story packs in a lot of information and quotes from both sides, weaving in history, ethics, and anecdotes for a solid story. I was, however, disappointed to read this sweeping generalization:

Across the country, the anti-abortion movement, long viewed as almost exclusively white and Republican, is turning its attention to African-Americans and encouraging black abortion opponents across the country to become more active.

Almost exclusively white? Viewed by whom? I realize Houston may not be representative of the country (then again, neither is New York), but if you watch this Houston Chronicle video of an thousand-plus anti-abortion protest in January, you won’t see an exclusively white crowd.

If I can pick on a one more part of the story, I found this quote on Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, quite unsatisfactory.

Scholars acknowledge that Sanger did ally herself with eugenics, at the time a mainstream movement, but said she believed that birth control, sterilization and abortion should be voluntary and not based on race. She was also allied with black leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois and Dr. King, who praised her efforts to bring birth control to black families.

“It’s unfair to characterize those efforts as racially targeted in a negative way,” said Ellen Chesler, a historian and Sanger biographer, who is now on the board of Planned Parenthood.

The quote feels pretty obligatory since it doesn’t offer anything but an opinion from someone who sits on Planned Parenthood’s board. Couldn’t the reporter find someone a little less connected to the organization?

Those points aside, it’s good to see the Times tackle a tough subject. If the story could have been lengthened, I’d be curious what people in the movement think about the rhetoric being used in these strategies. Are people on both or either side questioning the use of the word genocide, for example?

Joshunda Sanders of the Austin American-Statesman writes about her experience covering a 40 day vigil abortion clinics last fall.

[T]he New York Times piece points to a national trend I thought the activists mentioned to me because I’m black, not because it was a new angle for the anti-abortion movement …

When I talked to Sheri Danze and others outside of the clinic, they mentioned that Margaret Sanger had a plan to wipe out black people via abortion. While I took notes respectfully, it sounded like an extremist version of history that might take years to verify. So I disregarded that and wrote about what was verifiable. I honestly also felt like I was being baited, like they wanted me to lead any stories with the fact that abortion providers are not only, in their opinion, morally corrupt, but also racist.

I have a feeling that more reporters are reluctant to write about Sanger and these issues. Put race, abortion and religion into the same story and your letters inbox might explode.

Finally, I would have also liked to see the Times explore the role of the black religious community. It’s not absent from the story, but it doesn’t play a prominent role. Here’s more from Sanders:

Still, the cultural divide in the recruiting of black churches and abortion opponents might be underscored by an economic one. Studies have shown that abortion in the U.S. has declined, but there have been increased among low-income women who are black and Latino. This cultural argument in the anti-abortion movement also interests me because it might be the few places of activist overlap between traditionally black churches and predominately white churches. As black history month draws to a close, I’ve been thinking about what seems like a permanent gap between the world of black churches and other houses of worship, and what it will take to bridge that gap.

More reporters could look into stories along these lines. I’d be curious, for example, if pro-life groups are partnering with black churches. Hopefully more reporters can follow the Times‘s lead and put a local face on these issues.

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  • http://forgottencenotaph.blogspot.com J. Lahondere

    I was really impressed with this article for the reasons you noted.

    As I read this story, this quote stood out to me:

    “There’s an assumption that every time a girl is pregnant it’s because of voluntary activity, and it’s so not the case,” Ms. Ross said.

    I’ve heard before that 80-90% of abortions are a result of voluntary sexual activity, but would have liked to know more about the actual statistics. How abortions do take place due to rape or some other involuntary activity?

    When I lived in a predominantly black neighborhood in the Bronx, New York, I often heard from people there that abortion clinics were a tool to keep the black population “in check.” It would have been interesting for the article to note that this idea has been around for quite some time. The article does state that the ideas have been given “exaggerated new life by the Internet, slick repackaging, high production values and money.” The tone of that seemed kind of disapproving to me, though. “Exaggerated,” “slick,” “repackaging,” and “money.” Hey, maybe it’s the truth, I don’t know, but it felt biased.

  • Peter

    There was a 2 to 1 ratio of pro-life paragraphs to pro-choice paragraphs, with three times more pro-life people were quoted. Not exactly balanced, although it was about the repackaging of the message and new outreach.

    It’s easy to see it as a cynical ploy and I agree with the Austin columnist that it would be nice to see that critique explored.

  • dalea

    The articles have only two statistics in them: 40% of all abortions and 13% of the general population. As presented, neither is particularly meaningful. We need to know how the percentages of women of childbearing age breaks into groups. It may be that black women are a higher percentage of this subgroup than of the population as a whole. Or that black women are generally more fertile than other women. The articles give no clue.

    It would have been interesting to verify the claim of genocide. Which is fairly simple. Compare both the absolute size and the rate of growth of the black community over time.

    I did not find the articles helpful.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It could have mentioned that the Rev. Jesse Jackson called abortion Black genocide. Then he got the itch to be president, realized the feminists and pro-abortionists controlled the Dem Party, so he flip-flopped on the issue out of political ambition. But rarely is that noted today in the media.
    Jackson’s political–if not his moral– instincts were correct as Gov. Casey of Penn. later found out.

  • dalea

    The Guttmacher Institute has some statistics on abortion. They do show Black women at a 37% rate of all abortions,but this does not mean, as the articles seem to state, that 40% of all Black pregnancies end in abortion. That would be a rate, something the authors do not seem to understand. They confuse percentage of all abortions with rate of abortion. Assuming you regard the GI as reliable here, is the link.


    What the article leaves out is that having an abortion is linked to being under 25, 1/2 of all abortions. And to being poor. It seems that older and better off women abort at a much lower rate. Here are the stats on the who gets abortions:

    • Fifty percent of U.S. women obtaining abortions are younger than 25: Women aged 20–24 obtain 33% of all abortions, and teenagers obtain 17%.[7]

    • Thirty-seven percent of abortions occur to black women, 34% to non-Hispanic white women, 22% to Hispanic women and 8% to women of other races.**

    • Forty-three percent of women obtaining abortions identify themselves as Protestant, and 27% as Catholic.[3]

    • Women who have never married obtain two-thirds of all abortions.[3]

    • About 60% of abortions are obtained by women who have one or more children.[7]

    • The abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level ($9,570 for a single woman with no children) is more than four times that of women above 300% of the poverty level (44 vs. 10 abortions per 1,000 women). This is partly because the rate of unintended pregnancies among poor women (below 100% of poverty) is nearly four times that of women above 200% of poverty* (112 vs. 29 per 1,000 women[3,1]

    The reasons women give for having an abortion underscore their understanding of the responsibilities of parenthood and family life. Three-fourths of women cite concern for or responsibility to other individuals; three-fourths say they cannot afford a child; three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents; and half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner.[8]

    Interestingly, Roman Catholics who account for about 20% of the population account for 28% of all abortions.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    J., thanks for pointing out that quote on voluntary pregnancies. It’s not fleshed out very well in the article. Those words didn’t strike me as biased necessarily except maybe “slick.” I doubt reporters would write about Planned Parenthood as “slick,” for example, but I could see where the reporter is coming from.

    Peter, I’m not sure what to do with the 2/1 ratio of quotes. I try not to necessarily evaluate a story based on the people quoted because sometimes the angle necessitates that you quote one side more than the other. I feel like a few paragraphs that weren’t in quotes could’ve been considered for the pro-choice side, if you will. I can be be persuaded, though.

    John, thanks for weighing in.

  • Maureen

    So… if factchecking sounds like it might take some work, reporters don’t have to factcheck anymore?

    She’s from a newspaper. Surely they have a morgue that stretches ooh, way back to the 1920′s. Surely she could sashay her way onto the computer and just look it up?

  • Martha

    “While I took notes respectfully, it sounded like an extremist version of history that might take years to verify.”

    *jaw drop*

    What, even Wikipedia (and okay, not the strict peer-reviewed reputable journal of academic rigour one might desire, but at least it’s a starting place) is too exotic for her?


    “Sanger remains a controversial figure. While she is widely credited as a leader of the modern birth control movement, and remains an iconic figure for the American reproductive rights movements, pro-life groups condemn Sanger’s views, attributing her efforts to promote birth control to a desire to “purify” the human race through eugenics, and even to eliminate minority races by placing birth control clinics in minority neighborhoods. Despite allegations of racism, Sanger’s work with minorities earned the respect of some civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. according to Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In their biographical article about Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood notes:

    In 1930, Sanger opened a family planning clinic in Harlem that sought to enlist support for contraceptive use and to bring the benefits of family planning to women who were denied access to their city’s health and social services. Staffed by a black physician and black social worker, the clinic was endorsed by The Amsterdam News (the powerful local newspaper), the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Urban League, and the black community’s elder statesman, W. E. B. Du Bois.”

    The Wiki article shows that Sanger was somewhat more complex in her views than either side of the debate credits; surely there are source documents out there that can be verified one way or the other about her views?

    Something like, I don’t know, this site provides?


    “The Negro Project, instigated in 1939 by Margaret Sanger, was one of the first major undertakings of the new Birth Control Federation of America (BCFA), the product of a merger between the American Birth Control League and Sanger’s Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, and one of the more controversial campaigns of the birth control movement. Developed by white birth control reformers, who consulted with African-Americans for help in promoting the project only well after its inception, the Negro Project and associated campaigns were, nevertheless, widely supported by such black leaders as Mary McLeod Bethune, W. E. B. DuBois, and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Influenced strongly by both the eugenics movement and the progressive welfare programs of the New Deal era, the Negro Project was, from the start, largely indifferent to the needs of the black community and constructed in terms and with perceptions that today smack of racism.”

  • Martha

    The quote that I’ve seen used to justify claims about Sanger’s racism/eugenics movement is the one quoted here, from that Margaret Sanger site:

    “Sanger reiterated the need for black ministers to head up the project in a letter to Clarence Gamble in Dec. 1939, arguing that: “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” This passage has been repeatedly extracted by Sanger’s detractors as evidence that she led a calculated effort to reduce the black population against their will. From African-American activist Angela Davis on the left to conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza on the right, this statement alone has condemned Sanger to a perpetual waltz with Hitler and the KKK. Davis quoted the incendiary passage in her 1983 Women, Race and Class, claiming that the Negro Project “confirmed the ideological victory of the racism associated with eugenic ideas.” D’Souza used the quote to buttress erroneous claims that Sanger called blacks “human weeds” and a “menace to civilization” in his best-selling 1995 book The End of Racism. The argument that Sanger co-opted black clergy and community leaders to exterminate their own race not only gives Sanger unwarranted credit as a remarkably cunning manipulator, but also suggests that African-Americans were passive receptors of birth control reform, incapable of making their own decisions about family size; and that black leaders were ignorant and gullible.”

    Now, whether it was an unfortunate slip of the pen to talk about “we want to exterminate the negro population” or whether she really did mean something along those lines, it is surely not the work of *years* to dig out the original and have a look at it?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Now, whether it was an unfortunate slip of the pen to talk about “we want to exterminate the negro population” or whether she really did mean something along those lines

    If the “idea” needed “straighten[ing] out” – i.e. correction – then it appears that the “idea” was wrong, no?

  • Martha

    Ray, I can see how it might be interpreted in two ways: (1) “If some false propaganda that we are trying to exterminate the coloured people is put out by our enemies, then respected members of their own community will be more credible than anything we say” (2) “If the truth gets out that we want to exterminate the coloured people, having recruits that the simpletons will believe will be a good cover for us”.

    What I do not see is how this kind of quick’n’dirty research could take “years to verify”; even if she didn’t want to get into the whole did Sanger?/didn’t Sanger? debate, it would have been literally the work of seconds to look up if such a quotation as was attributed to Sanger was indeed out there:

    (a) Hit Wikipedia
    (b) Type in “Margaret Sanger”
    (c) Read handy article
    (d) Click on handy link provided to outside site
    (e) Cut’n’paste quote from said site
    (f) If feeling like all those years in journalism college meant something, do a bit of investigative reporting into finding original letter and reading thing to see if what Sanger said what she is supposed to have said, and judge from context.

    Steps (a)-(e) took me something under a minute; I can’t see how – especially for a black journalist – accusations of deliberate racially-oriented eugenics-tinged targeting of the black population is something that’s “oh, that’s too hard for little old me to do!”.

  • dalea

    Shaila Dewan writes:

    Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that black women get almost 40 percent of the country’s abortions, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the population. Nearly 40 percent of black pregnancies end in induced abortion, a rate far higher than for white or Hispanic women.

    This is extremely poor reasoning. All the information shows is that 40% of all abortions are to Black women. The article does not give the total number of Black pregnancies from which we could approxiamate the rate. Very shoddy journalism.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    dalea, thanks for your comments. Would CDC offer the total number of pregnancies among black women? I’m not sure I would consider that omission “shoddy journalism,” but the reporter could have included more data in her story.

  • dalea


    The CDC would offer a number called live births for black women. By adding that to the number of abortions, you get a very rought approximation of total pregnancies. With that you can get a rate. But the article does not have that information.

    Both the Black and the Hispanic cohorts have larger proportions of young, poor women than the White cohort. These are the women most likely to have abortions. The abortion rate does not apply to overall population, it applies to women aged 15 to 44. So even though Blacks are 13% of the population, we need to know what percentage of women aged 15 to 44 are Black to understand the situation. The article fails to comprehend this basic distinction.