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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