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Feminomics: Pro-Life Atlanta's Big Lie to Poor and Minority Women

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The big lie continues. Taking a page out of Karl Rove's playbook, Georgia Right to Life has taken something that should be celebrated -- the long term decline in African-American teen pregnancies and improvident births -- and turned it into a canard, raising the specter of genocide in the voluntary reduction of childbearing. In doing so, Pro-life Atlanta joins the long list of charlatans that have preyed on the fears of the African-American community to advance their own causes at the expense of black empowerment.

Let us start, however, with what should be the good news. After years of concern in the white press about "excess black fertility," the issue disappeared in the nineties. Why? Because of the combination of welfare reform, removing a political whipping boy from public attention, and a dramatic fall in African-American teen births that received comparatively little notice. I attended legal conferences on welfare reform in the nineties and heard white liberals attack the welfare proposals as an assault on black motherhood. When I reported the academic papers to a law school classmate working with African-American churches in New York, she was bemused. JoAnne Page, the head of the Fortune Society, a group that works with ex-inmates and community organizers, told me that the black churches viewed teen pregnancy as a scourge of their communities. Reducing the number of children born to poor youngsters unprepared to care for them was their number one priority.

These community efforts made a difference. Over the nineties, teen births fell across the board. They fell most dramatically, however, for African-Americans, and the number of second teen births fell even more substantially than the number of black first births. The decline started before welfare reform and continued thereafter. Moreover, the number of teen pregnancies and abortions fell as well as the number of births. When the Guttmacher Institute researchers put together the picture for the nation as a whole, they found that an increase in abstinence contributed to the results, but primarily for teens between the ages of 15 and 17, and for whites more than for minority teens. The big story in the reduction in teen pregnancies was more effective contraception, which accounted for 85% of the drop. For minority teens, the invisible story was the big payoff from community efforts to change the culture around early childbearing. [John S. Santelli et al., Explaining Recent Declines in Adolescent Pregnancy in the United States: The Contribution of Abstinence and Increased Contraceptive Use, 97 Am. J. Pub. Health 150, 152-54 (2007), available here. By the turn of the century, overall African-American fertility rates, though still higher than average for the country, had become similar to white rates once differences in socio-economic status were taken into account.

Since 2000, however, the encouraging trends of the nineties have been turned around, and groups like Georgia Right to Life are part of the reason. In our book, Red Families v. Blue Families, Naomi Cahn and I explain that the most conservative forces in the U.S. have been rebelling against a new "blue" family structure that provides handsome rewards to those who invest in education and defer childbearing. These forces, identified with the Christian right, have championed abstinence-only education, restricted teen access to contraception, and attacked abortion at every turn. Their campaign is working: teen births are back up, and African-American teen births have increased the most. Why? Consider this. African-American teens are more likely than whites to have their high school sex education class as their only source of information about birth control at the time of their first sexual encounter, and African-Americans are more likely than whites to be enrolled in abstinence-only programs. [Laura Duberstein Lindberg, John S. Santelli, & Susheela Singh, Changes in Formal Sex Education: 1995-2002, 38 Persp. Sexual & Reprod. Health 182 (2006), available here.

Poor women generally, and poor minority women, in particular, are much more likely than their better off sisters to experience unwelcome sexual advances, unintended pregnancy, and childbirth in improvident circumstances. Instead of helping to improve African-American women's lives, Georgia Right to Life is using the big lie to take away one of the few ways poor women have to exercise control over their futures. We say shame on you to the organization and to anyone else who would undermine poor women's efforts to exercise responsibility over their reproductive future.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

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