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Veronica Byrd

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Why African Americans Support Abortion Rights

Posted: 08/09/11 04:19 PM ET

I'm constantly frustrated by the heated discussions I hear about abortion and African-American women. My friends and family members are never short on strong opinions -- nor, it seems, is anyone else. In my work at Planned Parenthood, I rarely survive a week without getting pulled into a debate about the high rates of abortion among black women and what it reveals about the state of black America. Most of the noise comes from the religious right and small enclaves of the far left, where zealots portray us as unwitting dupes of a racist "abortion industry" that wants to keep us childless -- or perpetrators of a "black genocide" attempting to obliterate our race. Thankfully, most African Americans know that is nonsense, and most support a woman's right to control her own body. According to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, some 64 percent of us believe "abortion should be legal in all or most cases."

I share that view and applaud it. What frustrates me is the tendency to argue about abortion as if it were a self-contained phenomenon, when it so clearly signals deeper, broader issues. African Americans make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet we account for 30 percent of the nation's abortions. Whites are nearly 75 percent of the population but account for only 36 percent of abortions. Why the huge disparity? Is someone pushing us into abortion against our will? Of course not. Our high abortion rate reflects our high rate of unintended pregnancy -- which in turn reflects poverty and a lack of accessible, affordable health care.

Nearly half of all U.S. pregnancies are unintended -- a far higher proportion than you would find in most other developed countries -- and the risk isn't distributed equally. African-American women experience unintended pregnancy at more than twice the rate of white women, often because they lack affordable birth control. Over the years, I've heard many friends describe having to choose between their birth control pills and paying their bills, and they're hardly alone. A recent Hart survey showed that 54 percent of African-American women between the ages of 18 and 34 had experienced difficulty using contraceptives consistently because they were too expensive. For a woman who can't afford to fill a prescription or pay a co-payment for an IUD or other contraception, unplanned parenthood is a reflection of deeper economic woes.

That may be one reason that African Americans support abortion rights. Many of us lack the resources to prevent unplanned, untenable pregnancies. We're less likely than other Americans to have jobs, and less likely to have health insurance. In 2009, 23 percent of African Americans were uninsured -- compared to 14 percent of whites -- and 26 percent of African-American women were uninsured. Unintended pregnancy is just one of many health consequences of these economic disadvantages. We experience higher rates of cervical cancer, sexually transmitted infections, diabetes, obesity and heart disease, too. We also have a higher death rate from breast cancer, and we're more than twice as likely to die from diabetes.

How can we address these disparities? Anti-choice groups are plastering our communities with billboards that offer a ludicrous proposal. By their logic, abortion providers are robbing us of our children, so we must fight back by giving up our right to choose. Huh? It's not only illogical but offensive. The message isn't exactly catching fire -- in fact, public support for abortion rights is rising nationwide. But abortion is a stopgap, not a solution, to the real problems facing African-American women. While standing firm for abortion rights, we must also find ways to reduce poverty and expand access to prevention services. We can start by voting for legislators who support women's health, and opposing those who don't. We can also be more proactive about our own health and take advantage of the rights and opportunities we have. Next year, thanks to a new federal rule, new health insurance plans will have to cover birth control in full -- without any out-of-pocket fees or co-pays. No matter how you feel about abortion, that's cause for celebration. For African-American women, it's also cause for action. As birth control becomes more accessible, those of us who aren't ready to be parents should seize the chance to use it.

Veronica Byrd is the director of African-American media for Planned Parenthood Federation of America