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What Would Shirley Do?—A Commentary by Linda Greenhouse ’78 MSL

The following commentary was posted on newyorktimes.com on February 9, 2011.

What Would Shirley Do?
By Linda Greenhouse ’78 MSL

The news that 41 percent of pregnancies in New York City end in abortion was eye-catching enough, but what really caught my eye in a report on the statistic were the comments of a New York legislator, State Senator Rubén Díaz Sr. “They might think that we will take over, and that they’ve got to stop us,” Senator Díaz was quoted as having told a group of fellow anti-abortion ministers last month. “What they did, they are killing black and Hispanic children.”

There has been a lot of nutty talk about abortion lately, prominently including the effort in the House of Representatives to exclude from eligibility for Medicaid-financed abortions those women whose pregnancy is due to a rape not “forcible” enough to warrant sympathy from the new Republican majority. (I can only guess at a link between the devastating send-up on “The Daily Show” of this proposed legislation and its sponsor’s announcement that he would remove the “forcible rape” provision.)

But these comments by an elected official, a Bronx Democrat who is chairman of the State Senate’s Puerto Rican/Latino Caucus, are beyond nutty. They are racially inflammatory, dangerous and, coming from a leader of a community beset by high rates of unintended pregnancy (54 percent of all pregnancies, according to one study) they are tragic. And did I mention that Senator Díaz opposes making condoms available to teenagers?

Evidently no one at the ministers’ gathering felt the need to ask Mr. Díaz who “they” were. I had a pretty good guess, which wasn’t hard to check out. The senator’s press release last month celebrating the feast of Three Kings Day, posted on his Web site, includes the following: “According to the Bible, King Herod saw the birth of Jesus as a threat. … Today’s abortion industry is not unlike King Herod, who sought out precious and innocent young lives to destroy. Today’s abortion industry targets black and Hispanic children whose lives are also seen as a threat.”

This sentiment, ill founded as it is, is neither original with Senator Díaz nor new. Nor, obviously, is it going away, as anyone can attest who has seen the billboards that depict the worried face of a black infant and the legend “Black Children Are an Endangered Species.” Shaila Dewan of The Times reported on the billboard campaign a year ago when it first sprouted in Atlanta. Now these billboards are on display in minority communities coast to coast.

The purpose of this column is to offer some historical perspective and suggest that anyone interested in public health and welfare, not only those concerned with preserving access to safe and legal abortion, has a stake in challenging the pernicious kind of talk that Senator Díaz’s remarks exemplify. Those most likely to be hurt by it are the very same women who ought to be empowered to make their own reproductive decisions, not patronized or manipulated by white activists like Mark Crutcher, a former car salesman from Denton, Tex., whose Life Dynamics Incorporated produced and promotes a film depicting abortion as “black genocide in 21st-century America.”

Concern in the black community about abortion and what was once referred to as “population control” has authentic roots, grounded in a shameful chapter in the history of welfare policy. Sterilization as a condition of women’s continued eligibility for receiving welfare benefits stirred deep resentment. In response, feminists active in the early abortion reform movement, both white and black, often marched under twin slogans: “Free Abortion on Demand, No Forced Sterilization.”

Their point was that the choice to become a mother was as worthy of protection as the opposite choice.

The coercive policies were dropped, but the damage lingered, and the growing abortion reform movement in the late 1960’s stirred new fears in the black community. In the black press, the equation of abortion with genocide was prominent. “My answer to genocide,” Dick Gregory, the comedian and activist, wrote in Ebony in 1971, “quite simply is eight black kids — and another baby on the way.” That same year, nearly two-thirds of those answering a poll in the black newspaper The Chicago Daily Defender said they feared that abortion posed a genocidal threat to the black community (although, interestingly, only a quarter of those who responded said that they were opposed to abortion.)

Shirley Chisholm, a leading black politician of her day and the first black woman in Congress, devoted a chapter of her fascinating 1970 memoir, “Unbought and Unbossed,” to “Facing the Abortion Question.” She wrote that she was drawn to the cause of abortion reform because of the suffering she had seen inflicted by the back-alley abortion practitioners to whom desperate women turned. But she viewed a leadership role on the issue as politically risky “because there is a deep and angry suspicion among many blacks that even birth control clinics are a plot by the white power structure to keep down the numbers of blacks, and this opinion is even more strongly held by some in regard to legalizing abortions.”

Then she went on to say: “But I do not know any black or Puerto Rican women who feel that way. To label family planning and legal abortion programs ‘genocide’ is male rhetoric, for male ears. It falls flat to female listeners, and to thoughtful male ones.” She cited a study of women who died in pregnancy. Illegal abortion was the cause of 25 percent of the white women’s deaths, 49 percent of the black women’s, and 65 percent of the Puerto Ricans’. She also observed that 90 percent of the “therapeutic” abortions in New York City — the safe and legal ones during the regime of criminalization — were performed on white women.

“Such statistics convinced me that my instinctive feeling was right,” she wrote. “A black woman legislator, far from avoiding the abortion question, was compelled to face it and deal with it.” In 1969 — more than three years before the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade — Shirley Chisholm became honorary president of Naral, the initials of which then stood for National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws.

Through an act of the Legislature, abortion became legal in New York State in mid-1970. In 1971, there were 262,807 abortions in the state, three-quarters of them in New York City. The State Department of Health reported that in New York City during 1971, there were 517 abortions for every 1,000 live births.

Beyond the numbers, the public health impact of legalization was stunning and immediate. Maternal mortality in New York City dropped by more than half during the first year, to an all-time recorded low. Infant mortality also dropped to a new low, which the New York City Health Services Administration attributed to the availability of abortion to women most likely to give birth to babies at the greatest risk of dying, including very young women and poor women who had not received adequate prenatal care. The number of births to unmarried women dropped for the first time. As knowledge spread of the availability of abortion, more and more women terminated their pregnancies in the first trimester — from 67 percent during the first two months of legalization to 86 percent 10 months later. (The figure today is 88 percent.)

In New York City during that first year, about half the women receiving abortions were poor, as measured by eligibility for Medicaid and by their use of either municipal hospitals or the ward services of private hospitals. Of abortion patients in the city, 48 percent were white, 42 percent were listed as “non-white,” and 10 percent were identified as Puerto Rican (by far the dominant Latino group in New York at that time.)

Nationwide today, black women terminate their pregnancies at a rate five times that of white women. For Latinas, the rate is more than double that of non-Latina whites (28 per 1,000 women compared with 11.) These startling differences reflect equally stark differences in the rate of unintended pregnancy. Forty percent of white women’s pregnancies are unintended, compared with well over half among the two other groups. “Unintended,” of course, does not necessarily mean unwelcome. But sometimes it means disaster. And the difference in the rates raises questions about barriers to access to contraception, not only financial but cultural, too complex to be reduced to a sound bite.

I’m certain that Shirley Chisholm, who died in 2005 at the age of 80, would be distressed to know that the shibboleths she risked her career to fight are even more potent in today’s wired world than they were in the days when abortion was a crime. Those of us privileged to live in the world that she helped to make have an obligation to resist the cynicism of those who know better and the recklessness of those who don’t.