By Nadra Kareem Nittle
OAKLAND – Social wedge issues such as abortion, birth control and sex education in public schools have taken center stage and sometimes dominated the political debate this year, but progressive experts on reproductive rights are concerned that women of color are rarely represented in the mainstream media’s coverage.
If elected president, presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney has vowed to defund Planned Parenthood, a move that the state of Texas is attempting. Moreover, Tennessee has passed legislation to severely limit what educators can teach in sex education classes, and states such as Arizona, Mississippi and Virginia have passed legislation that significantly restricts abortion access.
Conservative attacks on reproductive rights repeatedly make headlines. But women of color and low-income women who disproportionately depend on the services of Planned Parenthood and face challenges accessing reproductive care have not figured prominently in mainstream news coverage of the reproductive rights debate.
Experts on the topic say that because underprivileged women have the most to lose as lawmakers curb such rights, the media should focus on them in the discussion.
“Women who are poor and also women of color have disproportionately high rates of unwanted pregnancy,” says Heather Boonstra, a senior public policy associate of the Guttmacher Institute, a Washington, D.C., organization that advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights.
“Some of that has to do with the basics in terms of obtaining health care and the kinds of social conditions in the women’s lives that make it hard for them to use contraception and use it consistently,” she says. “Poorer women – their lives have a lot of disruptions. Using and obtaining contraception, let alone affording it and getting it on a routine basis is harder.”
According to the institute, black women are three times as likely as white women to have an unplanned pregnancy, and Hispanic women are two times as likely. Among poor women, Hispanics have the highest rate of unplanned pregnancy. In addition, financial pressures related to the sluggish economy are likely leading more poor women to terminate pregnancies. The institute found that the number of abortion recipients who were poor jumped from 27 percent in 2000 to 42 percent in 2008, the first full year of the economic downturn.
Media outlets tend to ignore these findings and the financial pressures driving them, and simply report on abortion rates and laws without factoring in race and class. Including more women of color and their advocates in mainstream media stories would produce more comprehensive articles.
For instance, Boonstra says a primary reason that poor women have high rates of unintended pregnancies is because they lack access to long-acting forms of contraception, a privilege afforded women with higher incomes and private insurance.
Dependence exclusively on birth control methods that must be used daily or for every sexual encounter, such as pills and condoms, leads to a higher unplanned pregnancy rate among disadvantaged women. Yet pundits and reporters typically don’t mention the impact that current legislation to curb access to birth control, abortion and sex education will have on underprivileged women.
“I think that more African-American women need a turn at the mic to talk about how these issues are impacting the community,” says Janette Robinson-Flint, executive director of Black Women for Wellness, a Los Angeles organization that advocates for health needs of black women. “Major media outlets have a tendency not to have African-American women in anchor or decision-making positions.”
In 2010, the media extensively covered a suggestion by conservative groups, such as the Issues4Life Foundation, that abortion providers were influencing black women to terminate their pregnancies. In major cities, right-wing groups have erected billboards on which they contend that the high number of abortions black women have is tantamount to genocide. Robinson-Flint says she was dismayed that the media focused on the controversial billboards without delving deeply into factors that lead black women to have abortions at five times the rate that white women do.
“They didn’t talk about the social justice issues,” she says of the flawed reporting. “They didn’t talk about poverty, unemployment, infant mortality, maternal mortality, any of the contributing factors.” She adds that in Los Angeles, for example, hospital closures have resulted in too few medical providers to meet the black community’s needs, contributing to lack of family planning.
Some states have no providers who perform abortions, and legislation pending in Mississippi would result in closure of the sole facility there. Such laws pose the greatest disadvantage to poor, underprivileged women, according to Boonstra, because they already struggle to cover the basic cost of an abortion. Fifty-seven percent of women pay for the procedure out of pocket, the Guttmacher Institute reports.
The institute’s overview of state abortion laws as of May 1 is available at www.guttmacher.org/statecenter/spibs/spib_OAL.pdf.
Removing local abortion providers means that poor women also must pay for travel to a state that provides abortions and likely miss work or pay for child care if they are among the 61 percent of women who have abortions and are mothers. These costs may increase if women seek abortions in states that require them to endure a waiting period before terminating their pregnancies. Women in this predicament will likely have to miss more days of work and pay for extended stays in hotels, Boonstra says.
The abortion debate isn’t the only sexual health issue making headlines. Legislation to limit the type of sexual education taught in schools has also received major mainstream media coverage. Often omitted from this coverage is that youths of color deprived of sexual education classes may be especially vulnerable. Black teens, for example, are twice as likely as whites or Latinos to develop a sexually transmitted infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2008. That figure was consistent even when factoring in income levels and numbers of sexual partners, an indication that these teens are not taught how to practice safer sex.
After a decline in teen pregnancy from 1990 to 2005, the rates rose in 2006 for all racial groups, particularly minorities. The Hispanic teen pregnancy rate rose by 126.6 percent that year, followed by blacks at 126.3 percent and whites at 44 percent. “There’s plenty of research that shows abstinence-oriented sex education leads to more teen pregnancy and not less,” says Dominique DiPrima, host of Front Page, a Los Angeles radio show. DiPrima focuses largely on issues of concern to communities of color and women. She recently launched the Black Media Alliance, a coalition of African-Americans in media and broadcasting, to encourage the mainstream media to represent people of color more often as reporters, sources and decision makers.
“There needs to be more [discussion] in the media where women are talking with women and not in a defensive posture,” DiPrima says. “A lot of times, you see panels where there are no women. Not to say men should be excluded, but there [need] to be more places where women can have frank dialogue.”
DiPrima says the media rely too often on professional pundits rather than people of color, who are most likely to be affected. The Black Media Alliance has had discussions with media outlets such as Clear Channel about racism and misogyny on air. DiPrima says she hopes that communities of color learn more about attacks on reproductive rights before pending legislation becomes law and it’s too late to act.
“I believe people are waking up and realizing that Republicans have gone so Neanderthal with their attacks on women,” she says. “They’re uniting women. I think it’s going to wake people up, and the end result may just be the opposite of what they’re planning for the country.”
Nadra Kareem Nittle writes media critiques for the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Her stories and other media critiques are available at www.mije.org/mmcsi and can be republished free of charge. For more information, please contact Elisabeth Pinio at firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-891-9202.