Last year was not a good one for abortion rights. Sometimes the exception proves the rule.
Twice, congressional Republicans attempted to deny statutory rape victims access to Medicaid-funded abortions. Then GOP-dominated state legislatures pushed record numbers of laws limiting abortion rights, including proposals that could have treated the murder of abortion providers as “justifiable homicide.”
Yet in the past six months, social conservatives have widened their offensive, and their new target is clear: not satisfied with making it harder to obtain legal abortions, they want to limit access to birth control, too. Which leaves one to wonder: How will this affect African Americans?
“African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by sexually transmitted infections, especially HIV,” said Gary J. Bell, executive director of BEBASHI–Transition to Hope. “We represent half of the new HIV infections, those living with HIV, and those who succumb to it each year in the United States. We also have higher rates for other STIs.”
According to BEBASHI, African Americans represent 50 percent of the 2.8 million new chlamydia infections, and the infection rates for gonorrhea and syphilis are 16 and 23 times those of whites respectively. Nowhere is this impact greater than in young people, especially women.
A recent CDC study estimated that 48 percent of Black adolescent girls in the United States had at least one STI. Moreover, many are unaware of it. Teenage pregnancy rates have risen to 42 births per 1,000 females.
Programs such as Planned Parenthood and others, which offer free or low cost contraception services also provide comprehensive risk reduction services as well — services that are desperately needed in the African-American community. If the Republicans have their way, these programs will be in jeopardy of severe cuts.
Locally, African Americans represent 68 percent of those living with HIV. One out of every 50 adult and adolescent Black Philadelphians are living with HIV. Seven percent of the new HIV infections in 2010 were among people between the ages of 13 and 24.
“Contraception is under attack in a way it really wasn’t in the past few years,” says Judy Waxman, the vice president for health and reproductive rights at the National Women’s Law Center.
The first sign of the new assault came last October, when Mississippi activists and congressional Republicans pushed legislation on the state and federal level, respectively, that would have treated zygotes — fertilized human eggs — as legal “persons.”
“In 2004, we could not find any group — the National Right to Life Committee, the Bush campaign, anyone — that would go on the record to say they’re opposed to birth control,” said Elizabeth Shipp, the political director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, to motherjones.com. “We couldn’t find them in 2006 either, and in 2008 it was just fringe groups. In 2010, 2011, and this year, it’s just exploded.”
Earlier this year, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a rising conservative star who’s considered a possible pick for the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nomination, introduced a bill that could cut off birth control access for millions of women by allowing even non-religious employers to refuse birth control coverage as long as they cite a religious reason. In other words, if your company doesn’t want to cover birth control in the company health plan because it would offend the CEO’s moral beliefs, they wouldn't have to. Rubio’s bill could also allow states to refuse to provide birth control through Medicaid, which provides family planning services to millions of poor women.
“These are people who have never, ever approved of birth control, and they saw an opportunity to take it one step further,” Shipp said.
The Republican presidential candidates also have come out against birth control. Mitt Romney has slammed President Barack Obama for requiring most employers to offer insurance that provides birth control at no cost to women who want it, even though Romney himself maintained a similar rule as governor of Massachusetts.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has also criticized President Obama’s decision. But he’s also gone farther than that, suggesting that any form of birth control is immoral. “Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay,” Santorum, a devout Catholic, said in October. “It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”
According to new statistics released by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Philadelphia is among the top 10 large cities for STIs, with African Americans and adolescents being affected the most.
Over 19,000 new cases of chlamydia were reported in 2010. Forty-five percent were in youth between the ages of 10 and 19 years old. Philadelphia’s youth from 10 to 14 years old are 5.3 times more likely to have chlamydia than American teens overall. The rate of chlamydia among teens 15–19 years old is 3.5 times the national average. The rate of gonorrhea among 15- to 19-year-olds is three times the national rate; and four times the national rate for 10- to 14-year-olds. The chlamydia and gonorrhea rates for African American youth are 26 times the rate for white youth.
Furthermore, new HIV cases among city teens and young adults have increased by 40 percent over the last three years. Youth (13–24 years old) make up 25 percent of all new (2009) HIV cases. Other statistics include:
• 37 percent of high school students did not use a condom during their last sexual intercourse;
• 11 percent report drinking alcohol or using drugs before last sexual intercourse;
• 63 percent ever had sexual intercourse;
• 15 percent had sexual intercourse before age 13;
• 26 percent had sexual intercourse with at least four persons in their life.
• Only 39 percent of Philadelphia teens report they have been tested for HIV;
• 15 percent said they were never taught about HIV or AIDS in school;
Shipp thinks the battlefield has definitely shifted. “First, everyone thought it was all about abortion access and abortion rights,” she says. “But they decided to move the goalposts, and it’s been kind of stunning how far to the right they’ve gone.”
The White House probably isn’t entirely unhappy with all the fighting over contraception. As the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff wrote, the birth control issue gives Obama’s re-election campaign “a chance to widen the reproductive health debate beyond abortion” and energize young, secular abortion-rights supporters who might not otherwise vote.
Republicans who support abortion rights have warned their fellow GOPers that picking a fight over contraception could be a disaster. But even that hasn’t slowed down the onslaught — recently, Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, warned that he would soon push forward legislation that would allow employers to refuse to provide birth control to their employees. Boehner’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., noted that several Republican senators have already introduced bills on the subject. One of those bills is Rubio’s aforementioned Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“I’m a little bit stunned with how far they have gone on birth control with absolutely no regard for the political consequences,” said Shipp. “Whether it’s Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney — I don’t think Newt Gingrich — if any of these guys think they’re going to be able to come back to the middle after the attacks they’ve made on birth control, they’re sadly mistaken, because the general public thinks they’re just whack-a-doodle.”
MotherJones.com contributed to this report.
Zack Burgess is the enterprise writer for The Tribune. He is a freelance writer and editor who covers culture, politics and sports. He can be contacted at zackburgess.com.