Apr 1 2014

The War on Poor Women of Color

Abortion coverage slump matches class & ethnic shift

Gender Focus

Unpacking the structural inequalities underlying the abortion gap.

Unpacking the structural inequalities underlying the abortion gap.

A colossal wave of abortion restrictions have battered reproductive rights across the nation, leaving in its wake the greatest threat to choice in recent memory. Nevertheless, the corporate media have responded with a collective yawn, suggesting a deep-seated indifference toward the people these anti-choice provisions will harm the most—poor women of color.

In the early 1970s, white women made up over two-thirds of abortion recipients, according to the Guttmacher Institute (9/28/08), a think tank that focuses on reproductive health. Today, white women account for just 36 percent of all abortions. Meanwhile, women of color are increasingly overrepresented, with black women being three times as likely and Latinas twice as likely as their white counterparts to have an abortion.

On top of that, abortions have become increasingly concentrated among poor women. In 2008, 42 percent of abortion recipients were women living below the poverty line, up from 27 percent in 2000. At the same time, Guttmacher (12/13) recorded a 24 percent decline in the abortion rate for higher-income women.

Guttmacher (5/23/11) attributed the disparity to cuts in publicly funded family-planning services, leaving low-income women without adequate access to effective contraception. Indeed, unintended pregnancy, the most common reason women have abortions, has risen 56 percent since 1994 among women living below the poverty line.

These disparities, as glaring as they are absent from the narrow confines of corporate media coverage, will almost certainly intensify, given the unprecedented GOP assault on abortion access.

Over the last three years, Republican-dominated state legislatures across the country have enacted 205 abortion restrictions, more than were passed in the previous 10 years combined (Guttmacher, 2013).

Worse still, the restrictions are some of the harshest on the books since before Roe v. Wade, with the most devastating anti-choice legislation targeting abortion providers through regulations that require absurd and expensive renovations, like widening hallways, installing water fountains and expanding janitorial closets (Think Progress, 7/16/13).

The goal, of course, is to force abortion clinics to shut down, making legal and safe abortion services inaccessible to those who can’t afford the necessary travel costs and time off work to make it to the nearest clinic.

Unfortunately, these draconian provisions have failed to reverse the decade-long downward trend in abortion coverage at the country’s two most influential newspapers, the New York Times and Washington Post (Extra!, 2/14).

Even when abortion access makes headlines, mainstream outlets tend to focus exclusively on the Republican versus Democrat paradigm, which prioritizes the political horse race while erasing poor women of color from the narrative.

For example, when House Republicans passed the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act in an attempt to bar the new healthcare exchange plans from covering abortion procedures, many media outlets noted that the Hyde Amendment already achieves this goal (Huffington Post, 1/28/14; MSNBC, 1/28/14).

What they all failed to point out is that the Hyde Amendment—a 1970s era abortion restriction that blocks federal dollars from covering abortion services—disproportionately harms underprivileged women who rely on federal government programs like Medicaid for health care.

Had media outlets reached out to people of color, they might have learned that repealing the Hyde Amendment is a top priority for certain groups, like the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, which also advocates for access to federally funded health care for immigrants, another aspect of the abortion debate missing from the corporate press.

But time and again, elite pundits are given platform to speak for all women. In a lengthy New York Times rundown (1/3/14) of abortion restrictions at the start of the year, all six women quoted were white and seemingly privileged as either well-known legal experts or the heads of major abortion-related nonprofits.

Comprehensive and nuanced analysis of abortion restrictions seem to be relegated to independent and issue-specific media corners of the Internet (Colorlines, 12/31/13; RH Reality Check, 7/10/13). Perhaps it’s because independent outlets are willing to unpack the structural inequalities underlying the abortion gap.

By failing to tell the whole story, when it bothers to tell one at all, the corporate media are willing accomplices in the GOP war on poor women of color.

Extra! April 2014