While the events surrounding this year’s March for Life in Washington D.C. have provided encouragement and inspiration to many who oppose abortion, recent statistics regarding abortion rates in New York City demonstrate that the pro-life cause still has a long way to go. According to CNS:
41 percent of pregnancies in [New York City] end in abortion, almost double the national rate. In the Bronx, the borough with the highest rate, the figure is 48 percent — nearly half of all pregnancies. The statistics were among those released in late December by the New York City Department of Health, which also reported that 87,273 abortions were performed in the five boroughs in 2009.
The rate is close to 60 percent among black women in the city. At a meeting held in New York on Jan. 6, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy gathered to address the issue, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan was among those who expressed his concerns:
"That 41 percent of New York babies are aborted — a percentage even higher in the Bronx, and among our African-American babies in the womb — is downright chilling," Archbishop Dolan said. "The New York community is rightly celebrated for its warm welcome to immigrants, for its hospitality, sense of embrace and inclusion, and gritty sensitivity for those in need," he continued. "But we are tragically letting down the tiniest, most fragile and vulnerable: the little baby in the womb. ... I invite all to come together to make abortion rare, a goal even those who work to expand the abortion license tell us they share."
The higher rates in the Bronx make these statistics particularly troubling. Thirty-eight percent of the residents of the South Bronx live below the poverty line, and area is the poorest Congressional district in the country. It's hard to believe that the fact that the Bronx is the borough with both the highest poverty rate and the highest abortion rate is merely a coincidence.
These statistics brought to mind the recent MTV special, “No Easy Decision,” about one teen’s choice to have an abortion. The show featured Markai Durham and her boyfriend, both working-class teens and parents to one child, Zakaria, who is less than 2 years old.
The special is clearly supportive of abortion rights, which isn't surprising. But Markai’s honest reflections and struggles offer an unexpected depth to the program, as viewers gain insight into the challenges she faces. Often, arguments for or against abortion center around whether or not the fetus is viewed as a human being. This idea becomes part of the discussion on the special, and I have to give MTV credit for seemingly allowing Markai to honestly voice her concerns and beliefs.
During the show, while discussing the possibility of abortion with a friend, Markai states how much she loves her first child and how, because of that, she can’t bear the thought of offering her unborn child up for adoption saying, “I’m in love with this baby already, and this baby’s not doing nothing but making me sick.” When she's encouraged by the abortion clinic to think about her unborn child as “a little ball of cells,” she tries to do that. She acknowledges that it’s easier to think about the fetus in those terms, but she can’t seem to shake the connection between those cells and the life they embody. Later, when her boyfriend calls the fetus a “thing” she cries and points to their daughter saying, “A ‘thing’ can turn out like that. That’s what I remember ... ‘Nothing but a bunch of cells’ can be her.”
In the special, Markai calls an abortion clinic counselor for advice, and also discusses her situation with friends and family, but she gets no professional assistance from anyone skilled in what she’s most worried about—money. It's a huge concern not just for Markai, but for many women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant. In a 2005 Guttmacher Institute Study, 74 percent of women named financial instability as a main reason for getting an abortion. The aim of the MTV show was to educate teens about abortion, but when reasons for getting one can so deeply embedded in economic circumstances, I'd argue that the network owed its viewers a bit more information. I'm sure that viewers could have benefitted from hearing Markai make a few calls to individuals who might have been able to help her sift through financial matters, too.
Many Catholic pro-life organizations offer various forms of support and financial guidance or assistance for expectant mothers, but I suppose it’s unlikely that MTV would feature these. Still, I'm not sure why producers couldn't have set up a couple of phone calls with a financial counselor or a college rep to discuss financial aid or money management, either of which might have made Markai feel she had a bit more control of her situation. A person need not be from a pro-life group to offer guidance or tips on taking night classes or affordable day-care opportunities. Even if Markai still believed it impossible to keep the baby, viewers could have benefitted from learning about the kind of help available.
What makes Markai’s situation so heartbreaking is that the obstacle to her continuing the pregnancy is not one you might expect from a typical teen—she never cites feelings of shame for getting pregnant or fear of being stigmatized or even fear of ruining her college career as reasons for the abortion. (In fact, at one point, Markai’s mother tells her that her chances of graduating from college after having two children as a teenager are slim. But Markai replies optimistically, saying, “I know I can do it, because [there were] a lot of statistics saying that I wouldn’t be graduating [high school after giving birth to] Zakaria, so that’s not an issue.”) The heartbreaking thing is that, at least based on what we see on the show, Markai wants to keep her unborn child, but believes it’s impossible to do so and to provide for her first child, too. In the end, she decides abortion is the only way to solve the problem. The MTV special emphasizes choice, but it’s clear that, in the end, Markai felt she didn't have one. No one, whether one identifies as pro-life or pro-choice, wants to see a woman in that position.
I'd imagine that, among the more than 87,000 women who had abortions last year in New York, at least a few had feelings and situations similar to Markai. And at the meeting of clergy in New York, Dolan stressed the church’s continued desire to provide assistance to these young, pregnant women in need. According to the New York Times,
During the news conference, Archbishop Dolan renewed what he called a standing offer to help pregnant women avoid abortion. “If we can help, let us know,” he said. He said Catholic Charities, a semiautonomous church agency, has helped many women arrange for the adoption of children they could not care for, and would continue to do that.
The Times also reported that Sean Fieler, president of the Chiaroscuro Foundation, the nonprofit that organized the meeting, “said his foundation would spend about $1 million this year in New York City to open counseling centers and give financial help to pregnant women.”
If there is any good news to be found in the NYC stats, it might be that the number of abortions in the city, while astoundingly high, has actually decreased over the past decade, down from 94,466 in 2000. But we must remember that while efforts to continue to lower these number are needed, so are efforts to keep women safe from abortion clinics that take advantage of poor and vulnerable women.
At Politics Daily, Melinda Henneberger has written a great piece in which she stresses the importance of regulating existing clinics, so that horrible abuses and murders like the ones committed by Kermit Gosnell, M.D., cannot occur elsewhere. Again, the connection between poverty and abortion can be seen in the grand jury report on his case, which states that poor and immigrant women were especially vulnerable in Gosnell’s office. Recently, an investigation was launched to determine why the Health Department and the Department of State did not maintain proper oversight of the clinic. Also disturbing is the fact that the National Abortion Federation allegedly had knowledge of the squalid conditions of Gosnell's offices—although not the full extent of his actions—yet he was allowed to continue his practice.
“We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color,” the report said, “and because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”
Henneberger also writes about the ways in which politics came into play:
… The report says outright that the lack of oversight after pro-life Democrat Bob Casey left the Pennsylvania governor's office in 1993 was overtly political. When pro-choice Republican Tom Ridge took over for Casey, the report says,
...[t]he Pennsylvania Department of Health abruptly decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all. The politics in question were not anti-abortion, but pro. With the change of administration from Governor Casey to Governor Ridge, officials concluded that inspections would be "putting a barrier up to women" seeking abortions. Even nail salons in Pennsylvania are monitored more closely for client safety. Without regular inspections, providers like Gosnell continue to operate; unlawful and dangerous third-trimester abortions go undetected; and many women, especially poor women, suffer.
Henneberger states that many abortion-rights advocates see abortion regulations—such as a 2008 ordinance in Indiana that required abortion clinic doctors to have hospital admitting privileges, or another requiring clinic hallways to be wide enough to fit a gurney—as an attempt to inconvenience clinics, but she argues that the same advocates often ignore the fact that these regulations help keep women safe. “[W]ouldn't such a requirement also provide a degree of protection to women – particularly the poor, immigrant population Gosnell preyed upon?” she writes.
Of course, economic status isn't the sole motivator of every woman who chooses to have an abortion. But that this single, complicated factor is just one aspect of a sprawling debate on the topic, proves how truly difficult it is to create a culture in which we, as Dolan suggested, "make abortion rare." A respect for life at conception is key, but a respect for life after birth and until natural death must remain a part of the conversation. We are, as Dolan said, “tragically letting down the tiniest, most fragile and vulnerable: the little baby in the womb.” But, especially in this troubled economy, these statistics, the story of Gosnell's clinic, and the MTV special are also reminders that we must remain aware of and work to end the ways in which we let down the poor and the vulnerable—the out of work, the underemployed, the immigrants, the single mothers, the neglected children, all those in need—walking among us now.