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Blacks want health care, not judgment

Eleanor Hinton Hoytt

As a long-time reproductive justice advocate, I have spent the better part of my career working to ensure that women, regardless of income or background, have access to the care that they need.

For me, Women’s History Month provided a perfect opportunity to take stock of the work that still needs to be done so that women and girls can claim agency over their own destinies.

A lot of progress has taken place over the past 100 years, but none has been as central to improving the lives of women and their families as access to safe and effective reproductive health care.

Ironically, in many communities, we are still fighting to gain access to such basic care. In fact, the legislative battles of the past three years have been as intense and crucial as any we’ve fought since Roe v. Wade — the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the U.S.

Numerous polls show overwhelming voter support for women’s access to affordable birth control, safe and legal abortion and preventive services, such as STD testing and treatment. Since 2011, legislators have introduced more than 1,100 rights-related provisions aimed at limiting or eliminating access to these services, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

With almost 20 percent of African Americans uninsured and over 10 percent of black families living below the poverty level, African Americans have a lot at stake in this fight.

Many efforts to eliminate access have been squarely targeted at communities of color, particularly African Americans. For example, In 2011, Mississippi legislators tried to pass a so-called “personhood” bill, which would have deemed a fetus a person and banned not only access to safe and legal abortion in the state but also emergency contraception, commonly known as the morning after pill.

As the state with the highest percentage of African Americans — 37 percent — and one of the country’s highest poverty rates, Mississippi’s “personhood” bill would have had a disproportionate and devastating effect on the black community. African Americans have also been the target of vitriolic, anti-reproductive-rights campaigns in recent years, including one financed by Georgia Right to Life — a largely white, male conservative group — that put up billboards accusing black women who choose to end their pregnancies of committing genocide.

All of this activity and notoriety has made black women’s bodies the topic of hot debate in recent years. And yet, few polls have actually looked at African American support for reproductive health services, including birth control and safe, legal abortion.

A new survey commissioned by a coalition of reproductive justice organizations is providing some definitive insight that legislators would do well to consider and reproductive justice advocates would be smart to act on.

The poll (conducted by Belden Russonello Strategists and sponsored by Black Women for Wellness, Black Women’s Health Imperative, New Voices Pittsburgh, SisterLove, Inc., SPARK Reproductive Justice and individual reproductive justice activists, in partnership with Communications Consortium Media Center) queried a random sample of more than 1,000 African American adults.

Surprisingly, 86 percent of African Americans believe that contraception is a part of basic health care. An even larger percentage believes that publicly funded health services should provide birth control to low-income women who want it.  

When questioned about abortion, 79 percent of respondents said they support it remaining legal and that they believe it should be available in their own communities. In fact, African American support for legalized abortion is nearly identical to the overall percentage of Americans who, in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, said they support legalized abortion.

Most significant, an overwhelming majority of African Americans said that regardless of how they personally feel about abortion, it should remain legal, and women should have access to safe care if and when they need it. This belief held across political and religious lines, with 74 percent of conservatives, 88 percent of liberals and more than three-quarters of regular churchgoers saying abortion should remain safe and legal.

These findings are enlightening and can be a persuasive argument against continued efforts by some legislators and interest groups to reduce access to reproductive health-care services and vilify the women who use them.

Even today, following a national election that was won largely on the basis of how women — particularly women of color — voted, too many lawmakers are working to rescind the broadened access to birth control provided by the Affordable Care Act.

Given that African American women are more likely to experience pregnancies that result in poor maternal and infant health outcomes, we have an urgent need for our views to be accurately represented and seriously considered.

This new poll makes clear to lawmakers and groups that would target our communities with racially charged rhetoric that a majority of African Americans — like most other Americans — believe women, not politicians, should be trusted to make decisions about their reproductive health.

Getting out of the way of women and our ability to access the care we need is the best way to pay tribute to Women’s History Month.

Eleanor Hinton Hoytt is the president and CEO of Black Women’s Health Imperative.