Media coverage of reproductive rights lacks the voices of women of color

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.