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PERSPECTIVE ON RACE AND POVERTY : Using Birth Control as Coercion : To compel or deny contraceptive use, such as Norplant, is immoral, inhuman and it targets the poor.

January 13, 1991|FAYE WATTLETON | Faye Wattleton is president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America

Acts of bigotry committed out of stupidity or senselessness are no more acceptable than those motivated by malice. Last month the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an editorial suggesting that NOrplant, the new, long-term contraceptive implant, could be a useful tool for "reducing the underclass." A storm of well-deserved criticism erupted, focused on two points: the usage throughout the editorial of "underclass" and "black" as synonyms; and the proposal that black women on welfare be paid not to have children.

The Inquirer published a retraction, correctly labeling the editorial "misguided and wrongheaded." Unfortunately, the racist philosophy it espoused will surely rear its ugly head again.

The editors' first mistake was to blame the poor for poverty and brand all poor families as "dysfunctional." They added insult to injury by focusing this blame on African-Americans. By using "black," "poor" and "underclass" interchangeably, they left no doubt about whom they hold responsible for America's social ills.

Equally offensive was their call for a concerted societal effort "to reduce the number of children" born to poor black women. The editors pointedly avoided the term unintended pregnancy. Can it be that they do not care whether pregnancy among "the underclass" is intended or not? After all, they wrote, "these women already have one or more children." Do the editors deem "these women" unfit to make their own decisions about childbearing?

Even if we give the Inquirer editors the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were referring to unintended pregnancy, they were wrong to ascribe this problem uniquely to "underclass" African-Americans. The burden of unintended pregnancy falls heaviest on the disadvantaged, who lack access to the health care and other resources available to the affluent. But the problem is not confined to any one race or class.

The Inquirer hastened to reassure readers that increasing the welfare benefits of women who agree to use Norplant "is not (like) Indira Gandhi offering portable radios to women who agree to be sterilized." Where is the difference? In both cases, financial benefits are offered to induce contraceptive practice. Any successful incentive, by definition, undermines the individual's ability to make reproductive decisions free from interference. True, as the Inquirer pointed out, women taking Norplant "can change their minds at any time"--but surely any plan for "incentives" to become infertile would also include disincentives from becoming fertile. And to whom must poor women turn for removal of Norplant--to the same ethically questionable medical facility that may have conspired to "push" contraception in the first place?

For African-Americans who already fear that family planning efforts are thinly disguised eugenics, the Inquirer amply validated their fears. Its retraction will not set those fears to rest. Neither will the shocking and coercive action of a judge in Visalia, Calif. Earlier this month the judge (who is white) told a 27-year-old black woman who had pleaded guilty to child abuse that she must use Norplant as a condition for her probation. Because her lawyer was unable to attend the hearing, the defendant did not fully understand what she was agreeing to do.

As an African-American, I have spent 20 years fighting to ensure that no person is forced into any reproductive decision through societal pressures, through denial of comprehensive health services or by force of law. I have struggled against the few misguided zealots who claim that voluntary family planning amounts to genocide.

Fortunately, most Americans of all races recognize that voluntary family planning is their birthright and a precious tool for self-determination. But for poor people and young people, access to birth control is woefully inadequate--so inadequate, in fact, that one could argue that poor and young women are effectively coerced to have children.

Since 1978, federal Medicaid funds have been unavailable for abortion unless the woman's life is endangered; only 13 states use their own revenues to provide medically necessary abortions for low-income residents. Meanwhile, the contraceptive services that help reduce the need for abortion are under siege. The federal family planning program, has limped along without congressional reauthorization since 1985.

The Reagan and Bush administrations have tried to further cripple the program through a "gag rule" imposed in 1988. The "gag rule" (now under injunction pending a decision from the Supreme Court) would prohibit Title X-funded clinics from providing counseling or referral for abortion services--even if a patient asks for such information, and even if her health depends upon it.

Publicly funded clinics annually serve 4.1 million clients (mostly poor or near-poor) and help prevent 1.2 million unintended pregnancies and 512,000 abortions. Most of these clinics would forgo federal funding--and be obliged to turn away needy clients--rather than become partners in government-mandated malpractice. A health-care system in which the poor are denied information and services readily available to the affluent is unconscionable.

It is immoral and inhuman to coerce the childbearing decisions of any individual--either by compelling the use of contraception or by denying it. American or not, wealthy or not, white or not--every woman and man deserves the knowledge and the means to make healthy, private choices, free from bribery and manipulation.

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