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Finances pivotal for abortion

A woman's decision often hinges on whether her family can afford another child, researchers say.

January 20, 2008|David Crary | Associated Press

NEW YORK — In American pop culture, the face of abortion is often a frightened teenager, nervously choosing to terminate an unexpected pregnancy. The numbers tell a far more complex story in which financial stress can play a pivotal role.

Half of the roughly 1.2 million abortions each year in the U.S. are done on women who are 25 or older. About 17% are by teenagers. About 60% of the women have given birth to least one child before the abortion.

A disproportionately high number are black or Latina. And regardless of race, high abortion rates are linked to hard times.

"It doesn't just happen to young people, it doesn't necessarily have to do with irresponsibility," said Miriam Inocencio, president of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island. "Women face years and years of reproductive life after they've completed their families, and they're at risk of an unintended pregnancy that can create an economic strain."

Activists on both sides of the abortion debate will be marking the 35th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision Tuesday, which established the right to abortion nationwide. Since the ruling on Jan. 22, 1973, there have been about 50 million abortions in the United States, and more than one-third of adult women are estimated to have had at least one.

In recent years, the number of abortions has fallen; the 1.2 million tallied for 2005 was 8% less than the figure for 2000, and the per-capita abortion rate was the lowest since 1974.

Much of the public debate on abortion focuses on teens, as evidenced by the constant wrangling over parental-notification laws and movies like the current hit "Juno," in which the pregnant heroine heads to an abortion clinic, then decides to have the baby.

In fact, the women come from virtually every demographic sector. But year after year the statistics show that black women and economically struggling women -- who have above-average rates of unintended pregnancies -- are far more likely than others to have abortions. About 13% of American women are black, yet new figures from the Centers for Disease Control show they account for 35% of the abortions.

Black antiabortion activists depict this phenomenon in dire terms -- "genocide" and "holocaust," for example. But often the women getting the abortions say they are acting in the interests of children they already have.

"It wasn't a hard decision for me to make, because I knew where I wanted to go in my life. I've never regretted it," said Kimberly Mathias, 28, an African American single mother from Missouri.

She had an abortion at 19, when she was already raising a 2-year-old son.

"It wasn't hard to realize I didn't want another child at that time," Mathias said. "I was trying to take care of the one I had, and going to college and working at the same time."

She was able to graduate, now has an insurance job, and -- still a single mother -- has another son, 3, as well as her first-born, now 11.

By contrast, Alveda King, a niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., calls herself a "reformed murderer" for undergoing two abortions when she was young.

Now an outspoken antiabortion campaigner, King says the best way to reduce abortions among black women is to dissuade them from premarital sex.

"We give free sex education, free condoms, free birth control," she said. "That's almost like permission to have free sex, and the higher the rate of sexual activity, the higher the rate of unintended pregnancy."

Antiabortion activist Day Gardner of the National Black Pro-Life Union says many blacks are unaware of their community's high abortion rate.

"We don't talk about it," Gardner said. "It's a silent killer among us."

She contends that abortion-rights supporters tempt black women into abortion by suggesting they can't afford to raise the child. But Gardner also acknowledges that some black women come to this conclusion on their own.

"We had the whole civil rights movement -- now we're in a place where we're moving further toward equality," Gardner said. "So women think, 'For once, I can see the American dream. I can have the house and the job, but it would postpone it to have another child. I can't afford to take time off.' "

Dr. Vanessa Cullins, a black physician who is Planned Parenthood's national vice president for medical affairs, said the talk of "black genocide" did not help women meet day-to-day challenges.

"These actions take attention away from medically proven ways to reduce unintended pregnancy -- comprehensive sex education, affordable birth control, and open and honest conversations about relationships," she said

Looking beyond race, Cullins views the right to abortion as an important component in the ability of all American women to determine the right size for their family.

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