An anti-abortion billboard in Atlanta.ATLANTA (WOMENSENEWS)–"Black Children Are an Endangered Species."

That statement hangs in the air here, with the image of a frightened black child, on 80 billboards of various sizes in the African American neighborhoods of metro Atlanta.

The signs started appearing in late January and are expected to start coming down at the end of March.

In late February The New York Times drew national attention by running a story on the billboards. Following that, on March 9, the pro-choice web site RH Reality Check held a telephone news conference to refute the charges that abortion clinics were targeting black women.

Since then reproductive rights groups have been sending warning cries that anti-choice activists are distorting and exploiting statistics to make inroads into the African American community.

Dr. Vanessa Cullins, vice-president for medical affairs at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says the people behind the campaign are out to destroy Planned Parenthoods within the African American community. If they succeed in Georgia, says Cullins, they’ll use the same tactic nationwide.

Ryan Bomberger of the Radiance Foundation, which designed and coordinates the billboards, says pro-life activists in 10 other states and the District of Columbia want to sponsor the billboards.

The stark statistic at the center of the controversy: black women are four to five times as likely to have an abortion as white women.

Carol J. Rowland Hogue is a professor of epidemiology at Emory University in DeKalb county, near Atlanta, and the director of the Women’s and Children’s Center at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health.

Hogue says the reason that black women have higher abortion rates is their much higher rate of unintended pregnancies. For every 1,000 black women in the United States between 15 and 44, there are 98 unplanned pregnancies. For white women the comparable figure is 35; for Hispanic women, 78.

Unintended Pregnancies

"If black women had the same unintended pregnancy rate as white women have–but maintained the same likelihood of aborting an unintended pregnancy as they currently have–their abortion rate would decline 64 percent," says Hogue.

Catherine Davis is director of minority outreach for Georgia Right to Life, a predominantly white group that, according to the Radiance Foundation’s Bomberger, spent $20,000 to sponsor the billboards in Atlanta’s predominantly black neighborhoods.

Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers are targeting the black community for abortions, Davis says.

Abortion, her group contends, accomplishes what the Ku Klux Klan could only dream about–exterminating black people.

Georgia Right to Life–which has a mailing address in Lawrenceville, a suburb of Atlanta in Gwinnett County–and other anti-abortion activists are pushing a bill in the state legislature that would prohibit abortion providers from targeting black communities or performing abortions based on a child’s race or sex.

At a legislative hearing, a young white woman testified that her parents had forced her to abort the baby she was carrying because the father was black.

Loretta J. Ross is national coordinator of SisterSong, Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective in Atlanta, a pro-choice group. She says she’s skeptical of the testimony, which seemed to point out the flaws in states laws requiring parental consent for abortions among minors.

Abortion providers wouldn’t force a girl to have an abortion, Ross says.

Ross is lobbying hard to stop the bill. She’s also battling the perception that black women in Atlanta are lining up behind the bill.

"It is very hard to persuade African American women in the city of Atlanta that this legislation–headlined by rural white Republicans–is aimed at saving black families," says Ross.

Lawmakers Fought Against Similar Efforts

The lawmakers who are arguing for the bill are the same ones who have fought efforts to get guns off the streets, funding for schools and other measures to improve the quality of life of black Georgians, says Ross. "These are not people who care about children of color once they’re here."

Ross calls it part of a strategy to build a base of support for right-wing causes in communities of color and "not so incidentally, to set the women’s movement back several decades."

In response to anti-abortion activists’ contentions that abortion providers are concentrated in black neighborhoods, Ross says four of the state’s 15 abortion providers are in majority black neighborhoods and two of those four are in Atlanta.

But Davis’ anti-abortion message resonates with some influential women here, including Alveda King, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King.

King says abortion is more dangerous than childbirth, causing women to become sterile and causing more maternal deaths than childbirth. She favors the rhythm method of birth control, because other methods put potentially harmful drugs into a woman’s body.

"Abortion should be unthinkable," says King. "Women need love and not abortion."

Both King and Davis say their anti-abortion campaign is winning support. Many black women have contacted the Radiance’s Bomberger to say the campaign persuaded them not to have an abortion.

"We’re ecstatic that people are getting to know our little group," says Bomberger. He’s talking to people interested in paying to put the billboards up in Washington, D.C., California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

Ross says the same, that she’s been flooded with calls from black women outraged at "this attempt to make them feel ashamed."

Not a Racial Matter

Taqiyya Campbell, a freshman at Clark Atlanta University, has seen one of the billboards in Atlanta’s West End. It appears next to a brick building housing Pink Foxx’s Exotic Salon. Campbell thinks the message is being put out in the wrong way. "I don’t think they should target one race," says Campbell.

Betty Wright hadn’t noticed the billboard a few blocks from her home until it was pointed out to her. She was suspicious of the statistics, saying she thinks black women tend to keep their babies, while white girls tend to get abortions.

But Wright, the mother of a grown son, thinks the decision to have an abortion isn’t a racial matter.

"A lot of black women prefer to have their children," says Wright. "If you don’t want it, that’s your choice to have it if you want to have it. If you don’t, that should be your own choice. Nobody should be able to tell us about that decision."

Black women’s relative lack of access to health services explains the higher rate of abortions, says Melissa Gilliam, an associate professor of obstetrics-gynecology and chief of pediatrics and family planning at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Teen pregnancies among African Americans have dropped in the last decade, says Gilliam, but black women tend to have a harder time affording prescription birth control or other contraceptive methods with up-front costs.

Beyond the issue of abortion, Davis, at Georgia Right to Life, points to an issue of concern to anyone worried about black women’s reproductive health: high levels of unprotected sex.

"Regardless of all of the political dogma, it is absolutely alarming to me, it is just frightening to me that 18,901 African American women in Georgia had unprotected sex, when the leading cause of death for African American women is AIDS," says Davis.

African American women were 22 times more likely to have an AIDS diagnosis compared to whites in 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Diane Loupe is a freelance writer in Decatur, Ga.

For more information:

Too Many Aborted

The Radiance Foundation, the Pro-Life group that created the billboard campaign.

Abortion and Women of Color: The Bigger Picture