Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
A controversial anti-abortion billboard that went up — and was taken down — in Soho last month targeting the black community with the tag line "The Most Dangerous Place for an African-American is in the Womb" sparked debate about the city's abortion rate.
Fifty-seven percent of black pregnancies in the city end in abortion, according to 2009 data from the city's Department of Health. For white women, the number is 20 percent and for the city overall it is about 39 percent. Though the number of abortions among black women remained steady for several years, the statistic startled some within the community.
It became the topic of a morning public affairs show on hip-hop and R&B station Hot 97 last Sunday.
"Why are so many women in this situation to begin with?" posed host Lisa Evers. "I mean, having unprotected sex and then letting it get to an unplanned pregnancy?"
Blogger Jamilah Sister Toldja Lemieux chimed in: "Culturally, we're almost suicidal. ... We don't place a certain value on our own lives," she said.
The number of 15- to 19-year olds giving birth or having abortions overall has for the most part trended downward for the last 10 years. And some teenagers in the city are having meaningful conversations about self-control, self-esteem and respectful relationships — but putting those into practice isn't always easy.
Sixteen-year-old Anthony Murray, who is part of Brooklyn Teen P.A.C.T. (Positive Actions and Choices for Teens), has been trained as a sex educator for teens. He said among his group of friends wearing condoms is mandatory.
"We’re actually working on a PSA, a public service announcement, trying to raise awareness on using condoms and having protected sex," Murray said.
But Melody Ovalle, also 16 and trained as a sex educator, said girls may find it difficult to ask boys to wear condoms: "It's kinda disrespectful in a way to tell a teenager, 'Oh, you have to use a condom,' because they’ll take it as an insult that you asked them to wear a condom when it's really just about sexual health," she said.
The teenagers said their peers can be afraid to go to health clinics and may feel like they have to hide their sexual activity. Lack of communication about sex can lead to believing in myths about sex, they said.
Abortions are highest among women between the ages of 20 and 29 across all ethnicities.
Dr. Gail Blakley, director of Women’s Health Services at Community Healthcare Network, said she believes the abortion rate among black women should be seen as another health disparity.
Blakley, who oversees three clinics that serve primarily low-income black and Latina women, said those who are uninsured and not going to the doctor regularly are less likely to discuss different contraceptive methods and ways to prevent sexually transmitted infections.
Blakley said she regularly sees women of all ages who are not well informed and who pick contraception they can't keep up with. The pill, for instance, must be taken around the same time everyday.
Blakley also said negotiating condom use isn’t just a problem for teenagers.
"If you're not very confident and have the self esteem to say,' No, this is what I would like to do', you may find yourself succumbing to their demands," said Blakley.
Other healthcare providers say putting your foot down is even harder when a young girl's partner is much older or when a woman is in an abusive relationship.
Taja Lindley, 25, volunteers as an abortion doula for an organization called The Doula Project and said she hasn't noticed a trend that's different for black women. Like a birth doula, Lindley said she provides compassion and support for women, which means she does simple things like bring them water and crackers. She also there to provide emotional support for those who seem anxious or look like they need to talk.
"I talk to them a little bit about what’s going on ... and ask them about how they might have ended up in that situation and what kind of form of birth control are you going to use after today or what kind of contraception do you use," said Lindley.
Lindley said not everyone wants to open up about their situations but at least one woman who was married and already had kids said she couldn’t afford another child. While she doesn’t know the income level of the women she’s seeing, she also believes the abortion rate is tied to poverty and health disparities and she questions the intentions of anti-abortion groups trying to draw attention to the black abortion rate.
"At the end of the day I don’t think it's about a concern for black babies or about black women I think black women are being used as pawns for another agenda that’s not that concerned about the health and well being of black women in our families and our communities," said Lindley.
At a recent press conference, Pastor Stephen Broden from the Texas based group Life Always -- the group behind the Soho billboard -- said he expected that black women would respond negatively to the ad "in large part it’s because they have only heard one side of the argumentation," he said.
Broden said more women need to know they can keep their babies because he believes the survival of the black community is tied to the mother’s womb. Meanwhile, women's groups across the country are continuing to organize and protest the billboard campaign.
Abortions in 2009 broken down by age. Information courtesy of the New York City Department of Health. Read the full report here.