Politics & Policy

Mike Bloomberg, Not That Innocent

A culture of death in NYC, made worse by mayoral mandate

Parents ought to have a choice, Rev. Michel J. Faulkner, the pastor of New Horizon Church in Harlem — and a former New York Jet — argued on the steps of City Hall Monday. That is the message of the newly established NYC Parents’ Choice Coalition, of which Faulkner, also involved with the New York Metropolitan Clergy for Better Choices, is a member.

The choice to which he is rallying Big Apple parents is preserving the innocence of New York City schoolchildren, a cause close to the heart of Greg Pfundstein, another Coalition leader and executive director of the Chiaroscuro Foundation.  

That choice, by the way, is endorsed by the American College of Pediatricians.

“We are pleased that Mayor Bloomberg is responding to the city’s double-the-national-average rate of abortion and high out-of-wedlock birth rate, but we do not believe that sex education in a city as diverse as New York can be one-size-fits-all,” Pfundstein has said. “The NYC Parents’ Choice Coalition is respectfully asking the City to offer a proven, alternative, abstinence-based program for the hundreds of thousands of students coming to school from families who would prefer a more traditional education. This is not an extraordinary request: Abstinence-based sex education is being successfully taught in cities across America.”

How bad is that abortion rate? Is abstinence a remotely realistic solution? Is Bloomberg the responsible party here? A) Try high enough for 64 percent of those polled to be outraged. B) Tried, tested, and parent-approved — a sensible alternative to the muddled mess New York is mandating for public-school children (read the extensive report, courtesy of the World Youth Alliance, on teachers’ current options here). C) Currently he is responsible for a bad mandate. He can be a morally responsible steward of his office — if he listens to these Choicers. Pfundstein talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about some of these issues that affect the very health and soul of New York and our national culture, never mind our lives.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You got the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) to break down 2009 abortion statistics by ZIP code. Why is that information so important?

GREG PFUNDSTEIN: Many people were shocked to discover how high the abortion ratio is in the city when we publicized those data last January, and quite a few have responded to our call to community-level action. The problem with city-wide and even borough-wide data is that they abstract too much from the places where people live their lives: in their homes, in their communities, in their neighborhoods. Our hope is that people will look at what is going on in their own ZIP codes and think in terms of what they can do to help in their neighborhood. That is a much more manageable proposition than advocating for city-wide action. Ed Mechmann at the Archdiocese of New York wrote a great blog post recently on how surprised he was to find out how high the abortion ratio is in his Bronx neighborhood. We hope many others will have a similar response and begin to ask what they can do.

LOPEZ: So how can the pro-life movement make use of it? How are you making use of it?

PFUNDSTEIN: I think there are two primary uses for the data. The first is to encourage and direct community action to where it is most needed: There is a church in the Jamaica area of Queens that is working to start a ministry for the support of women in crisis pregnancies, and these data confirm the need for their efforts and will, we hope, encourage more people to get involved. We hope the data will encourage that kind of action all over the city.

We also hope the data will be useful in leading to a better understanding of what makes the abortion rate so high, not just in New York but in many other metropolitan areas. Some of it is not very surprising: Low marriage rates and high out-of-wedlock birth rates seem to track the abortion rates fairly closely. But it would be fascinating to know whether the locations of abortion clinics have any statistically significant effect on the abortion rate, or whether the number of condoms distributed correlates either positively or negatively. If there are insights to be had about how to bring down the abortion rate, we think tracking this kind of granular data over time gives us the best shot of having them.

And this is why we are not satisfied yet. We are still waiting on the last ten years’ worth of ZIP-code data from the city, and we are still pressing for the more timely release of such data going forward. Keep in mind we are still looking at 2009 data. New York City has the best abortion data in the country, but that’s no excuse for not making it better. One city official told me that she didn’t think they would make the ZIP-code data part of their regular release in the future, because it would endanger the abortionists. Given that the data tell us where the women live and not where the abortion took place, that doesn’t seem like a valid concern to me. We hope the city will provide these data going forward.

LOPEZ: The mayor of New York is far from friendly to the pro-life cause. But is there a women’s-health case — to borrow a phrase — to release this kind of data on a monthly basis? How can this be more than a pro-life rallying cry?

PFUNDSTEIN: There is a large and growing amount of evidence showing that abortion is bad for women’s physical and mental health. It is a fascinating case in which the alleged advocates of a scientific approach to health care are willing to allow their religious faith in the rightness of abortion to trump any rational assessment of the risks and dangers associated with abortion. Here are a few things that are not in dispute: Abortion increases the risk of pre-term birth in future pregnancies, increases the risk of placenta previa in future pregnancies, increases the risk of negative mental-health outcomes. Various other risks are not as universally acknowledged: While several very official organizations very officially deny any link between abortion and breast cancer, quite a few studies have shown a link in the last few decades (of course no one denies that abortion deprives a woman of the protective effects of a full-term pregnancy against breast cancer — a benefit she would not have enjoyed if she had not gotten pregnant, either). Another study I read recently actually found a correlation between abortion and maternal homicide, for whatever that’s worth. All of which is to say that it is simply false to pretend that abortion is a neutral procedure vis-à-vis women’s health, and it is downright deceptive to claim that abortion is an essential part of “comprehensive” reproductive-health care.

What are the net effects on women’s health of high abortion rates in New York City? That seems to me to be a question that anyone genuinely concerned with the health of women would want to expend a fair amount of energy answering, and New York City’s excellent data collection could be improved to begin to answer it. Unfortunately, the religious orthodoxy of the abortion crusaders seems to disallow such a quest on pain of excommunication, and the mayor does seem to fear such a sanction.

LOPEZ: It’s not too surprising that Chelsea — from which I hail — would have the highest abortion rate, is it?

PFUNDSTEIN: Well, I am glad you asked. I actually was quite surprised until I realized the data were not great in that ZIP code, 10018. The abortion ratio, as defined by the Guttmacher Institute and used by us, is the number of abortions as a percentage of total viable pregnancies (total pregnancies minus miscarriages). The problem is that if you have a very small number of pregnancies, that ratio may or may not be instructive, because natural variations in fertility over time can substantially affect the denominator. For example, if I take a look at my family and several close friends over the last two years, nobody had a baby last year, and everybody had a baby this year: my sister, my sisters-in-law, my wife, my friends’ wives. So this sample of about ten women had a massive swing in its fertility rate from last year to this. The abortion rate in this case is of course still zero in both years, but the denominators are very different. So how does this relate to Chelsea, 10018? That ZIP code and several others had a relatively low number of total pregnancies. Since the number is so low, about 120, it is possible that the high rate in 2009 is anomalous. Maybe not; we would have to look at the data over ten years to tell (any day now, DOHMH). Of course, in other ZIP codes with much larger numbers of pregnancies the ratio is going to be much less likely to vary substantially over time and is certainly instructive. So I will refrain from speculating on what is going on in Chelsea until I see more data.

LOPEZ: Are the ZIP codes after that the ones that worry you the most?

PFUNDSTEIN: There are plenty of ZIP codes in the city with very high rates. What worries me most about all of these locations and the city’s high rate in general is that this problem is really a symptom of a much larger web of problems, perhaps chief among them the breakdown of the family in the African American community. And lest all us white folk forget, the trends are going in exactly the same direction in all segments of American society, with 41 percent of all children in the U.S. born out of wedlock. Again, there is lots of science, also often subject to religious censure by both liberals and many libertarians, showing that this is bad: bad for educational outcomes, bad for crime rates, bad for future family formation, bad for the economy, bad, bad, bad. I know all your libertarian NRO readers think we social conservatives are a bunch of prudish dolts holding the great conservative free-market economic hegemony back from taking over forever, but good luck with your free market when the family is gone. Then again, maybe the resulting anarchy will obviate the need for you to build islands to experience chaos.

LOPEZ: How do you address this? Chelsea is too trendy for pro-life outreach, isn’t it? Or is that simply a challenge to the pro-life movement to, if not get trendy, be creative in its outreach?

PFUNDSTEIN: Our approach has been to find a way to encourage a discussion about the situation in New York. Many New Yorkers have an abstract commitment to a woman’s “right to choose,” but the situation we have in New York is not the one they signed up for. Many think of abortion as a necessary option for that once-in-a-lifetime mistake, but with 54 percent of NYC abortions being repeat abortions, that’s not what we are dealing with here. We hope that people will take an honest look at the situation and question some of the orthodoxies that defend this status quo.

Beyond that, pro-lifers in the city will continue to try to reach and help one woman at a time. Every year thousands are helped to choose to carry their baby to term, and most of them are forever grateful for the support they received to do so.

LOPEZ: New Yorkers, when made aware of the extraordinarily high abortion rate in New York, are uncomfortable with it, according to a poll you commissioned. So how do you make them more aware of it? And maybe more important, what can be done to change it?

PFUNDSTEIN: We are open to suggestions! We can hope that some blogger over at Salon or RH Reality Check will read this and write a screed against both of us for our war on women, thereby reminding all their fellow abortion crusaders of the sad state of affairs their advocacy created and defends.

My fear is that we will only be able to make small, marginal improvements in the situation without some public-policy changes. My chief recommendation would be to stop paying for abortions with Medicaid in New York. That would immediately bring the rate down. Actually enforcing abortion-clinic regulations would be good too, and giving women accurate information about their very real risks would also help. The best possible scenario would be for the federal government and the state to stop subsidizing contraception, since it is a giant waste of money which tends to slightly increase the rate of unintended pregnancy. Of course that’s a proposal not even many of the good readers at NRO would likely endorse, but it is what the evidence points to. If anyone has any evidence showing that subsidizing contraception decreases the rate of unintended pregnancy, out-of-wedlock birth, or abortion, I would love to see it.

None of these changes is possible in New York City or in New York State today. But perhaps we can change that over time by getting people to think about this issue. Otherwise, let’s hope the long, slow national decline in the number of abortions and the abortion rate continues as more young people abstain from sex and are more pro-life then their parents are.

LOPEZ: Miriam Grossman’s recent report on New York public schools’ mandated sex-ed program suggests that it’s no help, but a muddled mess. Conversations about sex ed or the dreaded “abstinence” word are rarely constructive. How can that change? How can New Yorkers lead the way?

PFUNDSTEIN: Five years ago this conversation was really tough, because there was very little evidence that abstinence education works, mostly because such programs were very new. Now there are a good number of published studies showing abstinence-centered education working, often better than so-called “comprehensive” sex ed. Here again I think there is an opportunity for data to settle the question. Why don’t we let the two approaches duke it out over time on a level playing field? Many parents find the content of the city’s recommended curricula very offensive (take a look at nycparentschoice.org for a few tidbits), so why not let schools offer an abstinence-centered, evidence-based program as an alternative? Over time we can track the kids in each program and figure out which one works better. I think this would be a very scientific approach. We aren’t asking the city to stop teaching condom-based sex ed in schools; we are just asking them to allow an alternative. If they would track the effects of the different programs, they would be doing everyone a great service. Unfortunately this is another matter of religious orthodoxy on the left. But a certain prominent politician not long ago talked about restoring science to its rightful place in public policy. The science here says there is no reason to exclude abstinence-centered curricula as an option if parents prefer; despite the talking points, it works.

LOPEZ: On this issue, you recently wrote about protecting children’s innocence. Is that just way too quaint for a place like New York City in times like 2011? Fine, try to drive this mess out of public schools, but what about outside the classroom? You drive in from upstate or New Jersey and see the Hustler Club. And that’s tame. Take a walk with a kid in SoHo and good luck . . . 

PFUNDSTEIN: The innocence of children is a simple fact, and one so obvious as to be almost universally acknowledged. Almost no one who doesn’t work for Planned Parenthood thinks it is appropriate to talk to first graders about sex in school, and even they make ovations to the notion that the sex ed they want in first grade should be age-appropriate. (Lest you think I am making a joke, consider that on the morning of our press conference in August, the day we released Dr. Grossman’s report, El Diario published side-by-side op-eds from the president of Planned Parenthood of NYC and the state policy director of the National Abstinence Education Foundation, Ann Marie Mosack, on the New York City sex-ed mandate. The PPNYC president lauded the new mandate as far as it went, but said it wasn’t enough: We need to teach kids about sex in first grade on up, she said. That any sensible person thinks she is crazy proves my point about the innocence of children.) This is why we think sexual abuse of children is the worst of all crimes and perversions and why we are careful what our kids watch on TV. Even Hollywood stars like Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore recognize the innocence of children with their “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” campaign.

Of course, there are many influences in our culture that militate against the innocence of children that many rightly lament. We can only do our best to help our children navigate those influences. But to have a person who is an authority figure in the life of our children, a teacher, tell them that, at 13, no one can decide when is the right time to have sex but themselves is substantially more deleterious than any invasive television advertisement.

Consider a recent article in Essence magazine, “Our Teens’ Secret Sex Lives.” In it, young African American girls discuss with researchers how frequently and intensely they are pressured to engage in sexual activity by their equally young boy peers: “The friends [two 13-year-old girls] say sometimes the boys at their middle school — who for the most part live in comfortable homes with professional parents — confront girls with graphic sexual requests and rumors designed to embarrass.” Imagine a young girl is trying to protect herself from such advances. Do you think it will help her case that Ms. Smith just told them in “health” class that only they can decide when they are ready to have sex, and that if she is afraid she may have gotten pregnant because she didn’t use any protection she can head down to the local clinic for some emergency contraception any time in the next few days, all without her parents knowing about it? Seems to me those are a few more arrows in the impulsive and obnoxious little boy’s quiver. Imagine, on the other hand, that Ms. Smith just told them in no uncertain terms that abstinence is the only sure way to avoid pregnancy and disease and that it is the choice most likely to keep them on track toward their goals. Isn’t that an arrow in the girl’s quiver?

Whose side are we on? Parents are on the side of their children’s success, and the vast majority of them think that includes abstaining from sex at least until they are adults. While Mayor Bloomberg may think he knows better, I don’t see how that gives him the right to work against the wishes of parents who are the primary educators of their children. Parents’ rights need to be defended, and children’s innocence needs to be defended. And all you libertarian readers who are reflexively opposed to this position because you think sexual morality is anti-libertarian, just remember that this is statism at its worst. I find nothing more annoying than a libertarian who opposes the rights of parents to make decisions for their own children.

LOPEZ: Is there any pro-life good news in New York?

PFUNDSTEIN: There are lots of great organizations doing great work in the city. One of the things I find very encouraging is the recent engagement of Protestant and minority religious leaders in the movement in the city. They recognize that there is a problem in their communities and that they are better positioned than the Catholic white folk who form the backbone of the movement in the city. We are very glad to have them aboard.

LOPEZ: How exactly did you wind up in this line of work?

PFUNDSTEIN: I doubt your readers are very interested in my personal history. Suffice it to say I received a highly speculative liberal education, worked for a while in finance, pursued even more highly speculative education, and eventually found a bit of balance between the practical and the speculative in my work for the foundation. As a member of the post-Roe generation, I have seen some of the anguish that accompanies an unplanned pregnancy at pretty close distance among friends and family, and my experience combined with more principled consideration of the question of the dignity of the human person have made me unabashedly pro-life and emphatically anti-abortion.

LOPEZ: What is the Chiaroscuro Foundation? Are you looking to provide an art-history education while protecting human life?

PFUNDSTEIN: The Chiaroscuro Foundation is a grant-making foundation based in New York City. Notwithstanding the caricature of the pro-lifer obsessed with the unborn and careless of the born, we also fund things like medical infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa and education in India.

The image of light shining in darkness is a powerful cultural archetype which can be found across the world and throughout history. We think the notion that the light of truth should triumph over the darkness of falsehood and that goodness should triumph over evil is compelling. Also, we like Caravaggio.

LOPEZ: I read your mission and I think “this is what social justice actually is.” Is it worth a debate on what that phrase really means? Could it be a game changer for our politics and culture?

PFUNDSTEIN: I think it was Fulton Sheen who said that social justice is the easiest virtue to talk about but the hardest to practice. I think he might have been wrong to the extent that I rarely have any idea what anyone is talking about when they talk about social justice. Unfortunately I think these days it is used mostly as a code word for a liberal-statist agenda of wealth redistribution. But I am no expert on the nuance here.

That said, social justice must be a species of justice, and it is extremely difficult for me to understand what possible conception of justice could be articulated that would not include a defense of the dignity of all human persons from conception to natural death. I of course am in favor of treating workers justly, helping those in need, and respecting the rights of immigrants and migrants. I also think that government is singularly inept at helping the poor. And I think that justice demands that the right to property be respected except in very extreme cases. There are a good few things that need to be brought into balance on questions of social justice, but I don’t see that much of it matters much if you aren’t willing to take a stand for the dignity of the human person in the first place. You can’t stand by quietly while we kill 1.2 million persons a year in this country and then quibble about a deportation here and there and the plight of the unemployed. Fundamental to any conception of justice is the defense of every human life.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


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