Abortion has been a controversial issue among African American women long the before the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade. Very often, Black women must navigate political barriers, racism and cultural expectations of motherhood when seeking to end a pregnancy.
The numbers are alarming. African American women are reportedly five times more likely than White women to undergo abortions. This striking difference is sometimes attributed to a suggested higher rate of unintended pregnancies when compared to White women, mostly because of limited access to reproductive health care services.
Poor women struggle to afford procedure
Obtaining an abortion has become difficult for low-income women, especially those who may fall within the 59 percent of women who undergo an abortion after previously giving birth, according to findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With little to no federal funding for abortion, these women often struggle to afford the procedure while witnessing an unprecedented number of new restrictions passed at the state level.
The Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based policy organization that studies sexual and reproductive health, releases frequent reports on the subject and has revealed that while the nation’s abortion rate has declined steadily for 45 years, Black women remain the highest recipients of abortions than any other group. African Americans comprise just over 12 percent of the nation’s population, but in 2014 anywhere from 28 to 36 percent of all abortions were performed on Black babies. The CDC has placed that number at a minimum of 36 percent, based on actual counts of every abortion performed in the 30 states/districts that collect and report on abortion by race. By comparison, the Guttmacher Institute has reported that non-Latino White women (61 percent of the population) account for only 38 percent of all abortions.
Among African American women, the current abortion rate is 391 out of every 1,000 live births. Statistically, that means that somewhere around 28 percent of all Black pregnancies end in abortion (excluding miscarriages). Among White women, that figure drops to 121 (less than 11 percent) out of every 1,000 pregnancies that will end in abortion.
National abortion rate has declined
The CDC has also reported that during the 1970s roughly 24 percent of all U.S. abortions were performed on Black women. That figure rose to about 35 percent during the 1980s and ’90s and stands at 37 percent today. Last year, a Pew Research survey found that there is not much of an ideological divide between Blacks and Whites when it comes to abortion and although a Black woman is reportedly five times more likely than a White woman to undergo the operation, she is only .002 times more likely to support abortion as a matter of public policy. As well, the Pew survey found that, although Black women are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than White women, the former’s poverty levels are relatively comparable to Latino women who undergo far fewer abortions in any given year. In both cases, they found, the disparity in income doesn’t entirely match the disparity in abortion.
Some research into the subject has suggested that the abortion industry strategically targets Black women, such as findings from the Life Issues Institute which has reported that a majority of Planned Parenthood abortion clinics are within “walking distance” of minority communities. The Guttmacher Institute says that most of Panned Parenthood’s clinics are located in White neighborhoods, therefore gathering any reliable data on geographic placement can be inconclusive at best.
While Planned Parenthood may not promote abortions in the Black community as the tobacco industry has been accused of with menthol cigarettes or the beer industry with malt liquor, certain “pro life” organizations have said that Black women are the targets of an insidious attack that stinks of racism and bigotry. They have pointed to radical population control groups like the Federation of Planned Parenthood which has been accused of controlling the birth rate of the African American community and, in general, people of color throughout the world. They’ve pointed to the Negro Project of 1929 in which Planned Parenthood allegedly orchestrated of web of deception by “baiting” the African American community with the pretense of “family planning” and other “health services.
‘A scourge within the Black community’
“Abortion is the number-one killer of Black lives,” said Ryan Bomberger, CEO and co-founder of the Radiance Foundation and a frequent columnist for Black Community News, a conservative blog that regularly comments on abortion in the Black community. “Abortion-induced deaths of the unborn in the Black community are 69 times higher than HIV deaths, 31 times higher than the homicide rate, 3.6 times higher than cancer-related deaths and 3.5 times higher than deaths caused by heart disease. This is a scourge within in the Black community that must be addressed and ended now.”
Some pro-life advocates have accused pro-choice Black women of being a “disgrace to their race” for supporting abortion, often comparing their support of the procedure to advocating slavery. Iowa Rep. Steve King has openly criticized poor Black women for having an abortion, going as far to say that he would give “even money that a vast majority of mothers who say they can’t afford an abortion have an iPhone, which costs more.”
Pro-life advocates often say that pro-choice feminists push abortion as a “woman’s right” and have successfully identified abortion as a “civil right.” Some African Americans, they attest, in having fought for their civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s have been “duped” into identifying the pro-choice movement with the fight for civil rights. Alveda King, daughter of slain civil rights leader A.D. King and niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., often quotes her uncle when outlining her opposition to abortion.
“[Martin Luther King Jr.] once said, “The Negro cannot win as long as he is willing to sacrifice the lives of his children for comfort and safety,” King said. “How can the ‘dream’ survive if we murder the children? Every aborted baby is like a slave in the womb of his or her mother. The mother decides his or her fate.”
Aborted baby is like ‘slave in the womb’
Pro-life supporters have pointed to former President Barack Obama and his support for abortion, asking rhetorically “how many candidates for public office have abandoned a prior conviction so as to be consistent with a party platform?” Rev. Jesse Jackson, they say, was once a vocal opponent of abortion but changed his opinion during his first presidential run in 1984. Jackson in 1977 submitted an article for the National Right to Life News in which he wrote:
“I know how [abortion] has been used with regard to race. In terms of the psycholinguistics involved in this whole issue of abortion, if something can be dehumanized through the rhetoric used to describe it, then the major battle has been won. Those advocates of taking life prior to birth do not call it killing or murder, they call it abortion. They further never talk about aborting a baby because that would imply something human. Rather, they talk about aborting the ‘fetus’ which sounds less than human and therefore can be justified.”
Medical rationale aside, no group of persons on either side of the abortion debate can posit with certainty why a woman may choose to end a pregnancy. Social scientists are not sure, either, why Black attitudes toward abortion have changed. One theory suggests that as more African Americans migrated out of the conservative Deep South and settled in other regions of the country with more liberal views on reproductive rights, their attitudes were said to have changed accordingly. Another possibility, some pro-life advocates espouse, is that people with higher incomes and more education tend to be pro-choice, and since the early 1970s the socioeconomic status of Blacks has increased each year.
A changing attitude among Blacks
One explanation of the changing attitude among Blacks and abortion could be related to marriage. Unmarried women are reportedly more likely to experience an unintended pregnancy, and Black women, on average, are less likely than their White, Asian and Latino counterparts to marry. And while hundreds of thousands of prospective Black husbands languish in jail or prison, it is also true that the racial divide in marriage—which began in the 1960s—predates the “mass incarceration” of Black men that America witnesses today.
The abortion divide among the races may stem from the sad fact that for at least 50 years, Black babies have died at twice the rate of White infants. In Los Angeles, Black babies are reportedly three times more likely than White babies to die in their first year of life. Nationwide, that amount reaches more than 4,000 Black babies lost each year.
Roughly 30 years ago, lawmakers thought the gap in mortality rates between Black and White infants was at such crisis levels that the Congressional Black Caucus convened a hearing to study the matter in depth. The late LA Rep. Julian Dixon attended those hearings and told the Los Angeles Times: “Research and experience has proven that America has the tools to stop the needless deaths of poor infants. This is why we believe the present level of Black infant mortality is unacceptable.” Research conducted by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health estimates that Black babies are three times more likely than White infants to die in their first year. In 2016, out of more than 22,808 White babies born, 73 died. Out of the 8,000 Black babies born, 88 died.
The county findings revealed that most of the Black babies died because they were born premature and were far too small and weak to survive. Most studies have shown that Black mothers receive insufficient prenatal care and, generally, aren’t taken seriously by physicians when they complain of chronic pain which, in itself, contributes to the high rate of Black maternal deaths.
Racial gap in infant mortality
Policymakers have advanced a variety of approaches to address the racial gap in infant mortality, often blaming the mother’s lifestyle choices and even whether genetics could help explain the problem. Today, more focus is being placed on structural and institutional racism. More research is pointing to the idea that solving the problem of Black infant mortality will require significant changes to American society. For instance, local public health officials are launching a plan that seeks to do a hybrid of sorts entailing raising awareness and improving the lives for Black women by mitigating the chronic stress that contributes to infant mortality.
Paula Braveman, director of the Center on Social Disparities in Health at the UC San Francisco, said there is significant racial discrimination among people when discussing a Black woman’s decision to have an abortion as well as the issue of infant mortality.
“The assumption [people] leap to is that this must be the woman’s fault. It must be bad behaviors,” Braveman said. “’They don’t eat right’ ‘They don’t exercise right.’ ‘They smoke.’ ‘They drink,’ even though African American women smoke far less than White women.”
Braveman and other health experts believe the gap does not stem from people’s behavior because such steps cannot resolve the outside forces that influence Black women as they advance in society. Tony Iton, senior vice president for healthy communities at the California Endowment, said the concept of institutional racism and/or structural racism are things that many people find difficult to comprehend.
“People hear the term ‘racism’ and they think: ‘I’m not racist,’” Iton said. “The issue of racism and how it impacts Black infant mortality is really much more about structural and institutional racism and, essentially, how whole communities are treated or steered away from resources and opportunity and less about how individuals are behaving.”