In the mid-1970s, Blacks were more likely than any other group of Americans to oppose abortion, according to public opinion surveys. Overwhelmingly Democratic and far more liberal than almost all other Americans in their view of the government’s responsibility to protect the health and economic well-being of the poor and the marginalized, Blacks were also more strongly pro-life than even white Catholics (let alone white evangelicals, who were only just beginning to mobilize on the abortion issue). This was the decade when the National Right to Life Committee was led by Dr. Mildred Jefferson, a Boston surgeon who had been the first African American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, and when contributors to the National Right to Life News included civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.
But after the 1970s, Black support for the pro-life cause fell dramatically. Today surveys show that the majority of Black Americans – including churchgoing Black evangelical Protestants – support keeping abortion legal, even if they are personally opposed to abortion. Indeed, Blacks are now more likely than white Americans generally – and far more likely than white evangelical Protestants – to support abortion rights.
How did the pro-life movement lose the support of most African Americans? For a Christian like myself who affirms the value of divinely created human life from the moment of conception, this is a soul-searching question that goes beyond merely the desire to enlarge the pro-life coalition and make it as racially diverse as possible. It touches on the heart of what the pro-life movement claims to be. If the pro-life movement really is a civil rights movement for the unborn, as it has often portrayed itself, why is it that the most consistent advocates of civil rights for those already born are so reluctant to join the movement?
The fact that the pro-life cause once had such strong appeal to African Americans suggests to me that it’s probably not the cause itself that is problematic; instead, it’s the pro-life movement’s strategy. Sometime during the late 1970s or shortly thereafter, the white-dominated pro-life movement made tactical decisions that alienated Black supporters. Thanks to Mary Ziegler’s newly published book Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2020), I now have a clearer idea of what those disastrous decisions were. (N.B.: Although I’m highlighting this book as a source of this idea, I should note that Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University who is arguably the nation’s leading historian of the modern legal debate over abortion, did not intend her book to be a piece of advice to the pro-life movement, and indeed, her point about African American views of the pro-life cause was a side note rather than a central aspect of her thesis. There’s much more to Ziegler’s book than I am presenting here.)
Before I read Ziegler’s book, I probably would have said that the white-dominated pro-life movement lost the support of most African Americans when it allied itself with the Republican Party’s judicial strategy to support conservative Supreme Court nominees or when it collided with the second-wave feminist movement and, by extension, the Democratic Party. Both of those factors were important, but Abortion and the Law in America highlights another cause that perhaps I overlooked in my earlier work: the pro-life movement’s shift from seeking constitutional protection for the unborn (which many Blacks were willing to support) to limiting abortion access (which most were not). This shift had enormous repercussions for low-income women, a disproportionate share of whom were Black.
The shift began in 1976, with the passage of the Hyde Amendment, which restricted Medicaid funding for abortion. In 1976, one-quarter of abortions were funded through Medicaid. And though the two states with the highest number of abortions – New York and California – continued to fund abortions for low-income women, most states did not. The result was the beginning of a long decline in the nation’s abortion rate – but at a high cost for low-income women.
For pro-lifers who still hoped to pass a Human Life Amendment, the Hyde Amendment was not what they really wanted, but it was the best they could get. As Ziegler points out, the tactic of restricting funding or access to abortion rather than banning it outright became, after the 1980s, the only viable legal strategy for the movement. Having failed to secure an antiabortion constitutional amendment or the reversal of Roe v. Wade through the Supreme Court, the legal wing of the pro-life movement focused on the one thing it could accomplish: making abortions more difficult to obtain. In this area, it was quite successful. In the wake of new regulations such as parental notification laws, mandatory waiting periods, required hospital visiting privileges for abortion doctors, and a host of other stipulations, hundreds of abortion clinics closed, and today pro-life pregnancy resource centers outnumber abortion clinics by three to one. The annual number of abortions in the United States is now lower than it has been at any point since 1973. While other factors were certainly involved in the decline in the abortion rate, abortion regulations played at least some role.
But the pro-life movement’s strategy of reducing abortion rates not by protecting the unborn in constitutional law but by making abortion more expensive or more difficult to obtain was remarkably unpopular among most African Americans, even among those who were personally opposed to abortion. According to a 2019 PRRI poll, 58 percent of Blacks believe that abortion should be legal in most or all circumstances, and 56 percent believe that government health insurance plans for low-income women should include abortion coverage – which means that nearly every African American who supports abortion legalization also supports federal funding for abortion for low-income women. In the view of most Black Americans, if a health service can legally be provided to anyone, it should, in fairness, be equally accessible to everyone – which is why the pro-life movement’s willingness to settle for legislation that would keep abortion available to those who could afford it while making it more burdensome for the poor to obtain alienated many Blacks (including Jesse Jackson, who came out in support of the Hyde Amendment in 1983, despite his earlier strong support for the pro-life movement).
This is not necessarily the way that whites see the matter; today only 45 percent of whites say that government health insurance should cover abortions, while 55 percent want abortion to be legal in most or all circumstances. And for much of the late twentieth century, this divide was even sharper; large numbers of libertarian-minded pro-choice whites saw no reason why the government should pay for abortions. Pro-life Republicans capitalized on this division in the pro-choice movement to restrict abortion funding with the support of a sizeable number of white pro-choice members of both parties who would never have voted for constitutional protections on unborn life but who could agree that Americans’ federal tax dollars should not be used to fund abortions in most circumstances. By making this alliance, pro-lifers lost their chance to secure a sizeable degree of African American support for their cause, and they also made it easier for African American advocates of reproductive rights to portray the pro-life campaign as unconcerned about the poor – and, in turn, to push the pro-choice movement toward making abortion funding a central priority.
The solution, I think, is not to seek the reversal of the Hyde Amendment nor to seek other measures to make abortion coverage a part of national health care plans. After all, if we really believe that human life begins at conception and that abortion takes the life of someone made in God’s image, we shouldn’t want to do anything to subsidize abortions. But neither should we look away from the negative effect that the pro-life movement’s political strategy has had on poor people and people of color. We need to remember what many of the liberal pro-lifers of the early 1970s recognized, which is that while abortion is a matter of human life, it is also inextricably linked to the social justice issues of poverty and health care.
Most women who have abortions today are poor. This is even more true today than it was a generation or two ago, when the Hyde Amendment was passed. In 1994, only 25 percent of women who obtained abortions were below the poverty line, but today 50 percent are – and another 25 percent are low-income. Most women who have abortions today are already mothers. In most cases, they are unmarried, low-income or impoverished women in their twenties who are often in unstable (and sometimes abusive) relationships, and who are desperately trying to care for the needs of their existing children.
The pro-choice movement and the Democratic Party would like to offer these women free abortion and free contraception. Republican legislators would like to make it prohibitively difficult for these women to obtain an abortion. I think that a genuinely pro-life, pro-child, and pro-human movement would seek something different: It would try to offer a path forward for these women while protecting both their well-being and the lives of their children – both the ones already born and any who are still in the womb.
What if instead of focusing so heavily on limiting access to abortion for the poor, the pro-life movement made it a top priority to expand healthcare coverage so that low-income women would have access to affordable healthcare for themselves and their children? Healthcare is an extremely important issue for many low-income voters and African Americans. While a majority of African Americans want the state to provide free abortions for low-income women, an even higher majority favors making all health care affordable, especially for low-income women. A 2019 Harvard study showed that 85 percent of Blacks (but only 53 percent of whites) favored either a universal Medicare-for-all plan (along the lines of what Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supported) or an expanded Obamacare plan (which Joe Biden offered). A 2012 poll found that 94 percent of Blacks (including 92 percent of those who attend church weekly) support publicly-funded contraception distribution for low-income women and 94 percent also agreed that “care for pregnant women” is part of “basic health care services for women.” In other words, while support for abortion coverage may be high among Blacks, support for affordable comprehensive healthcare is even higher – which means that the pro-life movement could probably start to win back some of its lost support among Blacks if it began using its lobbying power to push for expanded prenatal and pediatric healthcare coverage instead of focusing so narrowly on restricting abortion access. Doing so would probably reduce the abortion rate while also improving the health of the children who escape abortion and are born into the world.
What if the pro-life movement also supported measures to make childcare more affordable for single mothers, so that low-income women experiencing crisis pregnancies would not be forced to choose between a child and a job? Eighty-four percent of Black women support “congressional action to increase childcare assistance and expand early education,” according to a 2018 poll.
In essence, the type of political strategy that the pro-life movement would likely need to adopt to bring itself into closer alignment with Black political priorities would bear a much closer resemblance to the social vision of the liberal pro-lifers of the early 1970s than it would to the political vision of most white Republican pro-life activists today. In the early 1970s, many of the leaders of the pro-life movement were politically liberal Catholics or left-of-center Protestants who were guided by the comprehensive social justice vision of twentieth-century Catholic social teaching. This social justice teaching was based on the principle of social obligations rooted in the ethic of human dignity. To recover this vision, the pro-life movement would need to ask not merely how it can make abortion less accessible but how it can protect the lives and dignity of all of the women, children, and other people involved. It would ask what our social obligation might be to the women facing crisis pregnancies – not only at the moment that they might be seeking an abortion, but during the next few years and even decades of their lives.
If the pro-life movement accompanied every restrictive abortion policy it currently supports with a measure to expand financial help for the low-income women, could it win back African American support? It’s impossible to say for certain. But one thing is clear: This approach would bring the movement into closer alignment with the political priorities of most Black voters. More importantly, it would also offer a more effective way to protect human life and recover the historic vision of the pro-life movement, which never wanted to settle merely for restrictions on abortion access but always wanted to promote a social vision that respected all human life.
After all, if it is politically impossible for the pro-life movement to pass constitutional protections for the unborn, which approach would best defend human life – passing additional regulations that make abortions more expensive for the poor or creating a social safety net that gives the poor the economic resources they need to care for their children and protect their health? It’s possible, of course, that the first approach would reduce the abortion rate, at least marginally. But the second approach would not only reduce the abortion rate but would also improve the health and economic security of the children who are brought into the world. And that, it seems to me, is the type of pro-life strategy that could appeal to many people – including maybe even a few more African Americans.