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Why Abortion Is A Civil Rights Issue for Black Voters

Talking with voters about reproductive health issues, including abortion access, isn’t new for Malika Redmond, the co-founder and CEO of Women Engaged, an Atlanta-based group that focuses on Black voter engagement. Not long after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, which established the constitutional right to abortion in 1973, access to reproductive care was harmed by the passage of the Hyde Amendment, which banned the use of federal funds for most abortions. This, Redmond told me, disproportionately impacted women and young people from perpetually disenfranchised and rural communities, particularly Black women and other women and young adults of color.

Georgia was among 33 states that banned the use of state Medicaid funds for abortions, following federal guidance. And, by 2017, some 95 percent of counties in Georgia had no clinics that provided abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Fifty-five percent of women in Georgia lived in these counties. The situation further deteriorated in 2019, when Gov. Brian Kemp signed a controversial bill that would effectively ban most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. At that point, Redmond said, her group started hearing more from people who wanted to understand the fate of reproductive health care in Georgia. That question is once again on the minds of Black voters in Georgia, as the Supreme Court has overturned Roe, and that six-week ban, which was struck down by the courts in 2020, is now expected to go into effect soon.

In other words, access to reproductive health care, and the impact that its loss will have on people’s everyday lives, was always top of mind not just for Georgia’s Black voters, but also for Black voters across the U.S. It’s why, as we head into this fall’s midterms, a handful of pro-Black advocacy groups have said that Black voters might view November’s midterm elections as a referendum on abortion access — a wish that some Democratic politicians are banking on, too. But according to Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University, “[I]t’s hard to say that Black voters are single-issue abortion voters. I think it’ll be couched in a mix of other things important to them.”

If history has taught us anything, it is that Black people, particularly those who are poor, will be among the biggest sufferers in a post-Roe world despite some anti-abortion advocates claiming that banning abortion will be good for Black people. But it’s unclear whether Black voters will prioritize Roe over issues like rising prices, the economy or police violence. Moreover, it might be harder for Black voters across the nation to discuss one-size-fits-all abortion policies without first acknowledging how their communities have been disproportionally hurt by things like high youth incarceration rates, increased maternal mortality rates and a lack of educational opportunities for their children.  

What overturning Roe means for abortion access across the US | FiveThirtyEight

“I think race-related issues are far more existential for African Americans, and they’re going to emphasize those issues and decisions,” Gillespie told me. “They’re going to have to figure out how to make peace with how their views on those issues fits with their overall views on abortion access.”

At least when it comes to support for abortion rights and access, though, some polls suggest that Black voters are more supportive than white voters, said Tresa Undem, a co-founder of the nonpartisan research firm PerryUndem. In a February survey of registered voters, her firm found that Black voters (58 percent) were among the most likely to support a candidate who supports abortion access. Moreover, at 79 percent, Black voters were the racial group most likely to say they did not want to see Roe overturned. (Asian American and Pacific Islander voters came in second at 75 percent, and just 60 percent of white voters said the same.)

The Supreme Court dealt a big blow to the separation of church and state

This is in line with other polling that has found Black voters becoming more liberal on abortion — even if they’re not naming it as their top policy issue. A Gallup survey conducted between 2017 and 2020 found that 46 percent of Black Americans said that abortion was “morally acceptable” — up from 31 percent who said the same between 2001 and 2007; non-Black racial groups that Gallup surveyed reported a slight change in how they felt about abortion (41 percent from 2001 to 2007, to 43 percent from 2017 to 2020). And another poll from the Pew Research Center published in May found that a greater share of Black adults (67 percent) than Hispanic and white adults (58 and 57 percent, respectively) thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

On their face, these numbers suggest that abortion access — or a lack thereof — might motivate Black voters to turn out. After all, the share of women getting abortions who is nonwhite (including Black women) has also steadily grown since the 1970s. But there are plenty of reasons why it won’t be a standalone issue for them. Namely, for many Black people, the debate over abortion access is inextricably tied to race — and access to equal opportunities once a child is born — in ways that white communities seldom face. 

For instance, pregnant Black people face worse health outcomes, such as higher maternal and infant mortality rates, which inevitably shape how abortion access is discussed in Black communities. A 2021 study from Duke University, for example, suggested that a hypothetical total abortion ban would increase deaths the most among Black people the most compared to other racial groups. The study estimated that pregnancy-related deaths among Black people would increase by 33 percent in the years following an abortion ban, compared with a 21 percent increase for the overall population.

But abortion access in Black communities isn’t just tied to health outcomes; it’s often tied to things like the quality of schools in predominately Black areas, racial disparities in health care or even the criminal justice system. That February PerryUndem survey found, for example, that Black voters connected abortion rights and access to control over one’s body (72 percent), women’s rights (72 percent) and health care (67 percent). A plurality of Black respondents — 47 percent — tied abortion access to racial justice, more than any other demographic group surveyed. And, of course, underlying the debate regarding Roe is the question of what banning abortions means for Black children. Rallying cries for change such as “Black Lives Matter,” a motto and movement created to highlight the abuses that Black people face at the hands of police officers, confronts difficult questions about the safety of both Black people and the children they may be forced to conceive.

“At its core, this issue for voters is about power and control over one’s own body. Given our nation’s history, I think Black voters across political ideology are more attuned than white people to threats to bodily autonomy,” Undem said. She added that her research has found that Black voters and people of color are more likely to see systemic factors affecting abortion access — because abortion access is about access to resources and opportunities to raise healthy children. As Undem told me, Black voters and people of color often see a lack of abortion access as “forcing people to have children, but not providing access to resources that are required, like affordable child care.”

The political consequences of overturning Roe v. Wade

Of course, losing access to safe abortions isn’t the only thing Black voters have to worry about. The Supreme Court may soon rule on a number of cases that could further strip away civil rights. Earlier this year, the high court agreed to decide whether race-based admissions programs are lawful, raising questions about the future of affirmative action in higher education. The court is also considering a challenge to Alabama’s congressional map which argues that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — one of the most important safeguards against racial discrimination in elections — requires a second seat in which Black voters can elect the candidate of their choice. If that law is weakened, our elections would lose one of their biggest protections against racial discrimination.

In other words, it’s hard to conclude that Roe will be the sole motivating factor bringing Black voters to the polls this fall. That’s because, as Redmond and Gillespie told me, Black voters, like all racial voting blocs, are neither a monolith nor single-issue voters. But it’s also possible that Roe’s fate brings more voters to the polls because it’s wrapped up in a number of racial and economic justice issues that Black communities also care about. 

“Nobody wants any rights to be taken,” Redmond said, adding that issues like abortion access are important, but wrapped “inside of a set of civil and human rights issues” that are key to ensuring Black Americans’ safety, as well as economic and racial justice. “These are all key to Black communities thriving.”

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.


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