40 Years Later: Abortion Rights Still Matter

Even decades after Roe v. Wade, women of color strive to define and protect their reproductive destiny.

Alex Wong/Getty Images News
Alex Wong/Getty Images News

(The Root) — After many Americans finish celebrating the second inauguration of the first black president, many others, including feminists and progressives, will recognize another milestone: the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a landmark Supreme Court decision that decriminalized abortion.

The occasion has also sparked a great deal of reflection on the role of reproductive rights in America. Despite being protected for four decades, abortion has faced increasing legal challenges, particularly on the state level, in recent years. In part, these challenges are due to changing cultural attitudes about abortion — a historic low number of Americans now describe themselves as pro-choice. But how have the cultural attitudes of African Americans evolved in the 40 years since the decision became the law of the land?

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Sociological Research declared, “Earlier research generally found Blacks to be less supportive of abortion than Whites.” But it also found an evolution over time: “White females and White males to a lesser extent initially appear more liberal in their views toward abortion; however, a shift over the decades produces a convergence and then a reversal, where Black females eventually become more liberal in the 1990s.”

The data showed that white women were significantly more liberal than black women on the issue in the 1970s. The two groups found more agreement on the subject in the 1980s, but by the 1990s, black women held more liberal attitudes than white women. By the 2000s both groups had become more conservative in their attitudes on the subject.

Black Men’s Views Not So Predictable

Overall, however, white Americans continue to hold the most liberal attitudes about abortion, but the report still chronicles a recent evolution along racial and gender lines. The attitudes of “White males, White females, and Black females appear to be becoming more conservative toward abortion over time.” The attitudes of Black males, however, have become more liberal over each decade.

The same report noted that being religious and attending church were indicators of decreased support for abortion. A 2009 Pew study found that “African-Americans are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, including level of affiliation with a religion, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and religion’s importance in life.” But a recent report found that black women are statistically more likely than black men to attend church, which could explain the emerging gender divide on abortion.

Despite the role of religion and the church in the black community, black women still receive a disproportionate number of abortions. Non-Hispanic black women make up 30 percent of those seeking abortions, though black people constitute only 13 percent of the country’s population.

A Public Religion Research Institute survey found that many black Americans believe in a form of separation of church and state when it comes to abortion. According to the poll, four out of five black Americans think it is possible to disagree with the church on abortion and still be a good Christian.