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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

 In an interview with The Root, Gloria Feldt, a former president of Planned Parenthood, the country's leading abortion-rights organization, explained that in her experience black men, including members of the clergy, have been supportive of the cause of reproductive justice. She recalled that when she began her work with Planned Parenthood in Phoenix nearly two decades ago, the Rev. George Brooks, who was one of the most prominent black pastors in Arizona, welcomed her. She also found a community ally in Lincoln Ragsdale, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen who became one of the state's most accomplished black business leaders.

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Feldt explained that despite some of the stereotypes some may hold regarding the conservatism of the black community, and black males in particular, she found these two men invaluable in their support — in part, she theorized, because they were both old enough to recall the days when women in their communities died from illegal abortions.

Diverse Supporters Are Key

Although accurate figures are difficult to obtain, estimates claim that there were as many as 1.2 million illegal abortions annually before Roe v. Wade, and that thousands of women were physically harmed or died as a result. Poor women were most at risk, not those from wealthy families, who could hire private doctors to discreetly perform the procedure. This means that because of the class and racial divides that have existed since our country's inception, black women were a particularly vulnerable group. (I have been told that a distant relative died from such a procedure in the 1930s.)

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Feldt did acknowledge, though, that making an effort to find diverse allies is an essential key to ensuring that all communities are engaged in the issue of reproductive rights, something that many activists within the reproductive-rights community have not done well. Feldt recalls that she was once asked by another white activist about the racial diversity of her board of directors in Arizona.

"I was asked, 'What did you put in your letters [to convince them to join]?' " Feldt explained. "I said, 'I don't do letters. I do lunch. It was important to me, as a white woman, to pick up the phone and call people. You've got to reach out and meet people where they are."

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When the organization found itself facing a significant loss of funding for its health work from the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Planned Parenthood highlighted how many low-income women of color benefit from such programs, and increased the diversity of its spokeswomen in order to publicize such work. Actress Nia Long joined other high-profile celebrity ambassadors of color, such as actresses Gabrielle Union and Aisha Tyler.

The organization has also hired a more-diverse staff to focus on actively involving women of color. In an interview with The Root, Kelley Robinson at Planned Parenthood explained that making a concerted effort to reach out to communities of color and tailor messages to them are keys to keeping women of color informed and engaged on the issue of reproductive health. Acknowledging the shortcomings of the reproductive-rights movement in the past, she said, "Women of color have been marginalized within the movement for a long time."

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Going Beyond Labels

But she highlighted new findings that Planned Parenthood unveiled in the new year — namely that while many women support the legal right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, many are uncomfortable with the label "pro-choice." While the term has not been replaced, the reproductive-rights movement is striving to tailor its message to address more effectively the fluidity and complexity that reflect the way many women feel about this issue.

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"Moving away from those labels has really helped in bringing in communities of color," Robinson said. "I can really see it in my work at historically black colleges." Proving how much labels appear to paint an unclear picture of American attitudes on the subject, a recent poll found that a record-low number of Americans — 41 percent — consider themselves "pro-choice," but in another poll, a record number, 63 percent, did not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned.

Robinson also raised perhaps the most important policy issue in the search for a solution to the abortion debate, particularly in communities of color: sex education. She cited a program launched by one of the Planned Parenthood affiliates in California, in which young, single mothers help to engage young teens in comprehensive sexual ed. The goal is to help educate younger girls so that they make safer, more informed and more responsible sexual-health choices.

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The program reinforces the importance of employing creative solutions to find effective messaging ambassadors on the issue of reproductive rights. With unmarried and poor women more likely to seek an abortion, such programs could play a key role in decreasing the number of abortions overall as well as in communities of color, if only more funding and support existed for them.

As for conflicting racial and cultural attitudes toward abortion 40 years after Roe v. Wade, Feldt said that the subject isn't really so complex after all. "I've traveled all over the world," she explained. "Ultimately, it doesn't matter what ethnicity you are, what race you are, what color you are. There are some basic human issues and basic human needs, and people who really have concern about women and women's equality and the well-being of children always want women to have access to reproductive health care."

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She concluded, "Women can't have any other power in the world if they don't have the power to determine their own reproductive destiny."

Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

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