Why — and How — We Need to Talk About Racial Disparities in Abortion Rates
Remember the old days when President Bill Clinton brought a temporary calm to the raging abortion debate by declaring the ultra-controversial procedure should be “safe, legal and rare?”
That was in 1992, when compromise still sounded like an achievable goal in Washington. Trend lines already were showing abortion to be in a slow but persistent decline across major demographic groups, although not nearly fast enough to satisfy the politically potent anti-abortion movement.
Those were the days.
Today, the issue of abortion rights has taken on a new urgency with the recent leak of a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion that suggested the court would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
If that’s how the decision comes down, which is expected by late June, one thing is certain: women are likely to bear the biggest burden of its consequences — especially women of color.
Even though the abortion rate for Black women has declined over the years on an almost parallel track with other women, they still get abortions at rates more than four times higher than their white counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There were 23.8 abortions per 1,000 Black women in 2019, compared with 6.6 per 1,000 white women, according to the CDC.
You don’t have to be a social scientist to figure out the bigger reasons for the disparity. Women of color often have limited access to health care, effective birth control and adequate sex education. If you are Black or Hispanic in a conservative state that already limits access to abortions, you are far more likely than a white person to have one.
Yet, too many people treat the disparity as simply something that needs more study. One 2020 paper by public health scholar James Studnicki and two co-authors calls the disparity “the most demographically consequential occurrence for the minority population.” It goes on to say that “the science community has refused to engage on the subject and the popular media has essentially ignored it. In the current unfolding environment, there may be no better metric for the value of Black lives.”
As a Black person, I appreciate the scholars’ concern. But before we point fingers of shame and blame at the women, I think we need to know more about why they made the choice they made.