Last week came the news of a showdown of sorts in the New York area regarding abortion in the Black community. The Billboard that you see at the right was displayed in SoHo section of New York and says, The Most Dangerous Place for and African American is in the Womb. The billboard was placed by a local Chapter of group known as Life Always. After controversy, threatened protests, and even a plan by Al Sharpton to organize significant demonstrations, the group chose to remove the sign. The sign continues to appear elsewhere in the country.
Once again we confront the very painful and very deadly issue of abortion. In this post I would like to set forth a number of independent though related points regarding abortion in the Black Community. Most of you know, though I am white, I have spent most of my 22 years as a priest ministering in African American Parishes and I love doing so. Most of you also know that I, as any Catholic Priest would be, am strongly pro-life. There are particular factors regarding abortion when it comes to the African American Community and some of them need to be confronted and explored. Allow me to list them here in a somewhat disconnected way:
- The high rate of abortion in the Black community is very sobering and sad. African Americans make up about 12% of the US population but account for 30% of abortions. Hispanics are over represented as well, though not as steeply. They account for 25% of abortions while being about 17% of the US population.
- Staggering Numbers – Since 1973, over 15 million black children have been lost to abortion. Over 1,400 black children are killed every day through abortion. The African American Population is currently only 37 million. What this means is that if these 15 million aborted babies had survived and had some children of their own, the African American population would be almost double the size it is today. Half are gone in 40 years.
- The billboard in New York was in response to the dreadful news that in the New York area 60 % of Black pregnancies end in abortion.
- Highest Cause of Death by Far – These are all staggering numbers. No other cause of death among Blacks (or whites for that matter) even comes close to the toll that abortion takes. Add up the numbers of deaths from heart disease, AIDS, diabetes, cancer, accidents and violent crimes, multiply it by two, and we are not even close to the number who have died by abortion.
- Very few want to discuss this. There may be gatherings to lament the number who have died by AIDS, or heart disease and programs announced to try and reduce the number of deaths by these. But abortion is “off the radar.” This is not unique to the Black community but it the numbers are higher and condition even more critical. And still there is silence. It is almost like rushing to add water to the sink, but no one wants to admit that the drain is wide open.
- Some ARE beginning to discuss this topic however. And, it is a long and difficult road to get the topic on the agenda. The billboard above is one such attempt. Making African Americans aware of the staggering numbers is another important task. Even prominent members of the African American Community are beginning to speak out. (See below).
- Some years ago when I mentioned abortion, a parishioner said to me, “Abortion isn’t our issue Father, we Blacks keep our babies.” And her perception is a common one in the African American Community. Very few see aware of the huge numbers and the over-representation of the African American Community in the abortion numbers.
- I do not find open support for abortion in my parish. It is more a question of not wanting to discuss the issue. When I preach against abortion I do not get angry letters or people walking out. I am not confronted after Mass. What I do get is a lot of silence and I sense pain in that silence as well as a certain startled quality when the numbers are made plain.
- The billboard in New York (and elsewhere) makes a true statement. There is just no other place where 60% of black people go and will not make it out alive. The nationwide rate is only a little lower, with 47% of black pregnancies ending abortion . By comparison 16% of white pregnancies so end. The fact is that it simply IS a much bigger problem in the African American Community. Still, one may ask, where do 16% of White Americans go and not make it out alive? Hence, one may legitimately ask, where are the similar billboards in White or other ethnic communities? In the end though, part of the answer has to be that the numbers are so much higher in the Black Community. The numbers simply cannot be ignored.
- The Billboard however may be critiqued for its tactic. There is one approach which says that prophets should not mince words, and to some extent I agree with this. However, when it comes to abortion, I have discovered that there are many deep and very personal struggles associated with abortion. In such a scenario, and presuming we are trying to reach out, inform and win hearts and minds, I am not sure the “stick in the eye” approach is the most effective. To tweak and provoke has its place, but I am not sure here is that place. The Ad can be (and has been) interpreted to mean that Black women are bad mothers, or dangerous. The focus is more on the women than the lost children. I am not sure that this is what we mean to communicate or that such a message is helpful.
- The Higher numbers in the Black community are due to numerous factors. Poverty is likely the chief factor. 42% of abortions are performed on women who are poor . The breakdown of the Black family is another factor. 85% of abortions are performed on unmarried women . The breakdown of the Black Family is complicated. A huge factor is the Welfare system, which has and continues to reward single parent scenarios and punishes marriage. An astonishing fact is that only 37% of Black women have ever been married. While this is shocking, the rest of America is catching up. Marriage and family are in trouble everywhere, and this is bound to affect the question of abortion.
- The Black community has been targeted by Abortion providers. Some dispute if this is the case today, but there is no doubt that, historically, the Black Community was targeted for reduction and even elimination by the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger. Sanger was a eugenicist and thought of the Black and Brown races as inferior. She sought, through the use of contraception, and later, Abortion, to reduce and ultimately eliminate them. She is infamously quoted as saying, The [Black] minister’s work is also important and he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members (Letter to Gamble, Dec 10, 1939). I Have written more extensively on this topic here: Origins of Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood denies it targets Black and Latinos today. Yet it remains true that the highest percentage of abortions are sold by them to Black and Latino women. Many also argue that most of Planned Parenthood “clinics” are located in minority neighborhoods. They deny this and provide statistics to refute it. But as one might expect, how we define “minority neighborhood” is crucial to determining the real number.
- But in the End, No Excuses Please – So there ARE many factors that drive the numbers of African American abortions higher. However, we must also avoid patronizing attitudes that seek to absolve the Black community from all responsibility. Despite the challenges of poverty and broken families due to welfare, the Black woman and the Black man remain moral agents, who make choices for which they are responsible and accountable. Simply offering explanations cannot ultimately excuse any community from asking necessary questions and addressing the horrifying numbers of abortion. Pastors of Black Churches such as me have an obligation to bring this before the community and preach with clarity that Abortion is murder and it must end. We must help women who are in crisis, and we must seek, with the wider community, to provide real and true alternatives, to include adoption. Poverty cannot exclude such a discussion. And frankly, huge numbers of African Americans made it out of poverty a long time ago.
- We simply have to confront these numbers. We must discuss them openly. There will be some who wish to claim that racism is the real motive. But I am not sure how concern for the death of African American babies is racism. Others will see it as racist that the Black community is singled out. It is not, Abortion remains a human problem affecting us all. But, it cannot be denied that the numbers are significantly higher in the African American Community and this must be confronted and addressed in a way that is not accusatory but also not patronizing.
- It’s going to be a long process. The intersections between race, politics, abortion and culture are deep. Building trust is key. Many in the Black community wonder of the Pro-Life Community’s motives and true commitment. Many wonder at the concern expressed for unborn babies and the apparent lack of similar concern for born babies. I don’t think the charge is wholly fair (and is driven mostly by politicians), but the perception is real and it must be dealt with. Trust must be built and this takes time. But a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
- Powerful and New Voices – Thank God some good and powerful voices are emerging. The video s below help detail some of that. Further, three members of the family of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have stepped forward and begun a discussion about abortion. I want to end with a statement recently issued by them:
As our nation pauses to recommit itself to fulfilling the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we invite our fellow citizens to reflect on how that dream touches every human life. Dr. King taught that justice and equality need to be as wide-reaching as humanity itself. Nobody can be excluded from the Beloved Community. He taught that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’
In his 1967 Christmas sermon, he pointed out the foundation of this vision: ‘The next thing we must be concerned about if we are to have peace on earth and good will toward men is the nonviolent affirmation of the sacredness of all human life. …Man is a child of God, made in His image, and therefore must be respected as such….And when we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won’t exploit people, we won’t trample over people with the iron feet of oppression, we won’t kill anybody.’
The work of building the Beloved Community is far from finished. In each age, it calls us to fight against poverty, discrimination, and violence in every form. And as human history unfolds, the forms that discrimination and violence take will evolve and change. Yet our commitment to overcome them must not change, and we must not shrink from the work of justice, no matter how unpopular it may become.
In our day, therefore, we cannot ignore the discrimination, injustice, and violence that are being inflicted on the youngest and smallest members of the human family, the children in the womb. Thousands of these children are killed every day in America by abortion, throughout all nine months of pregnancy.
We declare today that these children too are members of the Beloved Community, that our destiny is linked with theirs, and that therefore they deserve justice, equality, and protection.
And we can pursue that goal, no matter what ethnic, religious, or political affiliation we have. None of that has to change in order for us to embrace Dr. King’s affirmation of the sacredness of all human life. It simply means that in our efforts to set free the oppressed, we include the children in the womb.
We invite all people of good will to join us in the affirmation that children in the womb have equal rights and human dignity.”
Dr. Alveda King
Director, African-American Outreach, Priests for Life
Niece of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mrs. Naomi Barber King
Wife of the late Rev. A.D. King (brother of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Rev. Derek King
Nephew of Martin Luther King, Jr.