Commentary Abortion

Looking at the Racial Disparity in Abortion Rates Completely Misses the Point

Kate Castle

A recent Wall Street Journal article accuses the American left of being hypocritical by advocating for Black Lives Matter while failing to address racial inequities in U.S. abortion rates. This claim is a deliberate attempt to justify the deterioration of reproductive rights for women in the United States under the guise of racial justice.

In his Wall Street Journal article titled “Let’s Talk About the Racial Disparity in Abortions,” Jason Riley, a conservative Black journalist, accuses the left of being hypocritical by advocating for Black Lives Matter while failing to address racial inequities in U.S. abortion rates. He calls on the left to develop a critique of racial disparity in abortion rates:

A popular explanation for the racial divide is that abortion rates are a function of poverty. Low-income women are more likely to terminate a pregnancy, and black women are more likely to be low-income. Yet there are limits to this argument. Hispanic households are comparable to black ones in finances, sexual activity and use of birth control. Yet Hispanic women choose to abort at a rate much closer to that of white women than black women. Even when controlling for income, according to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, black women still have significantly higher rates of abortion.

The sad truth is that many black women are not acting irrationally when they decide to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. They are playing the odds. Out-of-wedlock Hispanic birthrates are above average, but Hispanic marriage rates are comparable to those of whites, which is not the case among blacks. Most Hispanic children are raised by two parents, while most black children are not. Many black women may be choosing to abort because they don’t believe the father will stick around to help raise the child. 

The left plays down the discomfiting incentives and unintended consequence that have resulted from Roe v. Wade. But if liberal activist and their media allies are going to lecture America about the value of black lives, the staggering disparity in abortion rates ought to be part of the discussion. [Emphasis added.]

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Riley’s argument is narrow-minded at best and extremely dangerous to the reproductive rights movement at worst.

I would like to address a few points of his piece here and argue that his focus on racial disparities in abortion rates is a deliberate attempt to justify the deterioration of reproductive rights for women in the United States under the guise of racial justice.

Riley’s argument is nothing novel. It echoes sentiments of the Black genocide campaigns. We’ve all seen the billboards that shame Black women with headlines like “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” What stands out about Riley’s argument is the way he frames his “concern.” Instead of accusing Black women of committing murder, Riley blames their partners. He says, “Many black women may be choosing to abort because they don’t believe the father will stick around to help raise the child.”

His claim about the root cause of why Black women have higher rates of abortion is both racist and sexist. By shifting the focus from systematic factors to Black women’s partners, presumably Black men, and an “unconventional” family structure among Black people (lower marriage rates and cohabitation), Riley is downplaying the importance of structural racism and blaming individuals for being “irresponsible.” He is attempting to depoliticize poverty by focusing on a very narrow and conservative view of morality.

Further, by inserting “the father” into the conversation, Riley is stripping Black women of their agency. In Riley’s world, Black women are merely subjects reacting to conditions they have no control over. This depiction of Black women as puppets disregards the complexities they grapple with and the strength they embody when making decisions about their reproduction and their lives. Black women, according to Riley, are not actors in their own lives.

However, as Monica Simpson of SisterSong explains in an article at Rewire, Black women “are making decisions every day to plan and care for ourselves and for our children.” Simpson adds:

We deal with attacks on our ability to access reproductive health care and obstacles to raising our children—the need for better education, difficulty affording child care, a broken criminal justice system that perpetuates mass incarceration and police violence, continued health disparities, and a lack of access to high quality health services. We are struggling, but we are also striving to get by in a world that far too often wants to push us down.

….

There is a real health crisis for Black women in this country that is only exacerbated by an organized attempt to strip us of our rights and our bodily autonomy. People should not be forced to be pregnant when they are not ready, and we will not be told that we cannot be parents or that we should have to endure having our children grow up in a climate of fear or without a safe and healthy place to call home.

Riley’s logic—that higher rates of abortion among Black women are linked to lower marriage rates among Black couples—can be traced back to the theory of social disorganization. Sociologists at the University of Chicago described social disorganization theory as an explanation for why individuals undergoing major social changes (such as migration) were unable to conform to certain social “norms” such as a nuclear family unit. High crime rates, sexually promiscuous behavior, desertion, and delinquency were considered by the theorists as attributes of social disorganization.

During and after World War II there was an influx of Black Americans into northern industrial cities from the South. Many cities did not have the infrastructure to accommodate the rapidly growing population. This, in turn, led to overcrowding and housing deterioration in Black neighborhoods. Black housing reformers, in search of an explanation for the housing crisis in Chicago, adopted the social disorganization theory.

In Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis: Housing Policy in Post-War Chicago, political scientist Preston H. Smith II explains:

The idea of social disorganization appealed to black civic leaders for a number of reasons. Since all African Americans were subject to racial segregation, for these black elites, social disorganization helped to explain why some succeeded in escaping poverty while others failed. Not only was it a convenient concept to explain class differences in the black community but it also paid racial democratic dividends. Black policy elites could single out low-income blacks as the bearers of personal and family disorganization, and thus contest whites who generalized pathology to blacks of all economic strata. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, Black elites were able to draw a class distinction in order to separate themselves from low-income Black individuals. They did so by embracing white middle-class values and using “self-help” rhetoric (preaching these values to working-class Blacks). The fact that Chicago school theorists depicted social disorganization as a process allowed for an understanding that it could be disrupted. Smith goes on:

Black civic leaders could attack social disorganization in two ways: by confronting racial segregation that produced slum conditions, and/or by correcting the values and behavior of working-class blacks in the segregated institutions that they managed. Black elites became invested in inculcating middle-class values into their poorer brethren.

This is a historical account of how Black elites took on a managerial role toward low-income Black individuals in the post-war era. “Self-help” rhetoric became popularized with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s. As Preston H. Smith explains in “Self-Help,” Black Conservatives, and the Reemergence of Black Privatism:

The term “self-help” was used by political commentators, politicians, and ministers during the Reagan-Bush era to indicate a shift in black politics. Often invoked, self-help was associated with phrases such as “self-reliance” and “individual responsibility” to indicate that the source of black social problems came, and certainly alleviation should come, from within the black community.

Once understood to be a product of structural forces, with the help of self-help rhetoric, poverty is reduced to a character flaw. This focus on the individual depoliticizes poverty and perpetuates the idea that there is a Black underclass that needs to be “managed.” Riley’s use of self-help rhetoric to inflict shame on Black men, accusing them of being irresponsible, is a perfect example of how this logic is very much prevalent in Black politics today. Riley’s claim that Black men are not around to help raise their children reinforces this idea that poverty is a function of values and character. As a Black professional, he is attempting to take on the role of racial manager to tell low-income Black men how to be “responsible fathers.”

Riley’s accusation that Black men are not there to help Black women raise their children not only ignores structural factors that reproduce racial and economic inequality, such as mass incarceration and the lack of access to adequate health care and education, but it is also simply not true. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that Black dads are just as involved with their children as white and Latino dads in similar living situations. While Black dads are less likely to live with their children, they are more likely to see them at least once a month compared to their white and Latino counterparts.

While I would like to go more in depth into how neoliberal self-help rhetoric functions to depoliticize poverty, I want to get back to Riley’s central claim. Riley would like his readers to understand higher rates of abortion among Black women as a moral atrocity. He uses language like “babies” in the place of fetus intentionally to distract from the real issue at hand: controlling Black women’s reproduction and lives.

Reasons U.S. Women have Abortions, a study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, found that 73 percent of women cited not being able to afford a baby right now as a reason for having an abortion. Over 60 percent of women having abortions already had children and 48 percent of women cited they were having relationship problems or did not want to be a single parent.

Of all the reasons women give for having abortions, not being able to afford to have another child is one of the most common. So yes, Mr. Riley, this is about economics.

Riley is correct that relationships play a role in women’s reproductive decisions. It is true that 48 percent of women cited relationship problems or avoiding single motherhood as a reason for having an abortion. But this doesn’t mean what Riley thinks it does. He blames higher abortion rates among Black women on allegedly irresponsible partners and dysfunctional family structure. He seems to want to say that it’s not poverty that matters, it’s “good” values, like personal responsibility. The reality is that relationships have an economic component. As the social safety net deteriorates, it’s low-income people who are hit the hardest. The desire to have a partner (and two incomes) to help raise a child is a matter of economic survival.

When I look at the disparity in abortion rates, I see women making difficult decisions based on their life circumstances. It is an undeniable truth that the evaluation of material conditions and relationships plays an important role in making reproductive decisions on an individual level. Of course they do. What is happening in our lives always influences the decisions that we make. But to attribute higher abortion rates to one factor (Black men’s “failure to father”) is ignorant at best. First, as I’ve already established, dominant stereotypes about Black fatherhood are simply wrong; the data says so. Secondly, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 89 percent of women selected at least two reasons they were choosing to have an abortion, and 72 percent selected three or more. What this tells us is that reasons for abortion are not clear-cut; they are multifaceted, just like the women who have them. There is no singular narrative to abortion and to suggest so minimizes the strength and compassion women exert in deciding to end a pregnancy.

This is only part of a much larger discussion our society needs to have surrounding abortion rights. We need to focus on women and the reality of their lives, including the structures that shape them, because that is what reproductive rights and justice is really about.

Riley may have fooled some by appealing to sentiments of racial unity. But I’ve attempted to unmask his motivations and highlight that this attack on Black women’s partners not “sticking around” as the primary reason why they have abortions at a higher rate than white women is part of a larger attempt to depoliticize poverty and blame individuals for their own systematic oppression. Riley’s accusation that the left is being hypocritical by mobilizing for Black Lives Matter without critiquing racial disparity in abortion rates completely misses the point. While Black Lives Matter activists target systems of oppression, specifically the prison industrial complex and police brutality, Riley is stuck on analyzing a symptom of the system. His accusation that Black men need to be better fathers and use of self-help rhetoric only act to further distract from the root of the problem: racial oppression and economic exploitation. It is insulting for Riley to suggest he cares about Black lives when he doesn’t respect Black women enough to value their lives and moral agency. If Riley was honestly concerned with Black lives, he would spend his time writing about racism in the justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline, job creation, the campaign for a living wage, comprehensive health care (including access to affordable birth control options), and public education (including comprehensive sex ed programs).

Editor’s note: The author’s affiliation is included for informational purposes only; this work was not conducted under the auspices of the Guttmacher Institute. The views expressed herein are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Guttmacher Institute.

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