Race and abortion are two of the most polarizing and controversial subjects in the United States body politic -- and race in tandem with abortion is perhaps the most explosive topic in the country.
Nevertheless, according to government health statistics, the rate of abortion among black women far exceeds that of all other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., creating a deep schism within the black community itself.
Black conservatives and Christians liken the high abortion rate among African-Americans as tantamount to “genocide,” while liberals (both black and white) insist that easy access to abortions have prevented the births of millions of unwanted babies in a population already burdened by severe poverty and poor health care.
The numbers are stark.
As of 2006, 50 out of 1,000 black women underwent abortions, according to the Census Bureau, versus 14 for white women and 22 for women of other races.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women account for only 13 percent of the total U.S. female population, but undergo more than one-third of all abortions.
In Mississippi, usually ranked the poorest state in the nation, blacks represent about 37 percent of the population, but comprise 75 percent of abortion patients.
A website with the inflammatory name of “BlackGenocide.com” declared that almost 1,800 black babies are aborted on average every day and that black women have had 16 million abortions since 1973 (when the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide).
That figure would represent almost half of the total black population of about 36 million currently living in the U.S.
To put that number of deaths in perspective, consider that since 1973, the number of black Americans who have died from heart disease (2.26 million), cancer (1.64 million), accidents (307,723), violent crimes (306,313) and AIDS (203,649) combined do not equal the number of lives lost to abortions.
There appears to be no middle ground and no compromise to be found on this most difficult of subjects.
A few years ago an anti-abortion minister from Texas plastered up billboards in the poor, black neighborhoods of Chicago (President Barack Obama’s adopted hometown), decrying abortion among minorities and declaring: Every 21 minutes our next possible leader is aborted. Black children are an endangered species.
In response, Planned Parenthood condemned the billboards as an offensive and condescending effort to stigmatize and shame African-American women while attempting to limit their ability to make private, personal medical decisions.
Similarly, another anti-abortion group called Life Always placed similar billboards in New York City showing a young black girl with a caption that read: “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.”
That too elicited backlash from prominent locals.
Letitia James, a black female member of New York City Council, thundered: “Every woman has the right to make personal choices in regards to her body, and I respect many different points of view, [but] to compare abortion to terrorism and genocide is highly offensive.”
Council Speaker (and mayoral hopeful) Christine C. Quinn, who is white, said: “To refer to any woman’s legal right to an abortion as a ‘genocidal plot’ is not only absurd, but it is offensive to women and to communities of color.”
Dr. Anita Raj, a professor in the division of global public health in the department of medicine at the University of California at San Diego, attributed the high rate of abortions among blacks to a number of factors.
“Research indicates that blacks compared to whites are more at risk for early (teen) and unplanned pregnancies,” she said. “Inadequate social and service support for effective family planning in low-income and black communities increases the likelihood for an unplanned pregnancy and potentially the need for abortion.”
Raj added that poverty and violence disproportionately afflict black communities, destabilizing families and romantic relationships, and compromise health and safety for some pregnant mothers.
“In this context, continuing with a pregnancy may not be in the best interest of the mother and her family,” Raj said.
“Supporting family planning services as well as the education and economic security of black girls and women would likely be a better means of reducing abortion rates in this population, but current efforts such as those seen recently in Mississippi are designed to focus more on eliminating abortion health services for a population already living with lower access to health care.”
Perhaps a small, but very vocal, segment of black America is convinced that abortion is a conspiracy to kill off the community, even claiming that abortion clinics are doing the work of the Ku Klux Klan.
Herman Cain, the former Republican presidential candidate, blasted Planned Parenthood for what he claimed is the organization’s desire to exterminate black people.
Seventy-five percent of those facilities (abortion clinics) were built in the black community. In (Planned Parenthood founder) Margaret Sanger's own words, she didn't use the word 'genocide,' but she did talk about preventing the increasing number of poor blacks in this country by preventing black babies from being born, Cain told CBS' Face the Nation TV show.
Predictably, Planned Parenthood was outraged by Cain’s incendiary remarks.
It is simply unacceptable for those who oppose legal abortion to use inflammatory and divisive language based on race to push an ideological agenda, said Veronica Byrd, director of African American media for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
Herman Cain is wrong on the facts and clearly out of the mainstream in his attack on Planned Parenthood.”
Strikingly, the high rate of abortion among blacks flies directly in the face of the community’s conservative attitudes towards the practice -- a Zogby poll in 2004 indicated that two-thirds of African-Americans believe abortion should never be permitted (above the 56 percent national figure). Herman Cain would clearly fall into that camp.
For the record, Barack Obama is pro-abortion rights, although he conceded efforts should be made to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
On the 38th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision in January 2011, Obama said: “[This Supreme Court decision] protects women’s health and reproductive freedom, and affirms a fundamental principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters. I am committed to protecting this constitutional right. I also remain committed to policies, initiatives, and programs that help prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women and mothers, encourage healthy relationships, and promote adoption.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.