famous formulation in 1992 was that abortion ought to be “safe, legal and rare.” His goal was to coalesce liberal and moderate Democrats on the issue, but the wording also suggested that even among supporters of Roe v. Wade, abortion was properly viewed as undesirable: the fewer, the better.
In the three decades since, the U.S. abortion rate has in fact declined—in recent years it’s fallen to about half of what it was in the early 1980s—yet significant racial disparities persist. In other contexts, group differences in outcome set off alarms on the political left. The racial gap in test scores has brought calls to eliminate the SAT and other admissions tests. The racial gap in arrest and incarceration rates has brought calls to legalize drugs and reduce resources for law enforcement. Racial differences in wealth and income fuel progressive demands for slavery reparations and a larger welfare state. And so on.
When it comes to abortion, however, left-wing concern seems to stop at making the procedure safe and legal, even while black-white disparities have not only persisted but widened. A 2020 paper by public-health scholar
and two co-authors cites data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to note that the black abortion rate is nearly four times higher than the white rate: “Between 2007-2016, the Black rate declined 29% and the White rate declined 33%—meaning that the racial disparity actually increased rather than decreased.” Justice
concurrence in a 2019 abortion case observed that “there are areas of New York City in which black children are more likely to be aborted than they are to be born alive—and are up to eight times more likely to be aborted than white children in the same area.”
Mr. Studnicki and his co-authors likewise conclude that abortion’s impact on the size of the black population is pronounced. Using Pennsylvania as a case study, they note that in 2018 there were about 61,000 premature white deaths from all causes and 21,000 premature black deaths. “Abortions were 23.9% of the White deaths and 62.7% of the Black deaths.”
Nationally, the number of babies aborted by black women each year far exceeds the combined number of blacks who drop out of school, who are sent to prison and who are murdered. Pro-choice activists typically dismiss these facts as a function of poverty, since lower-income women are more likely to get abortions and black women are more likely to have lower incomes. But even among other lower-income groups, such as Hispanics, black women still abort at significantly higher rates.
A more plausible explanation is the one put forward by Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks in his book “Is Marriage for White People?” Having a spouse, Mr. Banks speculates, may be what matters most in a woman’s decision to seek an abortion. “A single woman with an unplanned pregnancy is about twice as likely as a married woman to abort,” he writes. “Black women thus may have so many more abortions than other groups in part because they are so much less likely to be married.”
The irony, he adds, is that even though single black women are less likely to abort than other groups of single women, black women still have more abortions because they are far more likely than their white counterparts to be single. “Some portion of the racial disparities in abortion are yet another cost of the marriage decline” among blacks.
You’d think that the activists and media elites who are otherwise obsessed with equity—and who have spent the better part of a decade lecturing the country about the value of black lives—might take more interest in the Roe decision’s contribution to racial inequality. The black poverty rate has been roughly a third higher than the white rate for close to 30 years. Among married blacks, however, poverty has been in the single digits over the same period. In some years, the poverty rate for black married couples has been below the rate of not only blacks as a whole but also whites as a whole. If activists believe that higher black incomes will result in fewer black abortions, why not focus on how to increase black marriage rates?
One problem is that such a conversation requires frank talk about counterproductive attitudes toward marriage and solo parenting in low-income black communities. It requires discussing antisocial behavior and personal responsibility. The Democratic left has fashioned a politics around avoiding those subjects and accusing anyone who broaches them of racism. No issue has a bigger impact on America’s black population than legal abortion, but we’re not supposed to talk about that.
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Appeared in the May 11, 2022, print edition.