Bringing African American Churches into Reproductive Justice by Mariam Williams

Mariam WilliamsI don’t expect to hear anything in church about the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade during the month of January,  the month marking 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court made the decision to legalize abortion in this country. This is for a number of reasons: 1) it’s January, and at my church the pastor always starts off the year with a series of sermons that illustrate the church’s mission statement, and women’s choice may be off the subject; 2) Martin Luther King Jr. Day is this month, and if a black church is going to honor something or someone besides Jesus in the month of January, it should probably be MLK; and 3) I haven’t heard anything about abortion from the pulpit in a long time.

A local pro-choice movement leader asked me recently about how black churchgoers feel about abortion. I didn’t know what to say. The last time I heard it mentioned was in a Sunday School class in which a woman said that she almost aborted her daughter. It wasn’t a big confessional moment, just part of a longer testimony as to why she was happy her daughter was around, and it wasn’t received with any shock or fanfare. I can remember hearing once from the pulpit of my current church that while abortion might be wrong, the law shouldn’t interfere with what a woman chooses to do with her own body. Many years before that, in the church I grew up in, a preacher said that we would never find a cure for AIDS because the person who would have grown up to discover the cure was aborted. (What made him so sure of that? Who knows.)

Oppose Alito, Roe v. Wade

Image by Danny Hammontree via Flickr/Creative Commons (Note: This is in Miami, but there are no non-white people among the line of protestors)

Obviously, black churchgoers’ “our” when it comes to feelings about abortion, choice, and anything else, does not exist. According to the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of black Protestants do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, but 58 percent of them believe abortion is morally wrong. As a live-in observer, I see those numbers as a reflection of a collective cultural memory of African women kidnapped, raped, and left with no choice but to carry and birth children that legally didn’t belong to them. The battle cry of the pro-choice movement, that a woman has the right and capacity to control her own body, is one black people can embrace. We value freedom.

Except that by some conventional standards, a Christian woman’s body is never her own. It belongs to God until it belongs to her husband (1 Cor 7:4). Every Christian, the apostle Paul tells us, is bought with a price, so we must honor God with our bodies (1 Cor 6:19-20). Add to this the Bible’s view regarding the sanctity of human life (though when it begins is open to interpretation), questions of morality regarding women and sex, and the alleged immorality of African Americans under racism’s gaze—and, if you’re not too busy, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s support of eugenics, and the Black Power Movement’s effort to create a strong black nation—and you have yourself a bundle of complications. That’s probably why, writing this, I found myself feeling glad I don’t hear much of anything about abortion at church very often.

But as I continued gathering my thoughts for this post, I started thinking about the ways in which black churchgoers and Christians could embrace a woman’s right to choose more fervently. A recent article in Time magazine pointed out that black feminists coined the term “reproductive justice” in the 1990s. Sister Song, a reproductive justice organization based out of Atlanta, explains that this newer movement shifts the discussion of a woman’s right to control whether and when she has children “from a narrower focus on legal access and individual choice (the focus of mainstream organizations) to a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on our power.” It is about civil, human, economic, and political rights, movements African American churches are known for leading, organizing, mobilizing and sustaining.

Will adopting a reproductive justice framework and seeing pro-choice advocates as allies, require the traditional black church to progress on its views of women’s sexuality (by, at minimum, being willing to provide comprehensive sex education rather than abstinence ceremonies to its youth)? Yes, and I won’t act like it won’t be a major hurdle for some churches. But alleged deviation from scripture cannot overshadow biblical calls for economic and political justice, for service to others, or for equality. It can’t silence the outcry from marginalized communities suffering from a capitalistic and racist society that preys on the poor and abandons plans for economic development in their neighborhoods, actively directs black and Latino men to prison, and then wonders why early motherhood is still an appealing option to a teenage girl who lives in that reality .

Mariam Williams is an award-winning writer and feminist in Louisville, Kentucky. She contributes op-eds to the Courier-Journal and blogs about family, faith, food, femininity, and feminism at Mariam is currenlty working on a book about her experience as a single black female feminist Christian. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.

Categories: Body, Contraception, Politics, Race and Ethnicity, Reproductive Justice, The Black Church, Women's Rights

Tags: , , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Thanks for this important blog.

    Researchers have studied the impact of funding restrictions on women’s reproductive decisions and have found that despite the relatively high cost of the procedure, most poor women in need of an abortion manage to obtain one—a testament to women’s determination not to bear a child they feel unprepared to care for. But their doing so often comes at a cost, as many poor women have to postpone their abortion. For those who are affected, the delay is substantial: Poor women take up to three weeks longer than other women to obtain an abortion. Little wonder that, according to a 2004 Guttmacher study published in Contraception, 67% of poor women having an abortion say they would have preferred to have had the abortion earlier.

    Research indicates that women who are economically disadvantaged are delayed at two key stages. Poor women typically take more time than better-off women to confirm a suspected pregnancy, which could b because of the cost of a home pregnancy test or the difficulty in getting a test from a clinic or doctor. In addition, they take several more days between making the decision to have an abortion and actually obtaining one. When asked why they were delayed at this stage, poor women are about twice as likely as more affluent women (after controlling for other personal characteristics) to report having difficulties in arranging an abortion, usually because of the time needed to come up with the money.

    Moreover, other research shows that poor women who are able to raise the money needed for an abortion often do so at great sacrifice to themselves and their families. Studies indicate that many such women are forced to divert money meant for rent, utility bills, food or clothing for themselves and their children.

    One reason why delays in obtaining an abortion are important is because the cost and the risk of a procedure increases with gestational age. In 2001, the average charge for an abortion in 2001 was $370 at 10 weeks’ gestation, but jumped to $650 at 14 weeks and $1,042 at 20 weeks. Thus, the longer it takes for poor women to obtain an abortion, the harder it is for them to afford it. In addition, the risk of complications increases exponentially at higher gestations, so many poor women become trapped in a vicious cycle in which their difficulties are exacerbated and their health risks increased.

    Notably, a poor woman’s access to a timely abortion depends on the policy in her state. According to the 2004 Guttmacher study, which looked at women obtaining abortion in 11 states, poor women living in states that use their own funds to pay for all or most medically necessary abortions obtain the procedure nearly a week earlier than women in the same states whose incomes are 100–149% of the poverty level, which are typically too high for Medicaid. By contrast, in states that restrict the use of funds for abortion, poor and near-poor women have their abortion at about the same gestation.

    Perhaps the most tragic result of the funding restrictions, however, is that a significant number of women who would have had an abortion had it been paid for by Medicaid instead end up continuing their pregnancy. A number of studies have examined how many women are forced to forgo their right to abortion and bear children they did not intend. Studies published over the course of two decades looking at a number of states concluded that 18–35% of women who would have had an abortion continued their pregnancies after Medicaid funding was cut off. According to Stanley Henshaw, a Guttmacher Institute senior fellow and one of the nation’s preeminent abortion researchers, the best such study, which was published in the Journal of Health Economics in 1999, examined abortion and birthrates in North Carolina, where the legislature created a special fund to pay for abortions for poor women. In several instances between 1978 and 1993, the fund was exhausted before the end of the fiscal year, so financial support was unavailable to women whose pregnancies occurred after that point. The researchers concluded that about one-third of women who would have had an abortion if support were available carried their pregnancies to term when the abortion fund was unavailable.


  2. Thanks for adding that important info. The “war on the poor” is real and serious, and the more restrictions that are placed on abortion, the more difficult it becomes for poor women to obtain one. Meanwhile, the same people putting those regulations in place don’t want to increase access to birth control, education, or higher wages, all of which are shown to help women avoid unwanted pregnancies and avoid seeking an abortion at all. It’s maddening.


  3. Great post, Mariam. For those who don’t know about African-American history, it lays out the reasons that reproductive justice is so complicated for the black community.

    I would quibble with one factoid. I’ve been a feminist since 1968, and it’s true that in the late 1960s we spoke of abortion rights. But in my memory, our African-American sisters made it clear already in the 1970s that such a term was too limited, and by the mid-1970s we were already talking about reproductive rights so as to include all of women’s rights to control our bodies. We may not have used the specific term “reproductive justice,” but we were talking about the same thing.


    • Thanks, Nancy. The 1990s date for “reproductive justice” is from the Time magazine article, which I’m assuming they fact-checked and that SisterSong also references in the quote that follows. And although the term “reproductive rights” does encompass more than the right to have an abortion privately, safely and legally, the term “reproductive justice” specifically adds social justice issues that disproportionately affect communities of color and affect a woman’s means to control her body. From SisterSong’s website:

      “The SisterSong concept of Reproductive Justice emerged at a Black women’s caucus in 1994 that merged the concepts of reproductive rights + social justice = reproductive justice.”


      • I’m glad to learn a little more history about a very important part of our movement. Thanks, Mariam. However, in my understanding of the words, justice and rights are synonyms. And what we were talking about in the 1970s was the social justice issues that disproportionately affect women of color when it comes to control of their own bodies. So maybe SisterSong made all of that more explicit, but maybe they were reinventing the wheel.


  4. Great post. I found the perspective that black women who are religious, and morally against abortion, tend to still want reproductive rights in place because of their value of freedom to be interesting. I had never thought of that.


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