African Americans and abortion: An intriguing poll

Graph of African American preferences regarding legality of abortionAmericans appears to be in a period of heightened support for abortion, as revealed in a number of recent national polls. In contrast to earlier polls, which typically showed the country split nearly 50-50 on the abortion question, exit polling on election day 2012 showed a considerably more lopsided degree of support for legal abortion, with 59% of respondents wanting abortion to remain legal (and an even higher 66% of Latinos/as offering this view).

After the election, in a much commented on Wall St. Journal poll taken around the time of the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade in January, 70% of respondents stated their opposition to the decision being overturned, the highest number since 1989. Moreover, in contrast to previous polls, the same poll showed, for the first time, a majority support for abortion in all or most situations. As I suggested in a previous ANSIRH blog, these numbers appear to reflect the public’s reaction to the extremist views on abortion—and contraception as well—that were articulated by Republican candidates in the recent election season, from the Romney–Ryan ticket down to Senate and lower-level races.

But another poll, which has received far less attention, and which I stumbled upon in the course of preparing a webinar, is equally intriguing to me for what it says about emergent abortion politics. This was a poll performed by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in July 2012, which surveyed African Americans and Hispanics on their attitudes about abortion, among other issues. Addressing here only the results from black respondents, three findings in particular struck me: the 67% who believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases (essentially identical to the Wall St. Journal poll mentioned above), the 57% who said that there should be abortion services available in their communities, and the 66% who said they believe abortion clinics are, for the most part, safe.

Why do I find these results so striking? First, for the past several years the anti-abortion movement, in collaboration with conservative forces within the African American community, has been working relentlessly to derive political capital from the high rate of abortions among black women. The notorious billboard campaign in major American cities, which conveyed such messages as “the most dangerous place for a black child is in his mother’s womb,” and that “abortion enslaves us,” has been a central part of these efforts. Another major talking point of this anti-abortion outreach to the African American community is the alleged scandal that abortion clinics are disproportionately located in predominantly black communities—a point whose accuracy is disputed by the Guttmacher Institute.

“…three findings in particular struck me: the 67% who believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, the 57% who said that there should be abortion services available in their communities, and the 66% who said they believe abortion clinics are, for the most part, safe.”

Yet the PRRI poll, if it is to be believed, suggests what a failure these efforts have been: not only do black Americans currently support legal abortion in the same high numbers as other Americans, they also apparently want abortion providing facilities within their communities. Indeed, in the interesting way that social movements operate, often spurring counter-movements in reaction, the billboard campaign, in particular, was effectively and forcefully countered by a new reproductive justice group called Trust Black Women, a group which likely has had the ultimate effect of increasing the acceptability of open support for abortion rights within the African American community.

A second reason that I find this poll so interesting is that another major campaign of the anti-abortion movement in recent years has been to convince the American people (not just African Americans) that abortion is medically unsafe. This alleged lack of safety in abortion facilities serves as the rationale for various legislative strategies of abortion opponents, e.g. laws requiring clinics to conform to the physical requirements of ambulatory surgery centers—regulations that abortion supporters state have nothing to do with abortion safety and everything to do with making it financially impossible for clinics to remain open. (Critics of such legislation point to research showing that first-trimester abortion is fourteen times as safe as childbirth.) Again, if the PRRI poll is to be believed, two thirds of African Americans have not been swayed by arguments that abortion is medically unsafe.

As heartening as abortion rights supporters might find the polls mentioned in this post, it is of course worth emphasizing the disconnect between what such polls say—not to mention what the recent presidential election suggests—and what is currently transpiring with respect to abortion in numerous state legislatures. Despite these strong indications of widespread support for legal abortion, a number of state legislatures have been pursuing anti-abortion measures with redoubled zeal since the election.

And this will not change until it is no longer in these politicians’ electoral interest to pass such measures. Translating the strong support for abortion shown in polls to actual voting behavior in the states is arguably the key challenge facing the pro-choice movement at this moment.

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