ST. LOUIS — As a pastor, Clinton Stancil counsels his black congregants that abortion is akin to the taking of innocent life. But as a civil rights activist, Mr. Stancil urges them to understand the social forces that prompt black women to have abortions at disproportionately high rates.
The national debate over abortion has focused of late on when a heartbeat is discernible in the fetus, on the rights of women to make choices over their bodies and on the vast schism between the opposing views on ending pregnancies.
But to many African-Americans like Mr. Stancil, who is the pastor of Wayman A.M.E. Church in St. Louis, abortion cannot be debated without considering the quality of urban schools. Or the disproportionately high unemployment rate in black communities. Or the significant racial disparities in health care.
“As much as I believe with all my heart about the killing, the taking of innocent lives, I also believe that I will never support giving white legislators who have no interest in our community the ability to tell our women what they can do with their bodies,” Mr. Stancil said of sweeping abortion restrictions recently approved in Missouri.
In many black communities, the abortion debate is inextricably tied to race in ways that white communities seldom confront. Social and economic disparities that are particularly challenging to African-Americans, from mass incarceration to maternal and infant mortality, are crucial parts of that discussion.
The best way to reduce abortions, many black people both for and against the practice argue, is to address the difficult circumstances that lead so many black women to end their pregnancies. Abortions have dropped over the last 15 years among all racial groups. But black women continue to have the highest abortion rate at 27.1 per 1,000 women compared with 10 per 1,000 for white women, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Those seeking to outlaw abortion lament what they see as an undoing of the fabric of black families. They liken the high abortion rates among black women to a cultural genocide, and sometimes raise the specter of eugenics and population control when discussing abortion rights, as Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court did in a recent concurring opinion.
Those intent on protecting women’s constitutional right to make their own decision on terminating a pregnancy — and even some black abortion skeptics — see a contradiction in the great concern some lawmakers and activists show toward the fetus versus the limited focus on policies that uplift black communities.
Underlying the debate is the rich heritage of the black church, at once a liberal center of civil rights activism and an institution that preaches religious conservatism.
In discussions with African-American congregants, the abortion debate can often feel like wading through a series of contradictions. Mr. Stancil, for instance, opposes abortions but is also against far-reaching restrictions that would eliminate all access to them. Most black voters support legal access to abortion but are also split on whether abortion is morally acceptable.
The racial intolerance that exists in the country is an intrinsic part of the discussion. “Black Lives Matter,” a motto born of the abuse black people suffer at the hands of police officers, can be heard on both sides of the abortion debate among black people, with one side emphasizing the life of the mother and the other the fetus.
“Those who are most vocal about abortion and abortion laws are my white brothers and sisters, and yet many of them don’t care about the plight of the poor, the plight of the immigrant, the plight of African-Americans,” said the Rev. Dr. Luke Bobo, a minister from Kansas City, Mo., who is vehemently opposed to abortion. “My argument here is, let’s think about the entire life span of the person.”
In Missouri, the Republican-controlled Legislature recently banned abortion at around eight weeks of pregnancy — though that law has yet to go into effect — and state officials have said they will not renew the license of the state’s only abortion provider. Without the renewal, Missouri would become the first state in the country without access to abortion services since 1974, the year after Roe v. Wade made abortion a constitutional right.
A state commission gave the clinic, Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, a temporary reprieve last month, allowing the clinic to provide abortions.
About half the women who received abortions at the clinic last year were black. The clinic also provides other health care services, and supporters worry that patients from marginalized communities will face the biggest consequences if abortion access in the state is eliminated, including turning to risky, illegal means to terminate pregnancies.
Black women already have enough challenges, said Kawanna Shannon, who is black and the director of surgical services at the clinic. “And now I have to still deal with the state and the governor now passing laws and telling me what I can and can’t do with my own body,” she said. “It’s just burdensome.”
Polls show that most African-Americans support at least some form of legal access to abortion. More than 33 percent of African-Americans said they believed that abortion should be legal under any circumstance, and 47 percent said they favored allowing it under certain conditions, according to Gallup polls.
Still, those who believe abortion should be legal, the polls suggest, want limits. More than a third of both black and white respondents said abortion should be legal “in only a few” circumstances. Black and white Americans opposed abortion at similar rates: Around 16 percent of African-Americans said it should be illegal in all circumstances, compared with 17 percent of white respondents.
Religious teachings may have convinced some African-Americans that life begins in the womb. But having seen firsthand how their communities have been hurt by high incarceration rates, economic disinvestment and a lack of educational opportunities, some have a hard time embracing what they see as one-size-fits-all abortion bans.
Dr. Bobo, the minister from Kansas City, said he counseled women not to have abortions, but at the end of the day, “It’s her choice.”
“I cannot manipulate her into agreeing; I cannot guilt her,” he said.
Mr. Stancil of the Wayman A.M.E. Church said his view that abortion amounted to ending a life was compatible with his belief in a woman’s choice because God was the ultimate judge.
“That’s something they’re going to have to reconcile with their God,” he said of women who chose to have abortions.
Promoting policies that address some of the root causes of abortions by black women has become a favored approach for many black voters on both sides of the issue, and especially for those against abortion. From womb to tomb, they say, describing their concern for the full life span of black people.
“We can save a child in the womb, but we also have an environment that could kill that child,” said Cessilye Smith, a black abortion opponent in Dallas working to open a free clinic that provides pre- and postnatal care and other services for women. “They both have to be worked on equally.”
The Church of God in Christ, a predominantly black Pentecostal denomination with more than six million members nationwide, is in the process of building a $20 million pregnancy center in Memphis. Four years ago, the church, which opposes abortion, began a campaign to educate its members on the impact of abortion on black communities and to encourage preventive actions like fostering or adopting children.
The Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies, a Boston-based think tank, is planning to start a campaign this summer with billboards and advertisements in black media outlets and on social media that speak out against abortion — and against capital punishment and mass incarceration.
The Rev. Michael Jones, the pastor at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, said that he believed in preserving life, but that he did not “have the power to take away that choice” a woman makes on an abortion. Regardless of what happens with the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, Mr. Jones said his focus was on the church’s efforts to help and empower black lives.
“We’re really concentrating on meeting the needs beyond the birth of a child,” Mr. Jones said, adding that if a woman decided to have an abortion, “we provide counseling and support for them.”
That position is comforting to Briana Bobo, 30, a staunch supporter of abortion rights who is a member of Friendly Temple and Dr. Bobo’s daughter.
“Black folks,” she said, “are just a little bit softer and more able to understand, perhaps, different views on abortion and on life.”