Democrats Navigate Nuanced Views on Abortion Among Black Voters

As she and other faith leaders sat last month with Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss the implications of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard, a pastor at a Black church in Los Angeles, reflected on the complex feelings in her community about abortion.

While Black voters remain overwhelmingly allied with the Democratic Party, some, especially older churchgoers, have a conservative streak when it comes to social issues like abortion. The best way to communicate to those members of her community, Ms. Smith-Pollard and other faith leaders said not long before the court ruled to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion, would be to frame the response as not just a matter of abortion, but rather as part of a broader movement to restrict individual rights, including voting, marriage and control over one’s own body.

The most effective message for her community “would be like having to have the conversation without the word abortion,” Ms. Smith-Pollard later said in an interview.

“We were all clear that this is about abortion, but this is not just about abortion,” Ms. Smith-Pollard said, adding that it was imperative to focus on “the implication on other rights — civil rights.”

Ms. Harris seized on that advice earlier this month when she took the stage at the Essence Festival in New Orleans before an audience of several hundred mostly Black women. The vice president drew a connection between states moving to outlaw abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court decision and those restricting voting rights.

“There is an interesting intersection,” she said to an enthusiastic crowd, adding, “No surprise there.”

Speaking on Monday to the N.A.A.C.P., Ms. Harris put the issue in terms of religion, saying that supporting a woman’s abortion rights “does not require anyone to abandon their faith or their beliefs. It just requires us to agree the government shouldn’t be making that decision for her.”

The strong support for abortion rights among Democrats tends to obscure more nuanced positions held by critical components of the party’s electoral coalition, including among Latino voters in places like South Texas, once a Democratic stronghold, where the issue has helped push some Catholic voters toward Republicans.

But navigating the discussion about abortion rights is especially critical to President Biden among Black voters, a vital constituency to him and one that has shown periodic signs of frustration with his priorities in the White House.

Recent polling suggests that Black voters are supportive of a legal right to abortion, and the elimination of access to abortion will affect women of color disproportionately. But polling has also shown a split over the years among Black Americans on the morality of abortion, reflecting the enduring influence of the Black church, which has both been at the center of civil rights activism and long stood as a pillar of cultural traditionalism, particularly in the South.

“If the Democratic Party really wanted to appeal to Black Christians about reproductive rights, they would have to package it in a very specific way,” said Eric McDaniel, the co-director of the Politics of Race and Ethnicity Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. “If they’re going to talk about it, they have to frame this as, ‘This is just part of a larger assault on your rights.’”

The percentage of Black Democrats who said they found abortion morally acceptable rose to 50 percent in aggregated polling by Gallup between 2017 and 2020 from 34 percent in polling between 2001 and 2007. Among non-Black Democrats, the figure between 2017 and 2020 was 66 percent, up from 53 percent in the earlier period.

Similarly, the percentage of Black Democrats saying that abortion should be legal under any circumstances increased to 35 percent for the period between 2017 and 2020 from 27 percent between 2001 and 2007. Among non-Black Democrats polled between 2017 and 2020, 45 percent said abortion should be legal under any circumstances, up from 36 percent in the earlier period.

The poll found that about 75 percent of Black Americans — compared with 88 percent of all Democrats — are now supportive of laws protecting “most or all” cases of abortion, a figure that experts said can be attributed to younger Black Americans being more likely than older Black voters to be fully supportive of abortion rights.

White House officials said that by entirely eliminating the constitutional right to abortion, the Supreme Court had made the issue a simpler one for voters who might otherwise be debating what the proper limits might be. And they said that Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion suggesting that the court should revisit the legal basis for other rights, including same-sex marriage and the right to contraception, made the issue starker.

“There’s not a lot of shades of gray in that,” said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden.

Sharonda Woodard, a corrections officer from Sanford, Fla., who attended the Black culture festival in New Orleans where Ms. Harris spoke, counts herself as someone who has ambivalent views on abortion while also supporting Roe. Raised a Christian, Ms. Woodard said she was taught that abortion was akin to “killing a child,” but she said she was also firmly opposed to eliminating a woman’s right to choose.

“I have no heaven or hell to put anyone in,” Ms. Woodard said. “It’s what you believe in, and it’s your choice.”

Ms. Woodard said she was swayed by Ms. Harris’s speech saying that the ruling is part of a broader effort threatening American liberties.

While the message may be resonating, it has come with expectations for the administration to take concrete action after the court ruling. But throughout Mr. Biden’s presidency, his cautious, measured approach to divisive issues has run up against many Democrats who say the tumultuous state of the country requires aggressive action.

Mr. Biden signed an executive order this month to ensure access to abortion medication and emergency contraception, but it was vague on details and fell short of what those working directly with women now concerned for their well-being have called for. He has also called on Congress to codify Roe v. Wade into law.

Last week, the administration warned pharmacies that they risk being punished for civil rights violations if they refuse to fill prescriptions for pills that can induce abortion — the second time in a week that it used its authority to set up showdowns with states where abortion is now illegal. Many supporters of abortion rights have also called on the president to declare a public health emergency to quickly expand access to abortion, a step he has said he is considering.

Mr. Biden’s repeated calls for those concerned about abortion rights to vote have not satisfied Deon Haywood, the executive director of Women With a Vision, an organization assisting those seeking reproductive care in Louisiana, where an effort by the state to ban abortion is tied up in the courts.

Her sense of urgency, she said, is rooted in the fact that the elimination of Roe will disproportionately harm Black women, whose support helped power Mr. Biden to victory in 2020.

Black women have the highest abortion rate at 23.8 per 1,000 women, compared with 6.6 per 1,000 white women, according to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Black women also tend to live closer to pharmacies that impede the ability to obtain contraception, according to a 2019 study from the Department of Health and Human Services. In 2020, the maternal mortality rate for Black women was 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births, 2.9 times the rate for white women, according to the C.D.C.

“We’re not going to name what it is?” Ms. Haywood said. “I think that does a disservice to our community, not just the Black community, but understanding history.”

Mandie Landry, a Louisiana state representative, said she understood the administration’s focus to frame the court ruling as a broader threat to civil rights. Ms. Landry, a Democrat, said she learned this firsthand when knocking on doors in her majority Black district covering New Orleans during her 2019 campaign after Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, signed into law a near-total abortion ban.

While families grew distant at the mention of abortion, most agreed “no one should tell you what to do with your body,” Ms. Landry said. To ignore the nuanced views among a section of voters would be repeating an error by her party, she said.

“You’re talking about one of the most common mistakes in national politics which is how good Republicans are on messaging and how bad Democrats are,” she said. “You have to be very aware of who you’re speaking to or they will turn away or shut off.”

Nakita Shavers, a New Orleans native who founded an organization that educates young women on reproductive health, said she agreed the administration had a prime opportunity to galvanize Mr. Biden’s base by focusing on the implications of the Supreme Court decision. Describing the ruling as a broader attack on voting rights and civil liberties was necessary, she said, given the lasting sensitivity in the community about abortion.

But she said the current moment also provided the administration an opportunity to educate the public on reproductive care, and she said she hoped the messaging would come with action that could help those she now interacts with on a daily basis. She reflected on a recent conversation with a parent of one of the girls in her organization who now fears for her daughter’s future.

“If my child becomes pregnant, her life is over,” the parent told her after the Supreme Court ruling, according to Ms. Shavers.

“Election Day is coming, and you don’t want to piss off the voters you do have to risk gaining new voters that may not even make it to the polls,” Ms. Shavers said. “But the reality is the picture is a little bit bigger than that. I just feel like there’s so many things in jeopardy right now. Growing up as a child, this is not the America I believed in.”

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