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Why some Black churches aren’t elated about the possible end of Roe

Cheryl Sanders, center, pictured in 2014, is the senior pastor of the Third Street Church of God in D.C. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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When a draft Supreme Court opinion leaked indicating that Roe v. Wade could be overturned, the Rev. Cheryl Sanders felt conflicted.

The senior pastor of D.C.’s Third Street Church of God personally doesn’t support abortion but is weary of the politics around being labeled “pro-life” and is grappling with how to address the issue before her predominantly Black congregation. “If you understand that in the politicized term, it’s fraught with problematic racial views and exceptions and blind spots,” she says. And Sanders doesn’t want to align herself with far-right conservative activists she disagrees with on many social issues.

But what does the Bible say?

It’s “absolutely pro-life,” Sanders says, “but not in a political way. It’s a theological perspective.”

While many conservative White evangelicals rejoiced after the draft opinion was revealed, the reception in Black churches has often been more complicated. Some leaders of Black churches say they can’t help viewing the debate through a racial lens: Black women are more likely to have abortions, according to Kaiser Family Foundation data, while government reports show they are also three times as likely as White women to die of pregnancy complications.

Even among those who oppose abortion, the topic is fraught. Research shows that Black pastors are less likely to mention abortion in their sermons than White pastors of evangelical churches, and opposition is often more implied than stated directly.

We don’t “have a rule at our church, that if you had an abortion, you can get kicked out or you’re condemned,” Sanders says. “For me, it’s not as hard and fast as that.”

She ultimately decided to make only a glancing reference to the pending court decision during her Sunday service, though she knew it would be on many minds. “I don’t preach politics,” she says. But she did implore the congregation to “help women to make good choices about motherhood, to make good choices about their bodies, to make good choices about their families.”

The divide reflects how these constituencies, who may want the same outcome, harbor different visions on achieving it. While Black churchgoers share religious values with White Christians, their racial identity, along with historical distrust over issues such as civil rights, has made it more difficult to come together, says the Rev. John Fils-Aime, senior pastor at Central Baptist Church on New York City’s Upper West Side.

“There’s a lot that we share in common,” Fils-Aime says. But “evangelicalism in Black churches and evangelicalism in White churches mean something different.”

Reversing Roe v. Wade would be a “hollow victory” if it isn’t paired with more resources for young mothers to address the financial and health risks faced by Black women, he says.

“People of means are still going to find a way to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy. And for those people in impoverished, and communities of color, if they’re desperate enough, they’re still going to find a way to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy,” he says. He’s concerned that desperation will lead Black women to seek unsafe abortions.

In his draft opinion, Justice Samuel Alito has also made race an issue. “It is beyond dispute that Roe has had that demographic effect,” the draft stated. “Some such supporters have been motivated by a desire to suppress the size of the African American population.” He also cited an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas in the 2019 case Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky: It is in the states’ “compelling interest in preventing abortion from becoming a tool of modern-day eugenics,” Thomas argued.

“He’s being intellectually dishonest,” the Rev. William H. Lamar IV of D.C.'s Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church says of Alito’s draft opinion. “They don’t care about Black babies. You can’t care about Black babies and gut pre-clearance in the Voting Rights Act.”

What the Supreme Court justices have said about abortion and Roe v. Wade

Black churchgoers, of course, are not a monolith. Black Protestants (66 percent) were more likely than Catholics overall (56 percent) or White evangelicals (24 percent) to agree that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a March 2022 survey conducted by Pew Research Center.

Many Black church leaders believe that there are other issues more deeply impacting the day-to-day lives of congregants.

“There are more pressing issues in the Black community than abortion. Why are our Black children still being murdered by police? Why are HBCUs still not being funded by the government the same way White schools are? I think we are logical enough to realize that if we spend too much time on stuff like this. … This is just a distraction,” says Pastor Lynntesha Roberts Henley of Cherry Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dothan, Ala.

But on the issue of abortion, Black church leaders have been more mum. Only 22 percent of Black congregants who attended Black churches hear sermons about abortion, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, compared with 28 percent of Black congregants who attended predominantly White churches. They were also more likely to be sermonized about voting, protesting and political engagement than those who attended predominantly White churches.

Even when staunchly antiabortion Black clergy have publicly called out those who disagree with them, they’ve done so gently. During the 2020 Georgia U.S. Senate runoff then-candidate Rev. Raphael G. Warnock proclaimed that he was a “pro-choice pastor.” More than two dozen church leaders asked him to reconsider his “grave errors of judgment and a lapse in pastoral responsibility” while also praising his “efforts to share Christ while pursuing political solutions to our most pressing problems today.” Warnock has not backed down.

Monique Moultrie, an associate professor of Africana Studies and Religious Studies at Georgia State University, who is examining the intersection of abortion and faith, has interviewed dozens of Black women in North Carolina who have had abortions. Most reported that their pastors had never addressed the issue, she says. They knew God loved them, she says, but also “they knew what they did was a sin. … God would not be pleased with it.”

Many Black churches are led by men who feel ill-equipped to speak on abortion even if they personally disagree with it, says Pastor Earle J. Fisher of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis. So the topic remains out of sight in many congregations, says Fisher, who is a member of Planned Parenthood’s Clergy Advocacy Board.

Most women who confide in him about an abortion do it months or years later, he says. “Guilt and shame are still hanging on their head.”

What would happen if Roe v. Wade were overturned

When K.J. became pregnant when she was about 22 years old, she didn’t tell anyone at her predominantly Black conservative church. She had already felt judged when fellow congregants learned she had had sex outside of marriage, says K.J., who spoke on the condition that only her initials be used for privacy reasons. Abortion had never been a frequent topic in church sermons, but the opposition was implied if not stated explicitly. She was distraught about anyone finding out but went ahead with an abortion.

Twenty years later, she has still told just a few family members. “They’re going to talk about it but still feel the same way — that it’s murder,” she says. “It’s not going to change anyone’s opinion.”

Roberts Henley says her approach to counseling women on abortion reflects her own evolution on the issue.

She remembers one pregnant 14-year-old girl who wanted to have an abortion but whose family persuaded her against it by citing the Bible. The promised family help came less often than she expected, causing further stress and limitations to her young adulthood with motherhood as her new focal point. Roberts Henley says she stayed neutral when counseling the teenager but watched her struggle afterward.

“I grew up in the Black church, and we were always taught that murder is a sin, period. For a long time, I viewed it specifically as that,” she says. But as she grew up, “I realized that people have to make a choice that’s best for their life dependent upon what the situation and scenario is. That is how I became more open to people having the right to choose for themselves.”

Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.