The Rev. Leonard Edloe doesn’t discuss abortion in the pulpit of his rural Virginia church. While the issue disproportionately affects Black women, members at New Hope Fellowship haven’t shared any abortion-related concerns or questions with him, he said.
But outside of the church walls, some have come to him seeking guidance about the procedure. Edloe said he approaches each conversation with nuance and tries to “get people to see things in a Biblical way, to appreciate life.”
While he opposes abortion, Edloe said his goal is to understand, empower, and support women rather than condemn them. The issues are complex, he said, and there is no easy solution for a complicated problem.
“I always say that children are a gift from God, and we celebrate them,” Edloe said. But, he added. “Jesus never made anybody do anything. He changed people with his words and actions.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade — which has led some states to ban or severely limit the procedure — supercharged American politics and white evangelical churches, where many declared victory and held celebratory demonstrations.
But the response in many Black churches has been muted. While Black religious leaders typically don’t shy away from politics in the pulpit, abortion hasn’t been the subject of many Sunday sermons or Bible studies.
Understanding that Black women will be the hardest hit by the Supreme Court decision, especially in rural areas where there is limited or no access to reproductive health care, the approach of Black churches has been delicate. Many see old ways of Biblical teaching as out of touch with abortion in light of the complexities that exist in Black communities — poverty, racism, and other social challenges — which require the issue be discussed with sensitivity and care.
The ambivalence among Black Christian leaders creates a clear divide with their white counterparts, said Jamil Drake, assistant professor of African American Religious History at Yale Divinity School.
“In some ways, [Black pastors are] saying, ‘We’re not going to go publicly with the ways in which we might agree with you Biblically that abortion is wrong. We’re not going to go publicly because you’re not doing anything to value the life of Black people, Black women, and Black children in your kind of anti-abortion crusade,’” Drake explained.
But discussions about unwanted pregnancy are happening behind the scenes. Black churches have taken a more holistic approach, assisting pregnant people and those considering abortion with financial, spiritual, and health care needs. The issue isn’t just about abortion or religion for Black churches, pastors say, it’s about responding to the immediate needs for Black survival.
Historically, Black churches have stepped up on a variety of social issues to help their own — such as raising bail money for Black Lives Matter rallies and organizing food drives — even if those issues don’t always make it to Sunday service.
In cases of unplanned pregnancies, some churches have organized prenatal and postnatal care services for Black women who have been neglected by the American healthcare system. Others have helped women in crisis pregnancies access adoption options.
“They might not agree with pro-choice. They might be against Roe v. Wade. [But], they are organizing clinics and they’re going, in some ways, to provide material resources to women, particularly who might have an unwanted pregnancy,” Drake said.
Most times, the teachings of Black religion focus on the child after their birth rather than before, said Terri Laws, an associate professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who studies religious issues and health care. And in the case of the recent Supreme Court ruling, the focus shouldn’t be on what Black churches will say about abortion, but the need to understand how the ruling could lead to the criminalization of Black women, and the possibility of dismantling privacy rights, which will affect the entire Black community.
“It has been our cultural and theological tradition to take care of the whole person,” Laws said.
In a post-Roe America, some fear that Black churches’ low-key approach could have unintended consequences for their communities. Because of the disproportionate effects of poverty and highly restrictive abortion bans in Southern states, where most Black people live, the result of limited reproductive care for some could be death, disability, or severe mental anguish said Monique Moultrie, associate professor of Africana Studies and Religious Studies at Georgia State University.
Black women have abortions at more than three times the rate of white women, and they are at least three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite the disparity, Black churches’ hesitance to speak publicly about abortion issues is evident. Among Black Americans who attended religious services at least a few times a year, only 22% said they heard a sermon on abortion, in comparison to 34% of all churchgoers in the U.S., according to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center.
Of the more than 20 Black churches across the country that Capital B reached out to for this story, only five responded to interview requests.
Congregations are “going to feel the impact because women are going to have an unsafe procedure, which will cause infection and possibly death or disability,” Moultrie said. “I am expecting the reality of this to hit. When people realize that their daughters, their nieces, their granddaughters are going to be forced into pregnancies that they cannot respond to, there’s going to be an outcry.”
The ‘Slippery Slope’
Black Americans’ views on abortion have shifted rapidly in recent years. Nearly half said they view abortion as “morally acceptable” in Gallup polls conducted between 2017 and 2020. About 15 years earlier, just 31% said it was morally acceptable.
Moultrie said she’s seen evidence of that shift in Black churches. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe, she heard female religious leaders teaching about freedom of choice, even though they didn’t reference abortion specifically.
The sermons included messages about God’s will for believers to make decisions for themselves.
“I’ve heard a lot of ‘If God doesn’t require forced pregnancies, then who are we as humans to do the same?’” Moultrie said.
Instead of focusing on abortion in terms of women’s health, lawmakers and white religious leaders allowed it to become a political issue, said the Rev. Martha Simmons, associate minister at Rush Memorial United Church of Christ in Atlanta, Georgia. After pouring over thousands of documents of sermons between 1750 and the late 2010s from Black churches, Simmons found no references of sex and sexuality — except that people should only consider sex when married. Given the stark realities of Black women’s health and abortion, Simmons decided to do something different.
Throughout her 40-year span as a preacher, she has used her social media platforms to conduct live broadcasts and sermons to encourage women to take ownership of their lives and “not listen to any man that would minimize the control that they should have over their lives.”
Too often, women don’t get a chance to lead churches or opportunities to speak on issues affecting women, she said, so she founded the Women of Color in Ministry Project to help train and educate female religious leaders to use their voices on these issues.
To console women about abortions, she refers to the scripture that “I am wonderfully made in the image of God.”
“For me, that empowers me to believe that I am enough with a baby or without a baby. I am enough because God made me,” Simmons said. “And so certainly if God made me, I’m in control of myself and how I choose to live out the dictates of God.”
But a strong anti-abortion contingent remains in the Black church. At least 20% of Black Christians, including Protestants and Catholics, oppose abortion, according to a Pew Research Center study.
“In the African American church, while you do have some that are pro-choice, there are a lot of voices — sometimes that don’t get a whole lot of attention — that really are talking about the sanctity of human life,” said the Rev. Dean Nelson, vice president of government relations at Human Coalition, a Christian organization based in Texas dedicated to preventing abortions. “More importantly to me, it’s not that they’re just voices, but they’re actually doing work around the country,” such as working with legislators to make funding available to people with unplanned pregnancies.
Walter Moss, former pastor of the Canton Foursquare Church in Ohio, said the shifting views on abortion in Black communities hasn’t penetrated his circle of religious leaders. He has held to his anti-abortion stance since he got involved in ministry in the early 1970s.
“None of them have expressed that they were leaning towards pro-choice,” said Moss, president of IMA Pastors Association, of his fellow pastors. “I was happy with that.”
But he also hasn’t seen many Black people speaking out against abortions. That’s what pushed Moss further into advocacy, he said. From the pulpit, he defends his stance that life begins in the womb and wrote a book titled, “Why I Am A Black Pro-Life Pastor.”
“That’s what God has called me to do, to speak publicly, to stand for the unborn,” said Moss. His advocacy includes providing baby clothes and gas money to families and helping with transportation to doctor’s appointments.
In the aftermath of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, he said, “we’re going to put our arms around these mothers, single mothers, mothers that are pregnant, and we’re going to love them.”
In Mississippi — where the state’s last abortion clinic permanently shut down this month — the Rev. Edward Thomas calls the issue of abortion in church a “slippery slope.”
A person cannot escape “thou shall not kill,” he said, but addressing the complexities of abortion calls for an evolved approach. Despite his own personal beliefs, Thomas said that if a member in his congregation at Greater Northside Missionary Baptist Church in Jackson told him that they received an abortion, his response would be “love and grace.”
“It is not the church’s responsibility to sit in God’s seat,” he said.
“What you’re gonna hear from the Christian church is, ‘All life is sacred and that God as creator is solely the one to save and take a life,’” he said. “But with this fallen world, there’s a lot of things to look at and consider. What about women who get raped? What about women with high-risk pregnancies? It’s weighing the lesser of two evils, and it’s not an easy pool to navigate.”
Capital B Health Reporter Margo Snipe contributed to this report.