Black Women Reluctant to Join Pro-Choice Forces

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Elisse Wright had every intention of attending a pro-choice "Mobilize Now" rally one recent Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial. But after she got out of church, it was 1 p.m., the rally was already an hour old and the crowd was 150,000 strong.

It would have been too much of a hassle, she thought, to wade alone into the throng. Instead, she watched it on C-Span, the cable television network.

Wright had attended an April abortion-rights rally that drew a crowd estimated between 300,000 and 600,000 to the nation's capital. She had been disappointed by the lack of black women among the throng. "I went by myself to the April rally and there wasn't much communion among the sisters there," she said. "Actually, there weren't many of us there. This time I didn't want to go to the trouble of going down there and being a lone body--a lone, 28-year-old black face in the crowd."

Wright's attitude illustrates the problem abortion-rights advocates say they have in drawing greater numbers of activist-oriented black and minority women into their cause. Although Wright believes in the issue, she and many other black women are uncomfortable in the largely white women's world of feminism. The major health issues for black women tend to be broader than abortion, such as seeking improved access to health care in general. Moreover, black women's reluctance to campaign for abortion rights mirrors many black religious and civil rights leaders' silence on the issue.

Both abortion-rights and anti-abortion groups see black women as a potential resource. But in the wake of the Supreme Court's Webster decision, which allows states to regulate abortion, the abortion-rights movement has made a major push to attract black women to its side.

"In much of the efforts of the women's movement, we haven't been there in large numbers," said Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, "but some of us have been there all along."

Political Influence

Height and other black women leaders are seeking to turn up the volume from the black community to fight restrictions on abortion. For example, African-American Women for Reproductive Rights, a Height-led group of influential black religious, political, social and grass-roots leaders, is expected to play a role in next year's state and congressional elections.

Abortion foes claim that they have the support of the black community, although they have done little to enlist black leaders in their cause. "Blacks tend to be pro-life," said the Rev. Ronald Ross, minority relations director of the American Life League in Stafford, Va. "We've had quite a bit of success getting the facts of the issue out. We're telling people that abortion is black genocide."

Ross said that black leaders have taken "a middle-of-the-road stance" on the issue, reflecting the lack of agreement among themselves on the question of abortion. "Black politicians don't want to deal with the abortion issue," he said. "But if we get the masses, they will have to change and follow us."

No Consensus

A recent Los Angeles Times Poll revealed no consensus among black people on abortion. According to the survey, statistically equal numbers of black respondents favor and oppose the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision that established the right to an abortion during the first three months of pregnancy. Forty percent favored the decision and 37% opposed it, with a 6% margin of error.

I.A. Lewis, director of The Times Poll, said that the findings were inconclusive when applied to blacks as an individual demographic group. "Based on the numbers, I don't think support for abortion has anything to do with race," he said.

Some black abortion-rights advocates such as Faye Wattleton, president of Planned Parenthood, say that they personally do not favor abortions but that they support a woman's right to choose to end a pregnancy. They say that most black women hold similar opinions, which can be reinforced when the issue is framed not in terms of religious obedience, but as a question of freedom of choice.

Byllye Avery, founder and executive director of the Black Women's Health Project, an Atlanta grass-roots organization, agreed. "As folks out of slavery," she said, "I don't see us giving up choice on anything."

Donna Brazile, an organizer for Mobilize Now, acknowledged that few blacks so far have actively participated in keep-abortion-legal rallies, such as the April and November events in Washington. But at this month's rally she was overjoyed with the turnout of black leaders--including the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who made his first appearance at an abortion-rights demonstration.

"I am pleased that we made that first step," Brazile said. "We had to get the right people to the pulpit to stand up for choice."

White abortion-rights advocates often cite statistics that indicate women of color are more likely users of abortion services than white women and have wondered why more minorities have not participated in their cause. Black women leaders say that the key to getting both black men and women more involved in the abortion-rights cause has been the promise of the largely white, middle-class abortion-rights leaders to embrace health issues of interest to black and poor women.

White women fighting restrictions on abortion largely have overlooked those concerns, which include prenatal and postnatal health care, infant mortality rates, forced sterilizations and Cesarean deliveries, access to health care and other issues that disproportionately affect black and poor women.

"Their issues have been broader than just abortion, as it hasn't been with many of us in the pro-choice movement," said Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights League.

"It was always difficult to get black women involved," said Judy Widdicombe, founder of Reproductive Health Services, the St. Louis clinic involved in the suit over restrictive abortion regulations in Missouri, which ultimately resulted in last summer's U.S. Supreme Court Webster decision that gave states greater latitude in regulating abortion services. "They had issues of housing, health care and affirmative action that they were more concerned about."

Some abortion-rights leaders admit that they were reluctant to embrace those issues, fearing the addition of minority groups' social concerns would weaken efforts to preserve abortion rights. But the Webster decision changed that.

"There is a redefinition of what pro-choice is all about," said Michelman of the National Abortion Rights League. "I think Webster showed this nation that a fundamental right could be lost. We've made a deliberate effort to see that we have a broader coalition."

Another obstacle, however, is the racial tension that has prevented black and white women's rights advocates from joining forces in the past.

"For the most part . . . black women deal with our blackness first," said Pam Shaw, a 30-year-old Baltimore attorney. "Foremost, how we use our resources and energy is for the empowerment of black people. Secondly, we use it for the family. And, thirdly, we look at ourselves as women."

Shaw said that she became convinced of the depth of black women's support for the abortion-rights movement while gathering signatures for a petition to send to the Supreme Court before the Webster decision. "No one told me no; no one turned me down," she said.

Sabrae Jenkins, director of the Women of Color Partnership program for the Washington-based Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, agreed that minority women have not been among the more outspoken members of the movement because it "didn't reflect the needs and concerns of women of color," she said.

In September, Height organized African-American Women for Reproductive Rights, including officials of the Urban League, the Democratic National Committee, Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha sororities, the National Black Women's Health Project and Planned Parenthood.

The group of black women issued an 11-point "reproductive freedom manifesto" that links limiting abortion rights to the lack of freedom black women experienced during the slavery, Jim Crow and segregation eras. The manifesto calls for women to have the right to "choose to have a child" as well as "the right to choose not to have a child."

"There have always been those who have stood in the way of our exercising our rights, who tried to restrict our choices," the document states. "There probably always will be. But we who have been oppressed should not be swayed in our opposition to tyranny of any kind, especially attempts to take away our reproductive freedom."

The silence of black male leaders from religious and civil rights organizations on the abortion issue, one way or another, has also been a problem for abortion-rights organizers.

"We have the same difficulties as in the whole population," Height said. "Whenever women have a chance to speak for themselves, they're pro-choice. Whenever the men speak there is a question."

While civil rights organizations such as the Urban League, SCLC and Operation PUSH have expressed support of the black women's manifesto, none bused its members to the Washington demonstration earlier this month as was done for the 25th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington.

The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's largest and most respected civil rights group, is quiet on the subject. "The NAACP has no position on abortion," a spokesman said. NAACP officials said privately that the organization is being pushed on the issue and some predicted that it may soon issue a statement supporting the black women's manifesto.

Church Debate

Although some of the nation's major black church denominations, such as the National Progressive Baptist Convention, are beginning to debate their positions on the abortion question, most remain mute on the issue.

Shaw, the Baltimore attorney, thinks that having black church leaders on board will be the turning point for black participation on the abortion-rights issue and that it will require more force from religious, church-going women to bring the church leaders on board.

"The (black) women aren't being confrontational with their men on this issue," she said. "We as women and the heads of our organizations ought to be saying to the men--at church, at the polls, wherever--'Where are you on this?' "

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