Antiabortion activists are reaching aggressively to draw more African Americans into their movement, targeting urban communities that they have long considered hostile turf.
They are opening crisis pregnancy centers in minority neighborhoods, establishing partnerships with black pastors and distributing provocative leaflets to raise suspicion about Planned Parenthood, a longtime provider of reproductive healthcare and abortions in poor urban areas.
Framing their cause as the new frontier in civil rights -- an effort to stop “black genocide” -- these activists have turned to revered names in black history. A niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. tours the nation, speaking out against “the war on the womb.” The great-great-granddaughter of Dred Scott recently compared Roe vs. Wade to the 1857 Supreme Court decision declaring blacks so far inferior that they had no rights.
“Often the inner-city, the immigrant and minority populations are invisible when we think of the whole abortion issue,” said Peggy Hartshorn, president of Heartbeat International, which runs nearly 900 antiabortion counseling centers across the nation -- almost all in mostly white suburbs.
The nonprofit launched an initiative last year to stake out a presence in cities, where abortion clinics tend to be clustered. “It’s only recently that we’ve realized we need to be there,” Hartshorn said. Her initial goal is to open three to five crisis pregnancy centers in Miami over the next several years.
The intensifying outreach to African Americans is not a coordinated strategy but a series of projects by independent ministries. Heartbeat focuses on steering one woman at a time away from abortion. The black activist group LEARN tries to rally political outrage by touring colleges with the Genocide Awareness Project -- giant murals that juxtapose photos of aborted fetuses with images of slaughter in Rwanda.
A single statistic underlies all these efforts: African Americans make up 13% of the population but account for 37% of all abortions in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Though blacks tend to express deep moral qualms about abortion, liberal groups that support abortion rights -- most prominently Planned Parenthood -- have spent years building ties with black churches and providing subsidized healthcare, such as pap smears and AIDS tests, to poor urban communities.
By contrast, the national antiabortion movement has largely ignored minority communities. Its energy, funds and volunteers come mostly from “white, suburban, small-town, red-state America,” said the Rev. John Ensor, who runs Heartbeat’s Urban Initiative.
That legacy has sown indifference and mistrust.
“When you go to African American communities -- even myself, an African American woman -- you’ll find they don’t trust pro-life people,” said Lillie Epps, a vice president of Care Net, which runs more than 1,000 suburban crisis pregnancy centers. “They look at us as a group who cares very little about what’s going on in the inner city, the poverty and all the other issues.”
In the last three years, Care Net has opened 19 urban antiabortion outposts -- in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Indianapolis -- and Epps hopes to set up centers soon in Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia and Orlando, Fla. “But it’s been very tough,” Epps said.
“I’m just being honest with you. When they hear ‘pro-life,’ the first thing they think is ‘white Republican.’ ”
Certainly, that was LaToya Yarbrough’s perception when she became pregnant six months after her first child was born out of wedlock.
Yarbrough, 28, had seen the ads promising help for crisis pregnancies, but those clinics were a long bus ride away, out in the suburbs. Plus, that was a white woman’s world, she thought; how could they understand?
“I had this view ... that I’d be saying, ‘I can’t afford this, I can’t afford that’ and I’d be looking at [the counselor] and thinking, ‘You can, because you probably have a husband at home who’s a doctor or a lawyer,’ ” she said.
So Yarbrough started dialing abortion clinics. At one, a secretary sensed her despair and referred her to the Family Care Pregnancy Center, run by a black megachurch in south Dallas.
There, amid stacks of baby formula and booties, Yarbrough met other black women as afraid as she was -- and black counselors determined to help them find a way to carry their pregnancies to term. She took free classes in prenatal care, child discipline, car-seat safety, spiritual growth. She picked out baby clothes from a closet of donated rompers. The center’s director, Jettie Johnson, recognized that Yarbrough was still suffering postpartum depression from the birth of her first son, Byron, and provided counseling.
Yarbrough’s second son, Joshua, will turn 1 in May.
“Now that I look at him, I wouldn’t care if the counselors were white, Asian, black -- they saved his life,” Yarbrough said. “But when I first started out ... I wouldn’t have been as comfortable with a white person as I was with Jettie. She looks like me. She knows what I’m going through.”
Located in a grand, old mansion -- the bathrooms are marble, the chandeliers ornate -- the Family Care facility is supported by nearby Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church. The congregation spends about $350,000 a year on the effort, as part of a $1.8-million initiative to offer area residents adult literacy, sports programs, computer training, family counseling and other services.
Oak Cliff’s pastor, the Rev. Tony Evans, calls this his “whole life” approach. He’s preaching more and more against abortion; in a recent series of sermons on the Ten Commandments, he devoted most of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” to the topic. But he also takes the pulpit to talk about civil rights, poverty and affordable housing.
Evans has staged national conferences to persuade other black preachers that they can press hard to save life in the womb without giving up on the traditional (often liberal) concerns of the black church.
It’s an uphill struggle. Not only are black pastors often afraid to offend their mostly female congregations, but many have developed close partnerships with abortion-rights supporters.
The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice has spent a decade helping black preachers teach both teens and parents about sexuality and birth control.
Planned Parenthood uses the Washington, D.C., affiliate as its template. Executives there visit black churches on Sundays -- and even speak from the pulpits on topics such as HIV testing. President and CEO Jatrice Martel Gaiter holds regular clinic tours for black ministers, “to show them that their kids will be safe with us.”
Gaiter encourages the perception that the antiabortion movement is made up of imperious outsiders. As she puts it: “Upper-middle-class white organizations should not be able to interfere with families in black communities.”
Antiabortion activists are fighting back with their own appeals to black pride. In particular, they target Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, as a racist intent on eliminating people of color. One popular flier -- recently mailed to 10,000 homes in minority neighborhoods in Waco, Texas -- declares, “Lynching is for amateurs” and compares “Klan Parenthood” clinics to Nazi death camps.
Sanger did associate with proponents of eugenics, the philosophy that only the most worthy should be allowed to reproduce. But she did not support coerced birth control; civil rights leaders, including King, embraced her work.
The “Klan Parenthood” fliers in Waco were designed to draw attention to a visit by the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, who is based in Los Angeles. He’s one of a small number of black conservatives trying to use the abortion issue to draw African Americans to the Republican Party.
That tactic made a splash in the fall elections, when a political action committee run by black radio talk show host Herman Cain poured $1 million into edgy ads on urban radio. One spot contended that Democratic support for abortion laws is “decimating our people.” It concluded: “Democrats say they want our vote. Why don’t they want our lives?”
Political scientists say such appeals are unlikely to sway many African Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democrat.
“Crisis pregnancy centers would probably be quite popular as institutions” to give women moral support and free baby gear, said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of African American studies at Princeton University. “But that means almost nothing for the Republican notion of pulling blacks in as morality voters.”
In national surveys on race and politics, David Bositis asks blacks an open-ended question: Name your top three concerns for the country.
“I’ve done 15,000 interviews over the past 15 years, and I doubt if abortion has come up in five of them,” said Bositis, a senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.
When he asks African American pastors, they talk about police brutality, elder care, jobs for released convicts. “Their agenda is not the same kind of moral agenda you often get with white churches,” Bositis said. “Abortion doesn’t show up.”