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The Nation

Blacks are focus of antiabortion efforts

Activists frame their cause as the new frontier in civil rights.

March 21, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Antiabortion efforts: An article in Wednesday's Section A about antiabortion efforts in black communities oversimplified the eugenics views of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger in saying she did not support coerced birth control. Sanger did not support measures to limit the population of minorities through coerced contraception. She did, however, support forced sterilization of the mentally disabled.

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.

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