FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
The faces you see debating abortion on the news have traditionally been of white Americans, but some black advocates who describe themselves as pro-life are working to change that. There's still plenty of difference of opinion on the issue. Take Lillie Epps and Loretta Ross; both women are African-American, both are advocates and both have had abortions. Despite the commonalities, they bring some very different perspectives to the table.
And NPR's Cheryl Corley spoke with each of them. First we hear from Lillie Epps, the vice president of Urban Center Development at Care Net, based in Lansdowne, Virginia. She described her role in the cause.
Ms. LILLIE EPPS (Vice President, Urban Center Development at Care Net): I don't consider our efforts anti-abortion, I would rather use the phrase pro-life, which I know a lot of times even that - saying pro-life - raises eyebrows. But it's very important for us to set some tones, give some good information, and contact a lot of the African-American leaders because I think the information on how abortion is totally devastating the African-American community is so vital.
When I look at the numbers, when I look at the fact that African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population, but account for 37 percent of all of the abortions.
CHERYL CORLEY: Where do those numbers come from?
Ms. EPPS: They come from the U.S. Census for Disease Control. And when we look at those numbers, there's reason for alarm.
CORLEY: What do you say to those who may believe that the outreach efforts are driven by Republicans to pull in more black voters?
Ms. EPPS: Well, you know what, I really don't think that that is an issue. I know some of the other constituents may feel differently, I'm not sure what their motives are. I know that the people that I talked to, different people from Heartbeat, and from LEARN, and from the other organizations that are pretty much doing what I'm doing.
With Care Net, our main concern is education, and information, and providing women a real choice. I think, too long, in the intercity especially, the numbers haven't been told, the story really hasn't been told. And Planned Parenthood has been seen as the trusted friend, and so we want to change that. We realize one thing is that a lot of the crisis pregnancy centers, for the most part, have been in suburbia.
So our effort is to place these pregnancy centers in the intercity so that women can have a real choice. We want them to be able to know that abortion is not the only option.
CORLEY: You say that much of the focus has been on suburbia and not on inner cities or urban areas. Why do you think that has happened?
Ms. EPPS: Well, I think, initially when the pregnancy center movements started, it started as a result of Roe v. Wade, and so the main thing was opening pregnancy centers. And I think a lot of this came out of various churches and different groups, and they actually started these centers that were close to where they lived or directly out of a outreach ministry from that church. So I think that they just happened to end up in suburbia.
I don't think that there was an all-out - we just want to put our pregnancy centers in suburbia. But when we really looked at where the abortions were happening, it was almost as if the light bulb went off, and said - hey, you know, our centers are located in the wrong place; we are not located where the abortions are happening. And my hat really goes off to Planned Parenthood because it looks like they did a lot of their homework. They strategically placed centers in these urban areas.
CORLEY: You talked a little earlier about the numbers and how you believe the numbers show that abortion is a big issue for African-Americans, but how big an issue is it really in those communities when you talk about other kinds of problems, if you want to call it that, that communities might face? Where does it rank, I guess, in those communities as something to be grappled with?
Ms. EPPS: When I go into cities, various cities and talk to pastors and urban leaders, and I provide the information to them about how many babies have, black babies have been aborted, when I talk about some of the history of Planned Parenthood, these pastors are outraged. And I'm getting phone calls all the time with pastors saying to me, Lillie, I just didn't know.
CORLEY: What led you to become an advocate for this particular cause?
Ms. EPPS: Well, I was very pro-choice. I bought into the whole thing, you know, it's my body, I do what I want to. The other thing is I've had an abortion; I ended up in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Washington, D.C., never thinking that particular event would lead me to be a director of a pregnancy center, and really changing my heart.
I've interviewed, I don't know how many women, and all of them - when I ask them - I said, well, how did you feel after your abortion. They would say to me, I felt relieved, I felt like it was the answer to my problem, all of my problems were solved. And then they would lower their head and, you know, they - the silence would come over the room and I would ask them, well, how did you feel after that? And almost all of them - including my experience - I felt like somebody stole something from me that I could never ever recapture.
So in answer to your question of how I got into this. After aborting two children; looking at the stats, looking at the numbers; looking at the deceptions that I saw, and that I experienced when I went into a Planned Parenthood clinic. African-Americans have been really sold a lie and have paid a very dear price. I think knowledge is power. My life's goal is to give that knowledge out there and hope that it will grab hold of leaders of our communities - which just so happen to be for the most part, African-American pastors - to say we have a real issue here and women deserve better than abortion.
CORLEY: Lillie Epps is vice president of Urban Center Development at Care Net, based in Lansdowne, Virginia.
Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. EPPS: Thank you.
CORLEY: We go now to Loretta Ross, founder and the national coordinator of the SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Thanks for joining us, Ms. Ross.
Ms. LORETTA ROSS (Founder and National Coordinator, SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective): Thanks for having me on your show.
CORLEY: Well, you've worked as an advocate for reproductive rights, obviously; and for human rights and on a variety of women's issues, diversity issues. How primary an issue is abortion for African-Americans, especially compared to other segments of the population?
Ms. ROSS: We do have a disproportionate number of abortions, meaning that we are a smaller percentage of the population, and we are responsible for them, but I think that's caused by a number of factors. First of all, we have such denial in our community and having honest conversations about sex. If we can't talk about sex, we cannot teach our young people how to protect themselves, when it is okay to say yes - but we also don't acknowledge that for a lot of young women, they aren't even the ones making the decision about when to engage in sexual activity. It really depends also on the older men who have access to them.
We are not necessarily getting the best leadership we could get from the churches. And not only talking about sex, but talking about HIV/AIDS, STDs - I mean, there's a whole lot of conversations that are not taking place. This overlay of now we're coming to the black community to save black babies, simply is not persuasive or convincing for me. Because if they cared so much about black children, those same voters who vote against abortion also vote against Head Start, they vote against school-breakfast programs, they vote against family planning services. I mean, if you were consistent, you would care about the child once the child was here.
CORLEY: So what do you think is behind this apparent push by anti-abortion advocates to focus more attention on black women?
Ms. ROSS: Part of it is to give themselves some cover to pretend that they care about the birth of black babies. But all you have to do is look at the headlines. They blame the black community and our children for the crime rate, the failure of the educational system, environmental degradation. I mean, Bill Bennett is going around saying, well, if you want to get rid of crime, you know, maybe we should help abort all black babies.
I mean, ever since enslaved Africans arrived in this country, women have fought to control our fertility. Whether it was as part of the resistance against slavery; we had the midwives who came with us from Africa, teach us how to use the herbs and the pessaries, and things necessary that both prevented contraception and caused an abortion, once the pregnancy was ensued.
After slavery, the black birthrate was cut in half, and this is before the invention of the modern family planning movement. And I'm not persuaded that we cut our birthrate in half because we were having less sex. I think we did it because women were finally able to say, my body has been controlled by everybody else but me, and this is my time to make the decisions that make sense for me.
CORLEY: Two questions very quickly: My first is what I also ask Ms. Epps, was what led you to this cause? And then secondly, how you expect this movement to shape over the next couple of years?
Ms. ROSS: When I got pregnant as a 15-year-old in high school, abortion was illegal. And so even though I was pregnant through incest, I chose to have and keep my baby - and I'm very glad I did, because I'm a grandmother now. But when I got pregnant a few years later, in college, I chose to have an abortion, and I chose to have an abortion, not because I was in a great relationship with a great guy - because I was - but I needed to parent the child I already had. I could not conceive of parenting two children at the age of 18.
CORLEY: And what do you see happening with this movement in the next couple of years?
Ms. ROSS: Well, I think that first of all, we're going to move off of the pro-life, anti-choice - or whatever you want to call it, divide. Like with the SisterSong - not everybody in SisterSong is pro-choice. There are people within SisterSong who are firmly opposed to abortion, and there are people in Sistersong that are firmly pro-choice.
And we've decided to work together in unity as women of color because we have much more in common uniting us than dividing us. And so we kind of see this split as an artificial one that really started in the white community, and it's about the white community, and we're kind of like the roadkill in that debate.
Our core principles are: everybody has the right to have a child; everybody has the right not to have a child; and everybody has a right to parent the children that they have.
CORLEY: Loretta Ross, thanks so much for joining us.
Ms. ROSS: Thank you for having me.
CHIDEYA: That was Loretta Ross. She's the founder and the national coordinator of the SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective. We also heard form Lillie Epps, the vice president of Urban Center Development at Care Net. They both spoke with NPR's Cheryl Corley.
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: Just ahead, should former Senator John Edwards keep campaigning despite his wife's new bout with cancer? And an umpire remembers his golden days in the Negro League.
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.