Abortion referendum campaigns heat up Blacks organize on both sides of the issue

October 27, 1992|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

Both sides in the campaign over Question 6, the new abortion law up for referendum Nov. 3, want to carry the city of Baltimore. And to win Baltimore, campaign groups know they have to win black voters -- many of whom see the abortion debate as dominated by whites.

"For a long time, African-American women have been left out of the organizing," says Anana Kambon, who helped form African-American Women for Choice in August.

"So we're not leaving it up to happenstance. We're doing it ourselves."

In a Park Circle office building late one October afternoon, Ms. Kambon and a half-dozen other women pore over precinct lists and sample campaign brochures and referendum literature. The precincts are all in black Baltimore neighborhoods. The faces on the brochures are African-American. The literature urges a yes vote on Question 6.

In a city sound studio, the Rev. Marshall F. Prentice, pastor of Zion Baptist Church, is recording a radio commercial for the Vote kNOw Coalition, urging voters to reject the law at the polls. The spot will run on stations aimed at black listeners.

"Some pretty powerful people in town are going to be telling us how we better vote for Question 6 because it protects choice and all that," the minister says in the commercial. "Please vote against Question 6."

The law on the ballot would allow abortion without government restrictions until the time in pregnancy when the fetus might be able to survive outside the womb.

Polls taken before the referendum campaign began show that black voters, like the public in general, believe abortion should be available to those who want it.

The Rev. Marion C. Bascom, who believes that abortion should )) be a private decision, says that no one should be surprised by black support of the law. "There are no white pregnancies or black pregnancies," he says. "We all get pregnant the same way."

The campaigns say they don't change their messages when they're talking to different racial groups. But sometimes they change the messengers. Voters want to hear from people they know and like.

"What we do is we put a black spin on it," says Baltimore Del. Salima Marriott, who supports the new law. "We remind people not to let go of any rights you have won."

The opponents of Question 6 appeared to score the first points in the black community when they began airing in September a television commercial featuring Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, who is black. But the apparent advantage was lost within a week when Dr. Carson, who has himself referred women for abortions, disavowed the ad, saying he had not understood its political import. He said he would not favor making abortion illegal.

Meanwhile, supporters of the new abortion law are trumpeting the endorsements they've won from an array of well-known black citizens: Baltimore's mayor; congressmen; state senators and delegates; doctors and members of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, clergy representing some of the area's biggest congregations.

The influential Ministerial Alliance, whose political help is eagerly sought by candidates, will be distributing sample ballots urging a yes vote.

"It helps some people, in their decision-making about this matter, to know a distinguished group of clergymen wrestled with moral and political implications of this bill and came out in favor," says Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Mr. Schmoke, who volunteered last winter to campaign for the new law, is talking to black sororities, to community groups and to clergy.

Former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell appears at Maryland for Choice news conferences, warning that restrictions on abortion will hurt low-income women most.

African-American Women for Choice is sending out literature, urging approval of Question 6, to a mailing list that includes members of sororities, professional organizations and political and community groups. They are telephoning voters, using precinct lists of black neighborhoods.

"We can't wait for someone to come to us," Ms. Kambon says. "Sometimes you can't bring the voters to you. You have to go where the voters are."

Jean Hyche-Williams, of the Baltimore Metropolitan Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, says African-American women "need to understand that choice is a key issue for us. They need to hear that again and again.

"Going back to slavery, we didn't have the choice of who we could marry, of how many children we could have," Ms. Hyche-Williams says. "Over the years, since slavery, this issue has been in our background."

Baltimore Democratic Del. Delores G. Kelley, who urged the Ministerial Alliance to support the new abortion law, says voters -- both black and white, deluged by competing political messages -- are confused about Question 6. She stresses that every black delegate in Baltimore supports it.

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