Black women move to make abortion their issue too

March 25, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Philadelphia -- Whenever she watched the marches o abortion-rights activists on television, Cheryl Cruz noticed that something always seemed to be missing.

That something was black women. And minority women of any other kind. To Ms. Cruz, an African American woman of 27, the message seemed clear: Abortion-rights activism wasn't for women like her. It was a white woman's thing. "It looked like their issue," she concluded.

But Ms. Cruz, a receptionist at a Planned Parenthood office, recently decided to get involved after all. What changed her mind was the appearance of a new organization -- the Women of Color Coalition of Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania -- one of several groups giving minority women a stronger voice in the abortion-rights movement. A goal is to "make our priorities 'their' priorities," explains coalition co-founder Jacquie Brinkley.

Across the nation, emerging minority women's groups like the coalition are stirring things up, asking painful questions of an abortion movement that historically has been almost lily-white.

Why, they ask, are so few black women active in abortion rights, even though they get abortions far more frequently -- nearly three times more often -- than white women? Why are there so few black leaders? Once Faye Wattleton, the black woman who headed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, left the job last April to pursue a career in television, there was nary a minority woman left in any high-profile abortion-rights post.

Why, the new groups are asking, did the movement appear to give up the fight so easily on the one abortion issue -- Medicaid funding -- uppermost in many minority and poor women's minds?

Only 11 states now routinely allow Medicaid-funded abortions. In the other 39, poor women are mostly left to scrape together the money for the procedure themselves.

The abortion-rights movement is "white woman-led and white woman-defined," says Eleanor Hinton Hoyt, program director for the National Council of Negro Women Inc. "I'm impatient," she adds, "annoyed that I, as a 50-year-old black woman, still have to work this way -- work with white women on this issue and help them understand what they ought to be doing."

Anger over the issue reached the boiling point last spring during planning for the huge April abortion-rights rally held in Washington by the National Organization for Women.

African Americans and other minority women complained that they had no prominent role either in organizing the event or speaking at it, just as they hadn't during the previous big abortion-rights march in 1989. They demanded a meeting with NOW president Patricia Ireland; she complied, but then left the meeting early, infuriating minority groups even more.

Now, that anger is taking constructive paths. In California, Luz Alvarez Martinez, director of the National Latina Health Organization, has become a powerful force in seeing to it that the board of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) has better minority representation: In just the last three years, its minority membership has tripled, from four to 13, on a 30-member board.

Ms. Hoyt's organization and several other groups recently finished a five-state project in which they brought minority women together with white abortion-rights leaders "to help them understand issues related to color," Ms. Hoyt said. During one such meeting, at a Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick, white leaders learned that, for minority women, the phrase "pro-choice" often has as much to do with access to contraception and prenatal care as it does with abortion.

In Washington, the National Black Women's Health Project has joined with several other groups to form the Women of Color Coalition for Reproductive Health Rights. One of its goals is to convince minority donors that they should send their money directly to the project and other minority groups instead of "giving it to white women's organizations which then try to outreach and organize us," said Julia Scott, the project's director of public education and policy.

Another goal, said Ms. Scott, is to convince the mostly white abortion and reproductive-rights movement that it should be more critical of new contraceptives, such as Norplant and Depo Provera. Some in the minority community view those methods either as unsafe or as veiled attempts to push chemical sterilization on poor women.

Ms. Scott and other minority women have not forgotten an unfortunate piece of abortion-rights history -- the fact that 1920s contraceptive crusader and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was openly aligned with the eugenicist movement, which saw birth control as a good way to weed out "undesirables," be they poor people or those with genetic handicaps.

Sanger's "motives are very suspect," said Ms. Scott. "That's one of the reasons, unfortunately, that Planned Parenthood is very suspect even after all these years."

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