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


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.

Mr. Schmoke, who fears that poor women will suffer most if abortion is restricted, says that as he campaigns, "the rhetoric that I've tried to counter has been the rhetoric that talks about this as a pro-abortion issue or a genocide issue."

Some blacks do believe that abortion, in limiting the number of black births, is genocidal. Mr. Mitchell says that opinion is held only by "fringe groups."

But Mr. Berriman, of the Vote kNOw Coalition, says that genocide is a great concern, especially in some black churches. Mr. Berriman, who is white, says, "The simple fact is their congregations are dying off because they're not putting enough babies into the congregations.

"Just quote me on this," Mr. Berriman says. "The simple truth is the black community is killing itself, is planning for its own elimination with the twin evils of abortion and drug-related violence. Abortions take an even greater toll on the black community."

Doug Wilson, a member of Pastors in Unity for Park Heights and an abortion opponent, agrees. But he fears that a big Democratic turnout in the city may mean the approval of Question 6.

"The black community, unfortunately, sees this as a partisan issue," he says. "They see being against 6 as being Republican. If [Democratic presidential candidate Bill] Clinton takes the city big, then 6 will win big. I'm telling people you can be pro-Clinton and against 6. The two are not connected."

Mr. Prentice, who has been preaching against abortion for years, says he believes the new law is far too liberal, without enough safety standards.

As a pastor, "we don't stay in the sanctuary. We go out into the community." So he volunteered to record the radio commercial opposing Question 6. "I'm for life, and abortion is death," he says. "This really isn't a black and white thing."

A member of Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore, he says the Ministerial Alliance's endorsement of the new law doesn't surprise him. "They see it from one perspective, and I see it from another."

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat who supports Question 6, says, "Clearly the community is not monolithic on this issue, as it's not monolithic on most issues."

To win, each campaign must focus on the black vote. "It's just good politics," he says.

"Until this society changes its housing pattern, its social patterns," says Baltimore City Councilwoman Vera Hall, head of the Maryland Democratic Party and a member of African-American Women for Choice, "whites are going to be talking to whites and blacks are going to be talking to blacks."

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