WASHINGTON--On a street once known as Murder Row, a teen center founded to steer youths away from drugs and crime has become an outpost in another crusade -- a nationwide push by anti-abortion activists to expand their foothold in heavily Black and Hispanic inner cities.
The campaign involves crisis pregnancy centers, whose counselors seek to dissuade women with unplanned pregnancies from having abortions. There are more than 2,300 centers across America, yet relatively few in inner cities where abortion rates are typically highest.
Now the two largest networks -- Care Net and Heartbeat International -- have launched initiatives to change that equation. Their sometimes awkward efforts rely on unlikely alliances, as an anti-abortion movement led mostly by conservative, White Republicans interacts with overwhelmingly Democratic, Black communities.
"This crusade has been very difficult -- having to educate community leaders as to what's really going on without being offensive, without having a political agenda," said Lillie Epps, the only Black member of Care Net's senior staff and director of its Urban Initiative.
In Washington, the key players say all has gone smoothly in a year-old partnership between a Care Net affiliate, the Capitol Hill Crisis Pregnancy Center, and a teen center in the tough Anacostia neighborhood called The House DC. During the school year, Capitol Hill volunteers come to The House to counsel girls from nearby Anacostia High School who get caught in the tide of teen pregnancies.
One reason for the harmony: The teen center's Black leaders and the Whites running the pregnancy center share an evangelical Christian faith.
Steve Fitzhugh, co-founder of The House, is a former pro football player active with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He's mentored boys later killed in gang shootings, and girls as young as 12 who carried pregnancies to term.
"I don't care if it's conservative dollars or liberal dollars we get," Fitzhugh said. "We've got to save these kids."
His program is in sync with the nationwide pregnancy-center movement not only in opposing abortion but also in advocating sexual abstinence outside marriage and refusing to promote birth control.
"Others say, 'Let's pass out the condoms.' We're not on that page, and that's not always a popular stance," Fitzhugh said.
About 2 miles (3 kilometers) from The House, in a racially mixed neighborhood, the Capitol Hill pregnancy center is in its 21st year of operation. Its six-member board, executive director and most of its volunteers are White, but 89 percent of its clients are Black.
Yet the director, Janet Durig, said she and her White colleagues don't feel like outsiders. She evoked the image of a pregnant Black teen, abandoned by her boyfriend, coming in for counseling.
"When she breaks down and cries, do you think she cares if I'm White?" Durig asked.
Critics contend that pregnancy centers routinely mislead women seeking neutral advice on their options. A report in July from congressional Democrats said center counselors often overstate the medical risks posed by abortion.
Skeptics also argue that the same White conservatives supporting urban anti-abortion initiatives oppose other social policies that might help minority single mothers and their children.
"These predatory fanatics don't lift a finger to help the children who are born unwanted and unplanned," said Jatrice Martel Gaiter, head of the Washington-area Planned Parenthood chapter.
"In these centers of deception, they leave young parents at best with a box of Pampers and a prayer," she said. "They leave people even more vulnerable than when they walked through the door, without any information about how to avoid a future unintended pregnancy."
Durig acknowledged that her center recommends abstinence, not birth control, to clients, but said its services go beyond opposing abortion. The center offers parenting classes; a basement storage room is stacked with bins of donated baby clothes.
Capitol Hill also is among hundreds of pregnancy centers that recently acquired ultrasound equipment, on the premise that a look inside the womb will deter many pregnant women from abortion.
A sign on the center's brick facade reads "Pregnant and Scared?" -- the slogan Care Net has placed on 40,000 billboard and bus-shelter ads nationwide, promoting a hotline it runs with Heartbeat International on behalf of their 1,900 affiliated centers.
Most of the centers are rural or suburban. The quest to open more in inner cities is fueled by statistics showing that nearly 90 percent of women who get abortions live in urban areas, and the majority are poor.
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which compiles abortion data, Black women are almost four times as likely as White women to have an abortion, and Hispanic women are 2.5 times as likely.
Care Net says it has opened 13 urban centers since 2003, with 15 more under development in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere.
In central Houston, there had been no full-fledged pregnancy center until one opened in 2004 in a poor, minority neighborhood. While many of the Fifth Ward Pregnancy Help Center's financial backers and volunteers are from White areas, its executive director, Sylvia Johnson, is Black.
"This is hard territory," she said. "We try to be nonpartisan, to let our service speak for itself. We can't fix all the problems."
Among the clients was 28-year-old Karry Ann Morris. Already a single mother with a 3-year-old son, she got pregnant again last year after her boyfriend's condom broke. She ended up at the Fifth Ward center along with the boyfriend, who was suggesting abortion.
Morris, a hairstylist, didn't know what to expect. But she became determined to keep the baby -- now a 4-month-old girl named Mikaila -- when shown ultrasound images at the center.
"As much as I didn't want to be pregnant, when I saw her heart beating at six weeks, I knew," Morris said.
Heartbeat International's current project is to open three to five centers in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods of greater Miami, then apply that model to other cities.
The Rev. John Ensor, the project's White executive director, said Miami was chosen partly because it had far more abortion clinics than pregnancy centers. He has spoken to some Miami-area churches, and is cautiously encouraged.
"We're just learning how to communicate," Ensor said. "There's the African-American culture and subcultures you have to figure out. The same with Latinos -- Cuban, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans. All these wonderful complexities that you find in an urban community."
He acknowledged a gap between Democratic-leaning minorities and conservative, White anti-abortion activists.
"There's no doubt it's a problem for African Americans to join a movement they perceive is antithetical to their interests in other areas," said Ensor, who nonetheless believes that, with patience and hard work, he can recruit local minority leadership.
Though relatively few Blacks play prominent roles in the anti-abortion movement, national polls indicate that qualms about abortion are as widespread among Blacks as among Whites.
One outspoken Black leader is the Rev. Clenard H. Childress Jr. of Montclair, New Jersey, who depicts the high abortion rate among Blacks as a form of genocide. He applauds the inner-city goals of groups like Care Net, but questions whether they have the savvy to avoid looking like carpetbaggers.
"Without a strong relationship with the local pastors, their efforts in the urban community will be in vain," he said. "It won't be effective if you don't resonate with the community as someone they can trust."
In inner-city Dallas, one Black pastor, the Rev. Tony Evans, acted on his own to open a pregnancy center in his church, the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship. He said it differs from the standard center by offering comprehensive prenatal and postnatal services for mothers, including help finding jobs.
Care Net's Lillie Epps agrees on the importance of courting Black pastors. Some share opposition to abortion but don't speak out for fear of offending their Democratic-leaning congregations, she said.
Another key, she said, is recruiting local volunteers so the counseling staff isn't overwhelmingly White. "We want people to come in and see someone who looks like them," Epps said. "We can't charge into a community and say, 'We're your savior.' "
-- The Associated Press