Lillie Epps remembers the exact moment when she discovered her life's work. It was the winter of 2003 and Epps was working as executive director of Care Net Resource Pregnancy Center in Hampton, Va., when a young African-American woman came into her office.
The woman, who was about 18 or 19 years old, had had a late-term abortion about a year before and couldn't escape the emotional fallout. She began sharing her story with Epps and before long, broke down.
"I can still hear my baby's heartbeat!" the young lady sobbed.
"All my counseling skills just went out the window," said Epps, 53, who holds a doctorate in ministry. "I got down on the floor with this girl and cried."
Epps herself had an abortion while growing up in inner-city New York. In the African-American community there, she said, people just didn't discuss other choices. "I knew God had forgiven me for my abortion, but when I saw this little girl, very young, not having anyone to share the torment she faced every day, the reality of life and death hit me harder than at any other time in my life."
At that moment, Epps knew she would spend the rest of her life educating urban women and girls-which meant, largely, African-Americans and Latinos-about alternatives to abortion. Today, she heads Care Net's "Urban Initiative," a push to establish pregnancy resource centers in inner cities.
According to Care Net, 94 percent of abortion clinics are located in metropolitan areas, with seven of 10 located in minority neighborhoods. Meanwhile, only 2 percent of pregnancy resource centers are located in the same areas. Since Urban Initiative's inception in 2003, Care Net has established 19 centers in 14 cities, including Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The goal: to reduce the disproportionate number of minority babies dying in abortion clinics every day.
Federal statistics on the prevalence of abortion among Latino women are still spotty and incomplete. But abortion data on African-American women paints a startling picture: First, African-American women make up 13 percent of the female population but account for 36 percent of all abortions, according to data from the Census Bureau and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Second, the CDC reports that three times as many black babies are aborted as white ones-a ratio that has grown by 50 percent over the past 15 years.
The disparity comes amid a general decline in abortion numbers overall. In 1992, for every 1,000 white women who gave birth, 236 aborted their babies. In 2003, the last year for which data is available, the number of abortions among white women per 1,000 live births dropped to 165, a decrease of almost one-third.
Compare that with the numbers for black women: In 1992, 518 aborted their babies for every 1,000 who gave birth. In 2003, the ratio of abortions to live births was still 491 to 1,000, a decline of just 5.2 percent. That ratio has held steady in every CDC abortion study since 2000.
"Fifteen million African-American babies have been aborted since Roe v. Wade," Epps said. "When I share this with African-American pastors, they tell me, 'You have got to be kidding! How come we were unaware of this information?' They're shocked and want to do something."
Church leaders in Philadelphia, Miami, and elsewhere are doing something-opening pregnancy resource centers in urban cores. But proximity isn't the only issue, said Rev. Herb Lusk, senior pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist Church in urban Philadelphia.
"The pro-life message isn't getting through to the black community," Lusk said. Eighteen months ago, he surveyed his congregation, asking parishioners if they knew where the nearest pregnancy resource center was. The prevailing answer: What's a pregnancy resource center?
The pro-life movement, originating post-Roe mainly among Catholics, then folding in evangelicals in the 1980s and beyond, is mostly white and suburban. African-American church leaders battling economic struggles in their own congregations "often criticize white evangelicals for being more concerned with the unborn than with born children living in poverty," Lusk said. "Even if that were true, which I don't believe it is, it doesn't justify African-American leaders not being concerned with the unborn. That's an old and stale argument, and one that I would be embarrassed to raise."
But it is, as yet, a powerful argument, and many urban church leaders have aligned themselves with the Democratic Party, which supports both government solutions to poverty and abortion-on-demand. Bucking those trends, Lusk is now working with Care Net to establish a pregnancy center that would operate in conjunction with People for People, his nonprofit social-services ministry.
Further south in Miami-Dade County, Fla., Linda Freeman and Trinity Church are heading down a similar road. "In our congregation alone, there are women of all ages having children out of wedlock," said Freeman, who is executive director of Peacemaker Family Center, a social-services ministry at Trinity, where a high percentage of members are poorly educated low-income earners. Women who become pregnant "have to figure out how to navigate their lives all the way from medical care to child care to whether they can take time off their jobs to take care of a baby," Freeman said. "They're facing hopelessness. They're not having abortions because they don't care. They're having them out of desperation."
The groundwork for such desperation is laid by the breakdown of families, an acceptance of premarital sex, and an antipathy toward marriage, Freeman said. For example, Trinity sponsors a program called "Strong Families" that offers classes on family life aimed at kids in junior high and high school. "I asked one class what words came to their mind when they thought of marriage," Freeman said. "One child looked at me and said, 'Jail.'"
Working in conjunction with Rev. John Ensor and Heartbeat of Miami-an affiliate of the pregnancy center network Heartbeat International-Freeman is looking to establish a pregnancy resource center as part of Trinity's social services program. But it won't be all sunshine and roses, she said, noting that in her neck of the woods, pregnancy center counselors have to be ready to acknowledge that a woman's dilemma likely goes beyond the pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy into economic realities that are tough and immediate.
"If a woman doesn't have enough money and doesn't have enough medical care, we're not going to lie to her and say it's going to be easy. She's going to have to make sacrifices to raise that child. We're willing to help her, but it's going to be her choice and her responsibility."
Freeman hopes the planned pregnancy center will "promote a different idea, that you can parent your child. That you can have hope and not despair. . . . We could hope then that a percentage of those women choose to keep their child."
Ensor shares that hope-and a bigger dream: that the pro-life cause will be joined-and led-by black pastors. In Ensor's view, the disproportionate impact of abortion on African-Americans is a direct outgrowth of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger's targeting of blacks, the mentally ill, and others for extermination via abortion.
He notes that Sanger's "Negro Project" of the 1930s was aimed at reducing the numbers of the "unfit"-including blacks-and that she enlisted black clergy to aid in the effort. "The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal," she wrote in an October 1939 letter to a colleague, Clarence Gamble. "We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members."
Ensor believes that the final charge against legal abortion must be led by those Americans initially targeted for extinction. He notes the respectful response of today's press to socially conservative black and Latino evangelicals on other hot-button issues such as gay marriage, compared with reporters' tendency to dismiss as politically motivated similar opposition by white evangelicals such as Ensor himself.
"Black and Latino pastors not only influence their own communities," Ensor writes on the Heartbeat of Miami website, "they influence the broader community. We must welcome this . . . pursue this, and act on this." If and when black pastors not only join, but lead, the pro-life cause, he told WORLD, "the status quo of legal abortion will be altered beyond recognition."