Through adoption, education, and promotion of strong family life, black Catholics can defeat abortion, speakers said at a Sept. 19 pro-life conference in Washington, D.C., under the patronage of Venerable Pierre Toussaint.

“The value of human life is not determined by the circumstances of conception,” said Dr. Mildred Jefferson, past president of the National Right to Life Committee. Although a Methodist, Jefferson is worlds apart from her coreligionist Hillary Rodham Clinton on abortion. “All life does have value, even that which is conceived as the result of rape or incest,” Jefferson told the audience.

Human Life International and St. Joseph Catholic Church of Alexandria, Va., co-sponsored the first Pierre Toussaint Pro-Life Conference at St. Luke Catholic Church. About 50 people attended the daylong event, which took place the day after the U.S. Senate failed to override President Clinton's veto of the ban on partial-birth abortion.

Toussaint was a 19th-century Haitian slave who came with his masters to New York and later lived as a freeman. The Catholic Church has declared him venerable, and Toussaint could become the first canonized black American. “He was called not to be a successful hero in the eyes of the world, but to be a saint,” said Auxiliary Bishop Leonard Olivier of the Archdiocese of Washington, in his opening remarks for the symposium.

Rather than feel dejected by the political defeat the day before, the symposium's participants appeared enthusiastic, giving standing ovations to three speakers.

At times, those speakers addressed pro-life issues bluntly. “A lot of black people see abortion as a white people's issue,” master of ceremonies Al Anderson told the audience. In the pro-life movement, he added, the presence of former segregationists and others whom black people have regarded as political enemies makes some African-Americans reluctant to join the cause.

‘God did not take us out of slavery … out of Jim Crow (laws) … to have us abort our unborn babies … ‘We look at the medical community and think they're gods … I'm glad that God gave me a mind, so I can research what I believe in.’

But the abortion industry has targeted blacks and other minorities, Bishop Olivier declared. Approximately 70% of abortion clinics are located in minority neighborhoods, the prelate said. Unborn minority children are aborted at more than twice the rate of white children, according to 1988 figures compiled by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood.

Anderson mentioned speaking with a young black man in his parish who told him, “I don't have a problem with pro-life, but I have a problem with some pro-lifers.” Anderson, who is chairman of St. Joseph's pro-life committee, said he responded: “I have a problem with some individual Catholics, but that doesn't mean I'm going to leave the Catholic Church.”

Akua Furlow, executive director of Life Education and Resource Network of Houston, which bills itself as the largest black evangelical Christian pro-life organization in the country, said, “God did not take us out of slavery … out of Jim Crow (laws) … to have us abort our unborn babies.”

Furlow, who has seven children, told the audience that Planned Parenthood Federation of America started over 80 years ago with the primary intent of limiting the births of minorities, the poor, and the handicapped. She urged audience members to scrutinize civil rights leaders, the medical community, and politicians to find out their convictions on abortion.

“We look at the medical community and think they're gods,” she confided. And many black people almost automatically vote for black candidates, without paying close attention to their stances on issues, she added. “I'm glad that God gave me a mind, so I can research what I believe in.”

She denounced Jesse Jackson for repudiating his pro-life convictions to gain acceptance as a Democratic presidential candidate, and she urged pro-life blacks to reject the beliefs of Faye Wattleton, former head of Planned Parenthood, and Joycelyn Elders, Clinton's first surgeon general, and other black leaders who promote abortion rights.

“There are those who would exploit the difficult circumstances” of an unplanned pregnancy, said Jefferson, who has been involved in the pro-life movement for more than 25 years and is president of Massachusetts-based Right to Life Crusade Inc. “These are elitists because throughout history, there have been people who felt they knew how the lower classes should live,” said Jefferson, a graduate of Harvard Medical School. Unlike Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who has also identified the racist intent in Planned Parenthood's eugenics strategy, the speakers mentioned the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness. “In a way, you should be angry … but don't direct your anger towards your white brothers and sisters,” Anderson told the symposium audience.

Many black families, when confronted with an unplanned pregnancy, say “Let's resolve it,” through abortion, said Josephite Father Armand Manuel, associate pastor of St. Luke's. Conversely, when he grew up in New Orleans, Manuel recalled that “the whole family would take care of a child” born out of wedlock, rather than seeking to abort him.

Dr. Reginald Grier, a professor at William Patterson University in Patterson, N.J. recounted how he and his wife adopted two biracial children from Korea, where he had served in the military. In his speech, he addressed the concerns that some people have about adoption, such as the health of the children and the possibility that birth parents could come back years later to try to reclaim them.

Furlow recounted how she and a biological sibling were adopted by a biracial woman who herself was conceived as the result of a rape.

While sidewalk counseling with other members of the Knights of Columbus outside an abortion clinic, Grier was recently asked by a 16-year-old girl planning to have an abortion, “Who will care for my child?” He told her about Catholic Charities adoption program and she turned around and walked away from the abortion facility, he said.

Life Education Network's Furlow endorsed transracial adoption, which occurs when parents of one race adopt a child of another race. “Children don't care about the race of adoptive parents when they're in foster care,” she declared. Furlow recounted how she and a biological sibling were adopted by a biracial woman who herself was conceived as the result of a rape. If Furlow's mother were conceived now, she said, there is a good chance she would have been aborted.

The Black Coalition for Life, the newly formed Washington area organization launched at the symposium, will hold monthly meetings at a Josephite seminary in the city. The Josephites, who have dedicated their ministry to working with African-Americans, staff both St. Joseph and St. Luke churches.

William Murray writes from Kensington, Maryland.