A story in today's District Weekly failed to distinguish between two area groups active on the abortion issue. The Abortion Coalition, a metropolitan-wide group directed by Ngina Lythcott, was the sponsor of a July 23 meeting. The Abortion Rights Coalition, a District organization headed by Lee Bullitt, was the sponsor of a press conference Aug. 27.
By early summer Ngina Lythcott was mobilizing her soliders of choice. As assisant director of D.C. Planned Parenthood, she was charged with mounting an offensive to combat the anticipated anti-abortion onslaught in the House of Representatives.
For the second time in two years, the issue was a proposed ban on the District's use of its own funds for Medicaid abortions. A black woman, Lythcott feared especially for poor black women, the target of the law.
Battle was scheduled for August on the House floor. She assumed it would be easy to enlist activist blacks in what seemed so obviously a critical issue for black Washington.
But the voices of the city's well-established black medical community, the many black political activists and the cadre of visible and activist ministers were largely silent.
"We held our first Abortion (Rights) Coalition meeting on July 23," Lythcott said, "to which we invited most, if not all, the local black organizations and black women's organizations.
"We had about three RSVPs (from black groups), and two black people actually came, one from D.C. General (Hospital) and one unaffiliated. There were 67 people there from 27 organizations. And there was not one black organization that showed up."
Why the avoidance of the issue? Was their silence rooted in conservative community values? Did it reflect an invironment where the grip of religion pulls as hard as the needs of its many poor believers? Or might it reveal a thinly disguished indifference among the privileged, despite racial ties?
Medicaid paid for about 5,800 abortions in the District last year, roughly half of those performed in the city. Ninety percent of the city's Medicaid recipients are black.
Two weeks before the House floor fight, at a press conference sponsored by abortion-rights activists, a disappointed Lythcott told a reporter her assumption that blacks would be easy to enlist had been way off base.
She looked around the small room crowded with about 60 abortion-rights stalwarts, a few journalists and assorted onlookers. About a dozen blacks were there, a quarter of them reporters.
"I'm really afraid that this is perceived as a white issue," Lythcott said. "What is really clear is that the ones who will be most devastated by this thing are black women."
Two weeks ago today, her cause won when the Houe narrowly defeated the proposal after two hours of harsh debate, touching mostly on home rule. It was the first pro-abortion victory in the House in 33 attempts.
Yet the questions raised by the resounding silence in black Washington remain.
"It's something the preachers don't like to talk about," said the Rev. Andrew Fowler, pastor of Capital View Baptist Church and executive secretary of the Committee of 100 Baptist Miniters. As he ended an unexpectedly short interview, he added, "I can't be quoted."
Janet Dewart, secretary of the largely black D.C. Women's Political Caucus, was contacted before the floor fight. She said simply, "I just don't think it'S going to be one of my three priority issues."
Among the few who personally went on record against the proposal was Dr. Stanford Roman, medical director at D.C. General Hospital. "I think that the issue is that a woman has a right to make certain choices," he explained in an interview before the proposal was defeated. "Secondly, I don't care what your philosophy, parenting is a lot more than giving birth to a child.
"I don't think any measure that says that because you're pregnant, you have to have that child, is healthy for society in the long run.
"I remember the women I treated during my residency. Women used to come in after aborting themselves with coat hangers, with anything. And don't believe that illegal abortionists don't still exist. A lot of the younger girls go to them. They're ignorant, and they hear that funding's been cut off. . . . I bet a whole lot of back-street abortionist are gearing up right now."
One doctor, a well-known internist, added, "Black physicians are, by and large, timid, and if a thing is controversial it's enough to keep three-quarters of them out of it. They don't want to end up on the wrong side, and, on this issue, the potential for ending up on the wrong side is real.
"The medical establishment is part medical, part business, part social, and there's a fear it might affect more than your livelihood."
Another black doctor, who also insisted that he remain anonymous, agreed, "There are things people have attained here which are unique, and they are very afraid of something that might jeopardize that."
But two black physicians' groups, the National Medical Association and the Medical Chirurgical Society, again passed resolutions at the year's annual conference in support of continued Medicaid payments for abortions on demand, Jessie Barber, past NMA president, told The Post.
Lee Bullit, director of D.C. Planned Parenthood, however, says she never received copies of the resolutions.
Politicos have been elusive. Mayor Marion Barry, who has been outspokenly supportive of gay rights (another obviously controversial issue in the black community) and is on record as a supporter of Medicaid funding for abortions, has not attended any of the abortion coalition press conferences or sent representatives. His spokesman, Alan Grip, insists the mayor has never been invited.
"Baloney!" blasts Bullitt. "I was on the phone with him for days. First he was going to read a statement, then he decided he didn't want to share a press conference."
Spokeswomen for Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and Zeta Phi Beta, the oldest black sororities, all said they had "an interest" in the issue, but hadn't issued statements and refused to be quoted.
Legal help for the Abortion Rights Coalition came from the American Civil Liberities Union.
The Urban League chose not to lobby. The Rev. Edward Hailes, director of the Washington bureau of the NAACP, which did not participate, did not respond to a reporter's calls.
City Council members are all on record in favor of continued funding, but only John Ray (D-At Large) joined the coalition's effort. Most council members were on vacation or pounding the campaign trail.
Some health education counselors talked about subtle moral and ethical feelins toward abortion.
"One underlying thread that I've felt very strongly comes from the feeling that it's genocide," said Dr. Richard Peters, medical director for D.C. Planned Parenthood and a black gynecologist who also has worked in New York and Califronia.
"I think there's a current that says white people will do anything to keep black people from getting ahead," he said.
Lythcott, a psychiatric social worker and nurse who counseled in private practice before coming won't speak up about abortion because "they aren't sure it's right, that it's moral, that it's good.
"I think that black people's religious ties run deep, and they run very deep in the District. I think our religious ties tend to affect our willingness to talk about sex publicly, even in the home.We've been told it's something it's not 'nice' to talk about. And when you talk about abortion, you have to talk about sex."
But Jacqueline Sandler, a sex-education counselor at Howard University's Family Planning Clinic, said, "I don't think blacks are more reluctant to talk about sex than whites. Where I do think blacks have a hang-up is when white people talk to them about it. I think they feel, 'Well, you can control my job and my livelihood, but you can't control what I do in the bedroom.'"
Sandler seconded a point made by a number of doctors. "You don't find black people speaking out as much because we as a people have been taught not to, that we well be penalized for it," she said.
Perhaps more than anyone else, usually high-profile, often politically minded black ministers exemplify the leadership's dilemma on abortion.
Besides his work with the Committee of 100 Baptist Ministers and his own Capital View Baptist Church, the Rev. Andrew Fowler last year was a member of the D.C. General Hospital Commission.
The commission sponsored and distributed a resolution, to which Fowler's name was attached, supporting the use of Medicaid funding for abortion. But recently Fowler refused to discuss the issue except in the vaguest of terms.
"Preachers are always hoping there will not be abortions," he said in a brief telephone interview. "Of course, they do take stands on it within their own institutions. Many of them don't say anything.
"Of course, they are always opposed to any kind of dicriminatory act. But I don't want to be quoted on this. I can't be quoted," he said finally.
Then there is the Rev. John Bussey of Bethesda Baptist Church, who probably represents the opposite extreme, both of ideology and expressiveness, in his belief that abortion spells murder to the unborn child.
"I have to come out against this abortion thing," Bussey said. "It's gotten way out of hand. The public is paying for the kind of life certain people have chosen to lead. If they violate the principle of the Lord, they ought to pay for it."
On whether already-poor people should have children they may not be able to afford, Bussey said, "The Lord does not make a mouth he cannot feed. Black people should never say what they cannot afford. We've never had anything and we've made it.The economic problems we have today are due to lack of population."
As to pregnancy in teen-agers: "Mothers tell their children now (about birth control). They don't hold anything back. They give their children information. Anything that happens to them is their fault. Anybody who is right-thinking feels the way I do," he added.
Bussey also said he "did not believe" the recent Gallup Pool that showed 53 per cent of all Americans felt abortion should be legal under some circumstances, 25 percent said it should be legal under all circumstances, and only 18 percent felt it should not be legal.
On abortion, black Washington couples its tradition of political liberalism with an equally firmly entrenched social conservatism.
Felicia Bell, 18, a sales clerk at Woodies, summed up the feeling of many people interviewed: "I feel that a woman who's pregnant and doesn't want to have the baby probably has a good reason. If she wants to have an abortion, I think it's her right."
But she added, "I don't think they should ever have paid for Meidcaid abortions.There are all kind of measures you can take to keep from getting pregnant. A woman should be able to handle her own reponsibilities. If that's what she got into, she should be able to handle the results."