A fight is shaping up in the D.C. statehood convention over abortion and handgun provisions of a proposed bill of rights for the city's constitution, with a small but tenacious group of antiabortion and "self-defense" advocates promising full battle.
The current limited-home-rule D.C. government has stridently fought any attempt to curtail abortion and imposed one of the toughest gun-control laws in the nation, but a faction of convention delegates is trying to counter established trends on these issues by arguing that both abortion and gun control can be used as weapons against minorities.
"As a black with my own perspective on history," says Absalom Jordan Jr., Ward 8 convention delegate and leader of the progun, antiabortionist group, "I am concerned about past efforts to reduce our numbers." That, he says, is why he is against abortion and its possible use as a tool of genocide.
As for the right to keep and bear arms, Jordan says, Washington residents should have guns not only to ward off criminals but also to act as "a balance to government . . . the government that would usurp the power of the people . . . I'm not at a point where I feel I can trust the government."
Convention delegates, who are just finishing public hearings on the constitution and are about halfway through their 90-day session, appear largely liberal or "prochoice" on the abortion issue and in favor of continued tough restrictions on handguns. Jordan and his faction vow a continued fight.
Abortion and handguns are not the only issues likely to generate controversy, as other delegates have submitted proposed articles that would legalize prostitution, ban "state regulation of morality" and guarantee the right to adequate housing and medical treatment.
A nine-member preamble and rights committee has reported that it is leaning toward a "conceptual framework" that would ban police wiretaps outright, entitle residents to be present during police searches of their homes and outlaw capital punishment.
The committee's preliminary framework also contains an unusual provision that would guarantee every citizen "the right to a job." Just what this would mean -- whether government would fill the role of employer of last resort -- was unclear.
In addition, the committee says it tends to favor guaranteeing all employes -- including public employes -- the right to strike. Strikes by public workers are now illegal here.
Another proposal would require the press "to report all sides of an issue and be encouraged to report on a wide variety of issues, even if the press organization's position is opposed to a particular view on an issue."
Still another would prohibit "public advocacy promoting the extermination of any group of people based on race, religion . . . etc." This drew fire during committee hearings this week from the local American Civil Liberties Union branch.
ACLU executive director Leslie Harris said a blanket ban on such advocacy could infringe on First Amendment rights of free speech under the U.S. Constitution, since the Supreme Court has ruled that speech can be limited only when it causes a "clear and present danger," "actual incitement" or similar threat.
Individual delegates have proposed articles that would guarantee the right to gamble; guarantee rights of access and freedom of movement to handicapped persons; guarantee the "right to a clean and healthful environment;" and incorporate a version of the Equal Rights Amendment ensuring equality for women.
The firearms debate in the convention comes amid growing criticism of the city's strict gun control law in other forums.. City Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), citing increased crime in the city, has proposed temporarily lifting the ban on hew handgun acquisitions, and D.C. Police Chief Maurice T. Turner said he believed citizens who want to own guns should be able to do so
The convention's preamble and rights committee, of which Jordan is a member, has not yet decided which way to go on the gun issue. Several delegates, including Michael Marcus of Ward 5 and Charles Mason of Ward 4, favor keeping the present tough controls on firearms, either spelling them out in the constitution or simply maintaining the existing city law.
Marcus and his allies argue that with creation of similar controls in surrounding states and at the federal level, the gun population eventually can be reduced and the homicide rate brought down.
Jordan scoffs at the idea. "More black people have died from the disease of racism than from guns," he said at a committee hearing Monday night. In an interview earlier, he recalled that 19th century black abolitionist Frederick Douglass told freed slaves after the Civil War that their "new-found freedom can only be protected if you have arms."
On the equally touchy issue of abortion, Marcus has proposed an article that would make "procreation . . . a fundamental civil liberty; the right to exercise or refrain from exercising this liberty shall never be subject to state infringement or regulation."
Marcus said this language means that women would be free to have abortions but also would be protected from involuntary sterilization.
Jordan, the father of four children and grandfather of two, has proposed a contrary article banning most abortions. It would guarantee the "right to life" of an "individual regardless of age or stage of development."
He said exceptions to the ban could be made in cases of incest, rape or danger to the mother's life.
Jordan, a veteran of confrontation politics, who now is executive director of the D.C. Unemployment Compensation Board, has been a longtime ally of Douglas E. Moore, the feisty ex-city councilman, himself a firm advocate of the right to bear arms and a member of the National Rifle Association.