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 antiabortion 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 efforts rely on unlikely alliances, as an antiabortion 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 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, cofounder 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.
About two miles 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 antiabortion 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.
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 and donated clothing and supplies.
Care Net says it has opened 13 urban centers since 2003, with 15 more under development.