Pro-Choice March Largest in History
More than one million pro-choice activists converged in the nation's capital Sunday to protest the government's persistent effort to chip away at women's reproductive and health rights.
The March for Women's Lives -- organized by a coalition of activist organizations -- easily broke attendance records for national reproductive-rights rallies, overwhelming the 750,000 benchmark set in 1992.
After a two-mile walk from the Washington monument down Pennsylvania past the White House and toward the U.S. Capitol Building, demonstrators returned to their starting point on the national mall for a four-hour late-afternoon rally led by a diverse group of women's rights leaders and entertainment-world celebrities.
Brandishing a white coat hanger, comedian Whoopi Goldberg kicked off the afternoon rally with a vow to never to return to the days of back-alley abortions that prevailed before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973.
"This was the choice," Goldberg said as she held up the hanger. "This was it. And I'm here to tell you, never again. We are not going backwards child, never again."
A sea of faces stretched more than a mile, from one end of the national mall to the other. Under an overcast sky, the dozens of lawmakers, celebrities and political organizers looked out at them and issued a collective call to restore and preserve women's health and reproductive rights.
Delivering a Political Warning
While avoiding partisan politics, one speaker after the next warned that the anti-choice leaders who control the White House and Congress will pay a political price in this fall's elections for restricting the access of women in the United States and around the globe to abortion and reproductive health services. They portrayed the Bush administration's anti-abortion and abstinence-only policies as steps toward an ultimate goal of outlawing abortion and dramatically reducing the availability of contraception.
Speakers included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who, as minority leader, is the highest ranking woman in Congress ever; former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; and feminist leaders from the past, present and future including Gloria Steinem, who founded the National Organization for Women, Kate Michelman, who will step down from the helm of NARAL Pro-Choice America at the end of the year, and Carrie Sietstra, executive director and founder of Law Students for Choice. Speakers representing the African American, Hispanic and gay and lesbian communities also addressed the crowd.
At the morning rally before the walk, New York Senator Hillary Clinton received a rousing welcome as participants assembled on the national mall before the walk, which began at 1 p.m. Saying that the last national reproductive rights march in 1992 had ushered in the election of a pro-choice president, Clinton called for all assembled to register and vote in the fall election; a major message of the event. "To support individual freedom and oppose the threats to individual rights, abortion is a question of conscience," she said.
The delegation of pro-choice Republicans was 500-strong with representatives from 12 states. Jennifer Blei Stockman, head of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition, said that her members were marching because they oppose government's intrusion into individual lives and are deeply concerned by recent actions by Congress and White House that attacked women's right to choose.
"We support our party on many traditional issues," Stockman said, "but we do not agree with the recent actions that limit personal freedom." It was a reference to what many demonstrators here consider an intensifying and frontal attack on abortion rights since 2002, when an anti-choice White House and Congress began using legislation, judicial appointments and executive fiat to roll back the clock on abortion rights.
November Abortion Ban
Last November, Bush signed a law criminalizing "partial birth" abortions, a term criticized for being so clinically vague that it leaves women and doctors open to prosecution for any procedure occurring after the 12th week of pregnancy. The law includes an exception to preserve the life of the mother but not her health. It is the first federal statute to restrict abortion since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision giving women the legal right to abortion. Now being appealed by a number of pro-choice organizations, the partial-birth law is currently blocked from enforcement by a federal court injunction.
In April, Bush signed the Unborn Victims of Crime Act, a federal law that confers legal status to fetuses injured by crimes against pregnant women. Pro-choice activists worry that by granting embryos and fetuses full human rights it may create a precedent for those seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade. They also say the law may be used to prosecute pregnant women for either drug or alcohol abuse.
The demonstration was officially opened in the morning by the soprano Margie Adam singing "We shall go forth," the spiritual she had written for the abortion-rights march 25 years ago. By the time she sang, the 1.5-mile-long mall was filled with women, men and even nursing babies wearing the bright pink T-shirts identifying them with the demonstration and listening to a virtual Who's Who of the women's movement.
Speakers' messages throughout the day resonated with the calm crowd representing a U.S. cross-section and including leaders from more than 50 countries. More than one-third of the mostly female crowd was college age or younger and many speakers pointed that out and said it belied the conventional wisdom that young people were politically apathetic. A contingent of anti-globalization activists in town to protest the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank also joined the march.
"I'm marching because I'm showing my people we do have a choice, said Melinda Garcia, a 26-year-old mother from Massachusetts who said her main reasons for attending the march were political. "If you let Bush win, he's going to take all choices away," she said. "He won't stop."
Precious Nthanga, a 23-year-old woman who works with Planned Parenthood in Zambia, agreed. "It's the women from the United States who helped liberate the women from Africa," she said. "If the women from the United States lose their rights, we will be doomed, because there will be no one to stand up for us."
Dispensing Morning-After Prescriptions
In what they called an act of civil disobedience, a group of physicians stood near the beginning of the march dispensing prescriptions to those who asked for morning-after pills. Dr. Kaneen Geer, from the Institute for Urban Family Health in New York City, said that 15 physicians had joined the action and by the midpoint of the walk she had dispensed more than 150 prescriptions. "It has 12 refills," she told one recipient. "We want it to be over-the-counter, so please give them to your friends." The surprised-looking woman quickly agreed.
A contingent of anti-choice protesters also took the opportunity to air their views on what they called a "Death March." Randall Terry, head of the anti-choice group called Operation Witness, said more than 1,000 members of his movement participated. Members of Silent No More Awareness Campaign, with offices in the Northeast, held signs saying "I Regret My Abortion" and "I Regret Lost Fatherhood." Police reported that 16 activists were arrested for demonstrating without a permit.
The march on Washington -- a rich symbol of the power of the people's power over their government -- is taking place at a critical time for reproductive rights, organizers said.
"The reason for this march is really to sound the alarm that our policies both globally and domestically are hurting women," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, a Northern Virginia-based group helping to organize event. "A large portion of our population does not know the terrible impact of our policies."
Smeal insisted that the message of the march is not an "electoral one." Rather, she said, it is intended to send a message to leaders of both parties at all levels of government. More generally, Smeal said she hopes it will serve as a wake-up call to a public that may not be aware of recent efforts to undermine women's rights.
High Stakes Politically
Nonetheless, pro-choice activists routinely acknowledge that a lot is at stake in this year's elections. If Bush wins reelection this fall, he will likely appoint a successor to at least one of the five Supreme Court justices who support abortion rights. If Republicans retain Senate control, that nominee could lead to the repeal of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that guaranteed women the right to decide -- free from government interference -- whether to end a pregnancy.
Although focused on defending a woman's right to choose from any further restrictions, demonstrators were also rallying around other issues: justice and equality for women in all socio-economic strata around the world; access for all women to the full range of contraceptive services and family planning options; the need for better health services for women of all races, incomes and ages; and the effect of the federal government's foreign and policies on women worldwide.
Smeal, the former head of the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Women, oversaw the first national march for abortion rights nearly two decades ago. Unlike that 1986 march, organized by one group and focused exclusively on the rights of U.S. women, this year's event is being led by seven activist groups addressing health and reproductive issues on a global scale.
They are the National Organization for Women, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Feminist Majority Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Black Women's Health Imperative, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. Some 1,400 groups -- focused on everything from civil rights, religion, healthcare, feminism and the environment -- also helped organize and lead the event.
"This march is an opportunity to express solidarity among women both in the United States and globally to say 'No more!' to these policies that hurt women here and abroad," said June Zeitlin, executive director of the New York-based Women's Environment and Development Organization. "The women's movement is a global movement. We really want women here to understand the linkages" with their peers overseas.
Attacking the 'Global Gag' Rule
Most prominent among these is the Mexico City policy, or the so-called global gag rule. It bars U.S. family-planning assistance to any foreign health care agency that uses funds from any source to perform abortions, provide counseling and referral for abortion or lobby to make abortion legal or more available in their country. To receive U.S. funding, the agencies may perform abortions only when there is a threat to the woman's life or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Announced by the Reagan administration, the ban was lifted by President Bill Clinton on his first day in office. Bush reinstated it on his first day in office, Jan. 22, 2001.
Republicans don't seem too worried about the message delivered by the marchers. Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, doubts the event will threaten Bush's bid for reelection. And even though the event may energize the liberal base of voters, she suggested that voters are more concerned about issues such as the economy and national security.
Officials from the Bush campaign did not return calls for comment. But Vice President Dick Cheney said that abortion was a top priority for the Bush administration on Tuesday night during an awards dinner for the National Right to Life Committee, which he reportedly hailed as "a great movement of conscience."
Before the last national reproductive rights march in 1992, NOW had organized three others: two in 1989 and one in 1986. Smeal said pro-choice groups won't wait so long between marches again, a "mistake" activists made because they felt the situation for women worldwide had been improving under the Clinton administration.
Cynthia L. Cooper and Shaya Mohajer contributed to this story. Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington, D.C. Cynthia L. Cooper writes frequently about reproductive rights, justice and equality. Shaya Mohajer is an intern at Women's eNews.