Who Decides?

A grand time was had by feminists from all over the nation Sunday, out exercising our right to peaceably assemble and to petition our government for redress of grievances. While we still can.

The women who organized the march came up with a scheme to count our numbers and announced that there were more than a million of us there and it was the largest demonstration in the history of the nation. ABC had us down to "tens of thousands." Other networks admitted to "several hundred thousands." I didn't see FOX News, but I assume we were down a few thousand on that channel, and almost all the news outlets gave either some or equal time to the few hundred anti-choice groups that turned out. The National Park Service has quit trying to guess the numbers on big marches, so it was up for grabs.

As a longtime reporter on protest marches, I guarantee the best way to estimate a crowd is to count all the feet in it and divide by two. Actually, there are a couple of traditional methods -- you can use an aerial photo, divide it into small squares, count all the people in one square and then multiply that by the total number of squares. Or you can station yourself at a given intersection, count the people who pass by in one minute, and then multiply that by the number of minutes the whole march takes to pass. No one has ever claimed either method is precise. I can only report that women filled the Washington Mall on Sunday and put on a whale of a show.

As a veteran of women's marches, I'd say this one was almost as overwhelmingly white as they used to be -- the minority women present were perhaps more than the sprinkle they used to be, but still just freckles in our midst, a sign of one of our great failures. Republicans for choice came from everywhere.

What was amazing was the intergenerational aspect of the march. When women of my generation, the so-called Second Wave of feminism, first started marching, we were on those occasions overwhelmingly young, with just a sprinkling of our mothers and grandmothers among us. This time, almost everyone came as family, ranging from Gloria Steinem, now 70, to Ann Richards' granddaughters. Pregnant women for choice flecked the crowd, marching for their unborn sons and daughters.

The signs ranged from feisty to funny to touching. "My daughter marched for your rights in Iraq; I am here today to march for her rights." "Keep your rosaries out of our ovaries." "George W. Bush believes in abstinence -- Lucky Laura." And, of course, the omnipresent, "Who decides?"

Unlike the pre-Roe v. Wade days, we did not have so many vivid memories of the dead from illegal abortions. The daughter of one famous victim -- her dead, bleeding body a photographic icon of those long-past times, came and spoke movingly. The father and brother of Becky Bell, the first girl, but not the last, to die from parental consent laws, came to speak. The families of women who were too poor to afford abortions after public funding was cut off came as well. The global gag rule re-installed by George W. Bush in his first official act as president drew representatives from 57 countries where women have been so hideously affected by it. One news channel reported that the right to choose whether or not to bear child is just 12th out of 14 major issues on which people will decide their votes.

Sadly, many older feminist say they are bewildered by the attitudes of a substantial minority of younger women, women born after Roe v. Wade in 1973, who are either opposed to abortion or who do not consider it an issue. I'm not. I never thought about getting breast cancer, until it happened to me.

Abortion providers who have been subject to acts of terrorism for years were there to speak -- the bombed, the shot, the maimed, the widows. Still strong, still working.

As I have written before, I hate writing about abortion, because it is a subject on which so many have already made up their minds, unless or until they are personally confronted with that difficult choice -- that abstract argument is of little assistance. In fact, the numbers show that those "officially" opposed to abortion -- fundamentalist Christians and Catholics -- have abortions at about the same rate as the rest of us. This has never surprised me, because I am a pro-choice advocate who has always known I would never have an abortion myself. The fact is that I always wanted to have children, and from about the age of 20 onward, halfway through my college career (no guarantees what I would have done before then), I think I would have been able to support a child economically (hell, I knew how to type). Whether I would have been able to raise a child, or was competent to raise a child emotionally and psychologically, who knows? I've watched mothers do it well with far fewer advantages than I had, and I've watched mothers completely crumble under the burden. And I still think the question is, "Who decides?"

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