WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–An unprecedented number of pro-choice activists protesting the government’s persistent effort to chip away at women’s health and reproductive rights gave New York Senator Hillary Clinton a rousing welcome earlier today on the national mall.
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.
Participants carrying signs and banners representing thousands of civic, religious and government groups are in what is being billed as one of the largest marches on Washington in the nation’s history. After listening to speakers in the chill of a cloudy spring day, a crowd estimated at more than 750,000 embarked shortly before 1 p.m. on a two-mile walk from the Washington monument down Pennsylvania past the White House and toward the U.S. Capitol Building.
The last time pro-choice activists staged a national march was 1992, when some 750,000 activists descended upon Washington in advance of that year’s presidential and congressional elections and set a benchmark for turnout at a reproductive-rights rally.
Supporters came from across the nation and around the world. “I’ve never known what life was like without choice,” Katie Danziger, 40, said aboard an early-morning train from her home state of New York to the nation’s capital.
Traveling with her mother, her grandmother and her two children, she joined 800 other self-described “reproductive freedom fighters” on the train, which was chartered by Planned Parenthood of New York City. “It’s frightening for me to think my children won’t know choice.”
“We want to draw attention to the international dimension, some of the problems with the gag rule imposed by President Bush and the denial of UNFPA funding,” said Susan Hornik, director of media relations for the International Women’s Health Coalition.
She was referring to the U.S. policy barring U.S. family-planning assistance to any foreign health care agency–most notably the United Nations Family Planning Fund–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.
“Americans have forgotten what life without legalized abortion is like.”
Activists, lawmakers and celebrities from around the country echoed the sentiment. “We’re going to Washington to demand fundamental freedom for women,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democratic congressman from New York. “We’re going to show the president he cannot threaten reproductive rights without a fight.”
‘We Shall Go Forth’
The gathering at which Clinton spoke was opened 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.
Interfaith leaders were the first to speak, testifying to religious beliefs that allowed women to make their own private decisions about pregnancy. The podium also offered the crowd a look at leaders of the women’s movement. In addition to Clinton, there was Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations. Gwendolyn Mink, daughter of Patsy Mink, the late member of Congress who wrote Title IX, the federal law that prohibits institutions that receive federal funding from practicing gender discrimination in educational programs or activities was also heard, along with Byllie Avery, founder of the Black Women’s Health Imperative and a Women’s eNews 21 Leader for the 21st Century, 2004.
Numerous organizations participated in civic, religious and governmental events Sunday morning to gear up for the march. Liane White, a 22-year-old student at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., said she was compelled to make the trek to Washington, D.C., for spiritual reasons.
“As a religious person, I think as human beings and women we should have the ability to think and make decisions for ourselves,” she said while participating in an inter-faith worship service near the Capitol Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
In the afternoon, organizers will host a rally with lawmakers, performers, speakers and celebrities.
NAACP Lends First-Time Support
The event is being led by a coalition of activist organizations, including those representing women of color, and for the first time in its 95-year history the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is supporting a pro-choice event. A contingent of anti-globalization activists in town to protest the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are expected to join the march.
Ashley Gramby, a freshman journalism major at Hampton University in Virginia, is one of hundreds of thousands of women and men who are expected to participate this year. Gramby is leading a small group to the pro-choice march from her university in the hopes that it will be the seminal event for a local chapter of the National Organization for Women on her college campus.
“I was trying to find something that I’m passionate about,” Gramby said. “I felt as though this was something I could do as a young person.”
She and her co-marchers are joining forces at critical time in the battle to keep abortion safe and legal, organizers say.
“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.
A Lot at Stake in Elections
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, organizers are also rallying demonstrators around the several 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.
Counter-demonstrators, however, are focusing on the rally’s pro-choice identity. On Sunday, they are planning to create “an ocean” of anti-choice signs and banners along eight blocks of the route to protest what they call the “Death March.” Meanwhile, members of Silent No More Awareness Campaign, with offices in the Northeast, will hold signs reading “I Regret My Abortion” and “I Regret Lost Fatherhood.”
“Our goal is simply to be an honest witness, silently via our signs, to say that not everybody feels like these people that are going to be there,” said Georgette Forney, executive director for the Pittsburg-based National Organization of Episcopalians for Life and co-founder of the National Silent No More Awareness Campaign.
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, which was organized by one group and focused exclusively on the state of domestic affairs, this year’s event is being led by seven activist groups. In addition to sharing financial and organizational burdens, the groups are broadening their scope to address health and reproductive issues on a global scale.
“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. 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.
On the domestic front, participants are also focusing on what they have called 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. Since 2002, Bush has signed two laws that chip away at women’s reproductive rights.Last November 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 decision. Now being appealed by a number of pro-choice organizations, the 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.
Republicans don’t seem too worried about the electoral effects of the march. 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 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.”
750,000 Demonstrators in 1992
The last time pro-choice activists staged a national march was 1992, when some 750,000 activists descended upon Washington in advance of that year’s presidential and congressional elections. Before that, NOW organized three national marches: 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.
This time around, seven organizations–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–are leading the event. Some 1,400 groups–focused on everything from civil rights, religion, healthcare, feminism and the environment–are also providing leadership.
Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington, D.C.
For more information:
March for Women’s Lives:
National Organization for Women:
Global Women’s Issues Scorecard on the Bush Administration: