NOW President Patricia Ireland

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Thousands of abortion rights supporters from around the country gathered here yesterday to rally and march for reproductive rights and to signal their fear that an anti-choice justice may soon be appointed to the Supreme Court.

Joining the veterans of pre-Clinton era marches were large numbers of younger activists, wearing tank tops and shorts and carrying signs with such slogans as “Young Feminists Mobilizing.”

Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, a main sponsor of the march, said she has been visiting college campuses around the country over the past month and that 160 college campuses were represented at the event.

Despite the energy and optimism of the crowd, Ireland said she doesn’t want women or men to forget that the threat of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade is very real.

“We have greater resources than at any point in our history and I think the threat is greater,” she said in an interview before the event.

Marchers seemed to agree the threat is real.

“I want to know that if I ever need an abortion I’ll be able to get one,” said one marcher, 18-year-old Laura Bullock, a high school senior from Harrisburg, Pa.

“I’m just dumbfounded that it has to be such an issue. It should just be a given for everyone. And having Bush in office, I just felt like I wanted to come up here and protest something,” added her friend, 18-year-old Adam Shenk, also from Harrisburg.

Complacent During Clinton Years, Advocates Now Must Gird for Battle

The event, with 150 additional individual sponsors and organizations, kicks off a planned four-year lobbying campaign to counter the anti-choice policies of the new Bush administration, said NOW President Ireland.

Before the large crowd marched up Constitution Avenue past the Supreme Court and then down to the mall for a reproductive health fair, Ireland and other speakers told activists that the Bush administration’s anti-choice policies are a serious threat to women’s freedoms.

“There was after 1992 an unfortunate complacency that settled in over abortion rights supporters who breathed a sigh of relief that Clinton was elected,” Ireland said last week. “There was that sense of complacency and people just went back to their lives.”

But abortion rights have been slowly eroded over the last decade in the chambers of state legislatures, speakers said.

“A woman’s right to choose is fundamental,” said Kate Michelman, head of the National Abortion Rights Action League, telling the crowd to “vote, educate, talk to people. Commit to talking to friends who don’t believe a woman’s right to choose can be taken away.”

Byllye Avery of the National Black Women’s Health Project told marchers: “What we have to remember is that we are walking the high ground here. … The greatest right a woman has is to have a life and to have, absolutely, control over managing her fertility.”

While speakers touched on a number of progressive issues, including freedom of speech and environmentalism, the main focus of the day was organizing pro-choice Americans around the issue of Supreme Court appointments.

Preparing Now to Head Off Anti-Choice Replacement for O’Connor

With the near certainty that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will step down this summer, Ireland and other advocates say pro-choice Americans must act now to ensure that the court doesn’t swing anti-choice. The court has narrowly upheld abortion rights in recent cases, voting by only a 5-to-4 margin. O’Connor’s has been the swing vote, insisting the laws protect women’s health, and her departure will leave the future of abortion rights in doubt.

“If we wait until she has already stepped down,” Ireland said, “it will be too late.” If Bush has the chance to appoint a new justice during the summer, college campuses will be empty, Ireland said, and activists will have a hard time building momentum.

“We must begin now a filibuster campaign,” said Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority. Smeal encouraged marchers to tell pro-choice U.S. Senators that they must filibuster the confirmation hearing of any candidate for the Supreme Court who doesn’t support abortion rights. Afterward, activists signed paper and electronic petitions directed at their representatives.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who has long been a staunch proponent of abortion rights, told the crowd that supporters of a woman’s right to choose face an increasingly hostile White House and Congress.

“This is not a president who we can trust to protect the health and safety of women. He will nominate an anti-choice zealot to lead the assault on Roe v. Wade,” Nadler said.

Activists are disturbed by Bush’s swift reimposition of the so-called global gag rule, which bans U.S. funding of any international health organizations that inform pregnant women about the option of legal abortion or legally lobby their governments on the issue–even if the organizations use their own funds for abortion-related activities.

Appointment of Anti-Choice Ashcroft Fuels Anxiety About Bush Agenda

But Ireland said she’s been even more alarmed by some of Bush’s cabinet appointments. “To have people like Attorney General John Ashcroft, who not only opposes abortion but also opposes some of the most popular forms of birth control” is a negative message to pro-choice Americans, she said.

Planned Parenthood President Gloria Feldt introduced herself as a “grandmother for choice” and referred marchers to Planned Parenthood’s new website for information about Bush’s anti-choice record.

“This is about the young women of today and tomorrow,” she said.

Indeed, there were numerous signs and T-shirts expressing anger about the outcome of the 2000 presidential election and activists said they want to channel that anger into action to ensure women’s right to choose.

Ireland told the crowd that they were sending a message to all the pro-choice Americans who couldn’t be at the march.

“There are people all around the country who believe as we do and who will join us,” she said.

Sarah Stewart Taylor is a free-lance writer in Washington, D.C., also covering New England.

For more information, visit:

National Organization for Women:

The Feminist Majority Foundation:

Planned Parenthood Federation of America:

National Abortion Rights Action League: