Kim Gandy

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Organizers of an ambitious pro-choice march on Washington during the 2004 election campaign say they will make a special effort to reach out to young women and men who were born after the Supreme Court guaranteed abortion rights Jan. 22, 1973.

Women’s rights leaders announced Tuesday that they would combat what they see as the gravest threat to reproductive rights in three decades with a massive march April 25 on the National Mall.

Abortion opponents dismissed the April show of support as a public relations stunt. “This is all about a dying movement. It’s all about needing money and attention,” said Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, conservative alliance of churches headquartered in Washington. “The sexual revolution’s over. And the American people have realized the devastation that abortion brings.”

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, said her Virginia-based research and advocacy group has been organizing supporters on college campuses and will work to pull in marchers from high schools across the country. In the past, Smeal and other leaders said, many young people took for granted reproductive rights they have always enjoyed. They did not see the need to keep fighting for the rights won in the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.

Now, as the Bush administration chips away at some of those rights, younger women and men are beginning to see a need for action, Smeal said.

“They’re coming around, there’s too much out there,” she said. “They don’t like what’s happening and they’re worried . . . They want something to happen. They want to show that they’re with us.”

In a sign of the movement’s desire to put a younger face on its cause, leaders chose Jennifer Heitel, 21, a recent graduate of George Washington University, to introduce speakers at the press conference. In her own remarks to a room filled primarily with activists, Heitel promised that her peers would turn out for the demonstration.

“You will see at this march that my generation stands firmly for reproductive freedom,” said Heitel, a staff member for Catholics for a Free Choice, a pro-choice group in Washington.

Gravest Threat in Three Decades

Veteran organizers, meanwhile, said they were determined to hang onto rights they fought for in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I will tell you that we refuse to be the generation that both won and lost reproductive rights,” declared Gloria Feldt, president of the New York-based Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told the press conference. Feldt said she has been fighting to preserve those rights since she began working for Planned Parenthood shortly after the Supreme Court handed down the Roe decision.

Feldt joined presidents of the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority and NARAL Pro-Choice America to announce “Save Women’s Lives: March for Freedom of Choice,” which will kick off at the Lincoln Memorial.

“I believe it comes down to this single moment in time,” said NARAL Pro-Choice President Kate Michelman. “Since Washington politicians won’t stand up for women’s freedoms and women’s liberties and protect our rights, it becomes increasingly clear that only a powerful, mobilized pro-choice movement can avert the devastating consequences of women losing their right to choose.”

Michelman and Smeal said they began laying groundwork for the march–the first sponsored by all four leading women’s rights groups–last fall, when President Bush nominated several abortion opponents to federal courts. They said they picked a date that would give them enough time to mobilize supporters and that would not conflict with college breaks or exams.

Further, they said, an election-year march will remind voters the importance of the up-coming election. “Only a large-scale march in Washington,” Michelman said, “can create the momentum that is necessary at this moment in history to change what many believe is an inevitable course of events.”

Wide Range of Reproductive Choice Issues Seen at Stake

NOW President Kim Gandy, whose group was a sponsor of a 1992 reproductive-rights march that The New York Times reported was perhaps the largest ever in Washington, said “the danger is even greater now” than it was 11 years ago. “It’s not just abortion rights, it’s family planning, it’s the morning-after pill for rape victims, it’s scientific research, it is the very right of women to control their lives and to control their futures and to make private decisions privately,” Gandy said.

If Bush appoints abortion opponents to the Supreme Court, she said, “Roe will be lost for the entire reproductive life of my 10-year-old daughter.”

The leaders also brought in an array of supporters from such diverse groups as the National Congress of Black Women; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the National Latina/o Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender Organization, which are based in Washington; and the United Farm Workers, headquartered in Keene, Calif.

“I think it is rather obvious that I am black; I am Baptist; I am from the South,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, III of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a Washington-based group that represents a wide array of religious organizations. “Our battle is a common battle, and we will not give one inch to religious extremists who, in the name of God, have sought to take away the woman’s right to choose.” His voice booming, McDonald proclaimed that people of faith would not only march on Washington in April, but would march to the polls in November 2004.

Conspicuously absent from the announcement were elected officials. Organizers said they invited none of their congressional supporters because they want to demonstrate theirs is a grass-roots cause. “This is a march of the people,” said Smeal.

All Eyes on the Supreme Court

The announcement of the march comes amid speculation that Bush, who opposes abortion rights, soon could have the opportunity to nominate a justice to the United States Supreme Court. Pro-choice supporters are apprehensive that one or more Bush appointees would tip the delicate balance on the nine-member court and lead to the unraveling and eventual eradication of reproductive rights established by Roe and upheld in subsequent rulings.

There has been widespread speculation that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 78, and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, 73, could retire as soon as this summer. O’Connor cast the deciding vote when the Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska anti-abortion law three years ago in Stenberg v. Carhart.

Already, the women’s rights leaders noted, Congress and Bush have taken several steps to undermine reproductive rights. Bush has said he will sign a bill passed by the House last week that backers said would outlaw what they call “partial-birth” abortions, but that opponents contend would criminalize many abortions after 13 weeks. One of the president’s first acts in office was to reinstate a so-called gag rule preventing international family planning workers supported by U.S. funds from counseling on or advocating for abortion rights. Last year, the Bush administration cut the entire $34 million U.S. contribution to the United Nations Population Fund, which the administration said supported coercive abortions in China, an unproven allegation. The fund supports a wide-range of reproductive health services to women worldwide.

Abortion opponents in Congress have said they plan to push through additional bills intended to protect fetuses and make abortions more difficult to obtain. And, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, state legislatures have passed 335 anti-abortion measures since 1995.

March organizers said they will spend the next 10 months traveling the nation and rallying reproductive-rights supporters. In the fall, leaders of the march will crisscross the country in buses as part of a plan to bring hundreds of thousands of people to Washington.

Organizers began their campaign Tuesday by riding a bus–that got stuck in traffic–around part of the National Mall.

Jodi Enda is a Washington-based reporter who formerly covered national news and politics, the White House and Congress for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Knight Ridder Newspapers.

For more information:

Save Women’s Lives/March for Freedom of Choice:

Traditional Values Coalition: