Eleanor Smeal

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–After assembling on the national mall on Sunday morning, demonstrators at today’s pro-choice rally here will begin a two-mile walk from the Washington monument to the White House then down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill. In the afternoon, organizers will host a rally with lawmakers, performers, speakers and celebrities.

The event is being led by a coalition ofactivist organizations, including thoserepresenting 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 also are expected to join the march.

Ashley Gramby, a first-year 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 2004 elections will determine whether the anti-choice leaders who control the White House and Congress will keep their grip on power and build upon efforts to restrict reproductive rights and access to health care for women the world over. Elections this fall may also determine whether the Bush administration can achieve what many fear is one of its longer term goals: stacking the Supreme Court with a majority of anti-choice justices to achieve the ultimate goal of outlawing abortion.

“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 and Kim Gandy, NOW’s president, insisted that the message is not an “electoral one.” Rather, the march is intended to send a message to leaders of both parties at all levels of government. Smeal added that 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

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.

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 are focusing on the rally’s pro-choice identity and theme. On Saturday, members of the Florida-based Operation Witness will protest at Washington, D.C.-based abortion clinics as The Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Greater Washington Health Center and Washington Surgi-Center. On Sunday, Operation Witness members will 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 the National 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, barring 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.

Marchers will also focus on the Bush administration’s lack of adequate support for international efforts to better prevent and treat the HIV virus; withdrawal of funding for the United Nations Population Fund, the largest international source for population and reproductive health programs; and the administration’s refusal to endorse a U.N. treaty called the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. The document, informally called CEDAW, is widely used by women worldwide to advocate for their rights but is not endorsed by the United States.

On the domestic front, participants will protest 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 and access to birth control.

Since 2002, Bush has signed two major new laws that chip away at women’s reproductive rights.

Abortion Ban Signed 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 procedures 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 case giving women the legal right to choose. 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 spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, doubts the event would threaten Bush’s bid for reelection. And even though the event may energize the liberal base of voters, she added 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 further restricting 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: