Loretta Ross

(WOMENSENEWS)–In cities and towns across the country, students, unionists, environmentalists and others are gearing up to attend the March to Save Women’s Lives, a massive reproductive-rights rally in Washington, D.C., this Sunday, April 25.

Unlike previous pro-choice rallies, this one is being led by women of color and organizations that represent them and this new approach isexpected to greatly boost attendance. But the real impact of this historic change will extend beyond the crowd count of the march itself.

The leadership role of the women of color has pushed the focus of the rally beyond a defense of a women’s legal right to terminate a pregnancy and created a call for a broader range of goals, such as better and broader access to day care and child care.

Loretta Ross, executive director of the National Center for Human Rights Education and the first African American woman to co-direct a national protest for choice, says that putting the reproductive issues that matter most to women of color on center stage Sunday is going to forever change the women’s movement.

“Women of color are going to be joining other women in really large numbers to show their outrage at what’s being done to their reproductive rights,” Ross says. “When we approached the principal organizers about being included, they invested a lot of money in mobilizing among communities of color and making sure the message got out to a lot of people. That hard work is going to pay off on Sunday.”

Broad Spectrum of Issues

A key rallying point is, of course, to defend Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that guaranteed women the right to decide–free from government interference–whether to end a pregnancy. But all agree the march is about more than that.

“The right to have a child and get health care, an education, safe drinking water, day care–these are the issues Latinas link to reproductive rights,” says Silvia Henriquez, director of the Brooklyn-headquartered National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. “It’s as much about taking care of their families as it is being able to terminate a pregnancy.”

Many of the immigrant women who turn to the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, according to Henriquez, come from countries where reproductive healthcare was profoundly constrained.

“They come from countries where forced sterilization is still common and where an abortion is really dangerous and can land you in jail. They’ve seen their health care providers criminalized and jailed just for giving them birth control pills.”

As a result, Henriquez says, many Latinas are anxious to attain reproductive justice in this country and see it as an integral human right. With the Hispanic population set to be the largest U.S. minority within the next several decades, says Henriquez, the women’s movement has much to gain by broadening its agenda to include this very large population of women.

Also marching with the Women of Color delegation–bearing a large “Women of Color for Reproductive Justice” banner–will be members of the National Asian Women’s Health Organization and some key activists within Native American communities.

Men are invited too. Marcus Scott, director of The Fre Foundation, a D.C.-based organization dedicated to promoting human-rights awareness in public schools, was asked by Loretta Ross to write a letter to black men explaining why they need to come out and show their support for black women on Sunday.

“Black men have to be consistently present in support of black women’s health and reproductive efforts as well as all facets of their work, leadership and lives,” says Scott, who mailed his letter to more than 50 organizations nationwide, including those who organized and participated in the 1995 Million Man March. So far he has gotten more then 500 letters of support in return.

More Similarities Than Differences

Some activists would prefer to keep sights sharply focused on last fall’s passage of the so-called partial-birth abortion ban, which outlaws most abortions beyond the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and makes no exception to protect the health of women. It gives parents little chance to make decisions based on fetal health, because the most common test for birth defects–an amniocentesis–is not usually performed until 15 to 18 weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period. Those results can take two more weeks.

President Bush signed the ban into law even though the Supreme Court had previously labeled a similar ban unconstitutional. Activists immediately filed lawsuits challenging the federal abortion ban in three different cities, and proceedings began for all of them on March 29. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the City of San Francisco filed one of the lawsuits in San Francisco; the American Civil Liberties Union filed another in New York City on behalf of the National Abortion Federation and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a third lawsuit in Lincoln, Neb., on behalf of four doctors. Until rulings are made, the federal abortion ban is being temporarily blocked from enforcement by a federal court injunction.

The recent passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which elevates fetal rights over those of women, has also sounded alarms throughout the women’s community. Under the Act pregnant women could be prosecuted for taking drugs, drinking, smoking, or doing any number of things perceived as harmful to the fetus.

Thirty-one states already have such legislation enacted–16 of which define fetal homicide from the moment of conception–but this is the first time a law has been passed on the federal level recognizing a fetus as a separate person from the mother. President Bush signed the bill into law April 1.

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act may resonate more fully with the community of minority women, says Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. In the past 15 years, several state “fetal homicide” laws have been used to charge 275 women with endangering their unborn children. Most of those women, says Paltrow, are young, poor and women of color.

Ultimately, believes Ross, what is going to become clear on Sunday is that there are more similarities than differences between minority and white women when it comes to the fight for reproductive freedom.

“Women of color support the right to choose and women’s right to not be enslaved by the unborn,” says Ross. “I would have participated on April 25th even if the event organizers hadn’t reached out to include women of color in leadership roles. But I’m pleased that while we are marching for the right to choose, other issues will also be present, like how hard it is for poor women, who are mostly women of color, to raise children without any real social services.”

Early estimates say Sunday’s march is going to be one of the biggest pro-choice events in U.S. history. They hope it will beat the record 750,000 attendance at the 1992 pro-choice rally sponsored by the National Organization for Women.

The next step from there, organizers say, will be mobilizing all the participants to vote in the upcoming elections, with the aim of sweeping the anti-choice majority off Capitol Hill.

Ginger Adams Otis is a correspondent for Pacifica Radio and regular contributor to The Village Voice.

For more information:

National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health:

Black Women’s Health Imperative: