Pro-choice supporters at the March

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–It was an impressive show of force.

But if the million or so people who organizers said poured onto the National Mall last month for the March for Women’s Lives truly intend to stop the erosion of reproductive rights, they will have to turn their daylong protest into election-year action, according topolitical experts and the march organizersthemselves. Even then, it will be tough.

Nearly six months before the November election, the vast majority of likely voters already have made up their minds, according to numerous polls. Of the small group that has not, few people are expected to base their decisions on candidates’ views of reproductive rights, political analysts said.

“The battle lines are so hardened right now,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta and an expert on public opinion, elections and voting behavior. Of the April 25 march, he said, “I don’t think it’s going to shift public opinion, because we haven’t seen a shift in that in years.”

Even march organizers, elated that they pulled off the largest pro-choice rally in history, said the follow-up would be at least as significant as the event itself.

“This march is the beginning,” Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, told Women’s eNews. “It’s going to go back home. It’s about being inspired and being motivated. And that combination, once you add a dose of passion and energy, it’s unstoppable.”

While abortion and other reproductive rights issues historically have not swung elections, the race between President Bush and presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry could be so close that any single voting bloc could influence the outcome, especially in key battleground states, said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

“In a typical election, particularly an election with an incumbent president, it’s hard to see how an issue like this would make a difference,” Green said. “But boy, every indication is this is going to be really close. In states like mine, Ohio, relatively few swing voters could make the difference.”

Election-Year Timing

It was no accident that leaders of women’s and civil rights organizations scheduled the march during an election year.

“We are on an inevitable course right now,” said Kate Michelman, president emeritus of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “If President Bush is reelected, he will have the opportunity to name two, three, maybe even more justices” to the Supreme Court.

“This is about a wake-up call to mobilize pro-choice people in this country,” Michelman said. “This march is about inspiring them to activism, helping them to understand that they can make a difference and change the course of history.”

Bush, who opposes abortion rights, has worked since his first days as president to shore up the conservative base that helped put him in the Oval Office and that will be essential to his reelection bid. As the march snaked past the White House for several hours, the administration fired off a press release that signaled it would not back down from its fight to limit abortion rights.

“The president believes we should work to build a culture of life in America and, regardless of where one stands on the issue of abortion, we can all work together to reduce the number of abortions through promotion of abstinence-education programs, support for parental-notification laws and continued support for banning partial-birth abortions,” the White House said in the statement.

Few march leaders said they expected even a massive gathering to compel the Bush administration to change its position on major reproductive rights issues.

“I’m not sure that this march itself is going to do it,” said Ann Stone, president of Republicans For Choice, a national organization that boasted 200 members at the march. Stone said she has not decided whether she will vote for Bush because of his opposition to abortion, though she remains a devoted Republican.

Looking for Small Victories

Still, some activists held out hope for small victories.

“I don’t think we’re going to change President Bush’s commitment to ending legal abortion,” Michelman said before the march. “I think we are going to make it much more difficult for him to continue his aggressive assault when people in his own party, pro-choice Republicans, say if you continue to do this, we’re just not going to support you anymore.”

Those hopes were at least partially dashed earlier this month, when the federal Food and Drug Administration rejected the advice of its own advisory panel and ruled it would not now make the emergency contraception pill, Plan B, available over the counter. The real key to changing policies, pro-choice leaders said, is to change the leadership in the White House and Congress.

“What we have to do is to turn this into registration and votes,” Representative Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat, told Women’s eNews during the march. “Then they’ll really listen.”

Tough Set of Challenges

If they want to make a difference, pro-choice advocates–particularly women–will have to become more politically active and more politically savvy, analysts said. “We know that women are much less likely than men to try to influence their friends about politics,” said Karen O’Connor, director of the bipartisan Women and Politics Institute at American University in Washington. “People who go to a march like this go back and the challenge is to make sure they talk to their friends and get them to vote.”

The size of the march itself, while headline-grabbing, does not guarantee results, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at New Jersey’s Rutgers University. “Having a march is a very exciting thing and it gets people energized. But if there isn’t something for them to actively do when they get home, then it can be a letdown and a disappointment,” Walsh said.

Furthermore, the Bush campaign and abortion opponents to galvanize their base, said Bill Murray, spokesperson for the Family Research Council, a conservative, Washington-based group that promotes marriage and family.

“I don’t think this march is going to have any lasting impact,” Murray said. “The momentum in Congress, the momentum in the public is to be pro-life. If they’re going to change that, it’s going to take a lot more than a march on an April Sunday.

“The more and more they scream about what a pro-lifer President Bush is, the more it’s going to mobilize the pro-lifers,” he said. “If they scream that Roe v. Wade is going to be overturned, that’s going to warm the hearts of pro-lifers.”

March organizers tried to sign up everyone who participated in order to build a massive network of grassroots workers to continue the campaign, Michelman said. Though there was no official count, volunteers passed out more than 1.1 million stickers that said, “Count me in.” Speaker after speaker tried to link the march to the election by emphasizing the potential threat to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.

In the past, only a small percentage of people have selected candidates based on their views on abortion, and more of those people oppose abortion rights than favor them, said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. This year, with terrorism, the war in Iraq and the economy looming large, abortion is low on the list of issues potential voters say they are concerned about, said Clyde Wilcox, a Georgetown University government professor and author of “Between Two Absolutes: Public Opinion and the Politics of Abortion.”

“But,” Wilcox added, “it could be a tie breaker.”

Jodi Enda, Women’s eNews Washington bureau chief, covers politics and government.

For more information:

National Organization for Women–
“Women’s Votes Are Key to 2004 Elections”: