Hundreds of thousands march for abortion rights
Hundreds of thousands of abortion rights supporters rallied Sunday in the nation’s capital, protesting the policies of the Bush administration and its conservative allies and vowing to fight back in the November election.
The huge crowd marched slowly past the White House, chanting and waving signs like “My Body Is Not Public Property!” and “It’s Your Choice, Not Theirs!,” then filled the Mall, turning it into a sea of women, men and children for the first large-scale abortion rights demonstration here in 12 years.
Organizers asserted that the marchers numbered more than a million, in what they said was a clear demonstration of political clout. There was no official estimate of the crowd size from law enforcement authorities; the United States Park Police stopped providing counts for rallies after bitter disputes over past estimates.
Speaker after speaker declared that President Bush and his allies in Congress were trying to impose an ideological agenda on abortion and family planning programs, both at home and abroad. The advocates warned that the erosion might be stealthy and incremental — regulations and restrictions rather than outright bans — but asserted that the trend was unmistakable.
“We are determined to stop this war on women,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, a sponsor of the march. Gloria Steinem, one of many feminist icons who turned out Sunday, said, “We are here to take back our country.”
The day had a decidedly partisan edge, with many in the crowd carrying signs for Senator John Kerry, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee; several members of his family were among the marchers, as was Howard Dean, who had also sought the Democratic nomination; Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader of the House; and Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic Party chairman.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, noted that the last time abortion rights supporters rallied in Washington, the nation elected her husband to the presidency just six months later.
“We didn’t have to march for 12 long years because we had a government that respected the rights of women,” she said. “The only way we’re going to be able to avoid having to march again and again and again is to elect John Kerry president.”
Mr. Bush was at Camp David this weekend, but a White House spokesman, Taylor Gross, said: “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 support for the ban on partial-birth abortions.”
Administration officials, in fact, have long maintained that the president’s policies are solidly in the mainstream of American public opinion; although he opposes abortion except in cases of rape or incest, or to save the life of the woman, he has said the country is not ready for an outright ban.
But abortion rights advocates countered Sunday that Mr. Bush’s policies put the government where it has no business: between doctor and patient. They are challenging the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, for example, arguing that it is so vague that it could outlaw many types of abortions performed after the first trimester and could keep doctors from performing procedures they believe are in the best interest of the woman’s health.
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, another sponsor of the march, said the Bush administration was engaged in a wide-ranging assault on Americans’ privacy. “The government does not belong in our bedrooms,” he said. “It does not belong in our doctors’ offices.”
June Walker, president of Hadassah, told the audience, “Everywhere, it seems, we have ideology creeping into women’s health policy.”
Many abortion rights supporters argued that Mr. Bush’s emphasis on programs that promote only abstinence is draining money from family planning programs that rely more on contraception. And they maintained that his restoration of a ban on federal aid to family planning groups that promote or perform abortions abroad is hurting thousands of vulnerable women.
The march came at a difficult time for the abortion rights movement, after months of legislative setbacks. The movement’s leaders hoped to use the march to rouse voters who are sympathetic to their cause, to galvanize younger women and to build support among minorities.
In fact, there was a changing-of-the-guard tone to much of Sunday’s program. Ms. Steinem, noting that she is now 70, declared proudly that by her estimate, “more than a third of the women in this march are women under 25.” Kate Michelman, soon leaving her post as president of Naral Pro-Choice America, one of the sponsors of the march, took the stage with her granddaughter and declared, “It’s your generation that must take the lead.”
Juleah Swanson, 21, was one of roughly 80 students who arrived on two buses from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me. Ms. Swanson and several young women from the Bowdoin delegation were carrying a giant uterus made of red clothing and stuffing, bearing the slogan “My Body, My Choice.”
“It’s a historic moment, and so important in this election year with so much at stake in the courts,” said Ms. Swanson, a women’s studies major.
There were many families marching together, wearing signs that declared three or four generations for choice. Melissa Bomes of Los Angeles was marching with her mother and her 7-month-old daughter, all of them dressed in the white of the women’s suffrage movement. “We feel it’s incredibly important to let the government know how important this is to us.”
Along the march route, a line of anti-abortion protesters prayed, chanted and held up blown-up photographs of aborted fetuses and signs that said, “Have compassion on the little ones!” and “Women Need Love, Not Abortion.”
The abortion rights protesters chanted back, “Pro-life, that’s a lie, you don’t care if women die,” and “Not the church, not the state, women will decide their fate.”
Many of the anti-abortion protesters, though, said they simply wanted to make a statement but not confront the marchers. “I’m here because I want women to know before they have an abortion that there is more to it than ending a pregnancy,” said Amy Martin, 37, who said she had an abortion at age 16 that led to depression and a slew of regrets.
The religious and political fault lines on the abortion issue were apparent. Several speakers took note of the debate within the Roman Catholic hierarchy over how to respond to Catholic elected officials who support abortion rights, including Mr. Kerry. Mrs. Pelosi took the stage and declared, “I am a mother of five, a grandmother of five and a devout Roman Catholic,” as well as a supporter of abortion rights.
Organizers said they were elated by the size of the march, which took more than a year to arrange. But crowd estimates for Washington demonstrations are a source of enduring controversy, particularly since the park police stopped making its own estimates. One of the few hard numbers came from the city’s subway, which registered 320,138 riders from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., compared with 133,448 during the same period last week. But many of the marchers did not use the subways.
Like past abortion rights marches, this one included a large group of actors, including Ashley Judd, Kathleen Turner, Whoopi Goldberg and Cybill Shepherd, as well as other celebrities, like Ted Turner. A large delegation came from Capitol Hill, as well as from the seven sponsors.
In addition to Naral, the A.C.L.U. and the Feminist Majority, those sponsors were the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the National Organization for Women, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the Black Women’s Health Imperative.
At times, the march had the air of a vast reunion. Jackie Ballard, a 78-year-old fashion consultant from Orange County, Calif., came with Lyn Jerry, her college roommate from Wellesley. “I got the announcement and thought, `I’ve got to be there,’ ” said Ms. Ballard. “I called my roommate and said we had to go.”
Stephani Tikalsky, 45, from Minneapolis, brought her daughter Libby, who was turning 12 on Monday. “She may not understand this now, but I’m hoping that it’ll register years from now,” Ms. Tikalsky said. “I hope when people talk about the March of 2004 she’ll remember she was there.” Autor: Robin Toner