March for Women’s Lives
Author: Yotam Ben Meir
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 05/05/2004
In 2001, shortly after taking office, Bush barred the government from funding international organizations that use money from other sources to provide abortions or information about terminating a pregnancy. (Washington Post)
Last November, George W. 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 decision giving women the legal right to abortion. (Women s eNews)
In April this year, Bush signed the Unborn Victims of Crime Act, a federal law that created legal person status for fertilized eggs, embryos or fetuses, separate from the biological mother, making it a federal crime to harm a child in utero. Supporters claim it will allow for increased protection of pregnant women and stronger punishments for those who would harm them. Nevertheless, many similar state laws have repeatedly been used to stifle a woman s right to choose an abortion.
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America was unable to stop the passage of S. 1019 Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA), despite a rigorous campaign. The ban criminalizes a procedure called intact dilation and extraction, which can be used to terminate pregnancies after the first trimester, and has been labeled by many in the medical community as one of the safest procedures for second-trimester pregnancies, as well as necessary in many instances. But from now on, any ‘overt act’ to ‘kill the partially delivered living fetus’ is banned, punishable by up to two years in prison. The law fails to make any exception for a pregnant woman’s health and lawyers argued that this makes it unconstitutional. (IMC)
In the face of increasing government attacks and looming threats to women’s reproductive health and rights, seven leading organizations, American Civil Liberties Union, Black Women s Health Imperative, Feminist Majority, NARAL Pro-Choice America, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and the National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, joined hands to fight it.
On April 25 an historic number of women and men of all ages, races, income levels, ethnicities and faiths, more than one million activists, as counted by organizers, converged in the nation’s capital to protest the government’s persistent effort to chip away at women’s reproductive and health rights. The March for Women’s Lives easily broke attendance records for national reproductive-rights rallies, according to organizers, overwhelming the 750,000 benchmark set in 1992. (Women s eNews)
Women and men joined the protest from across the nation and from nearly 60 countries, asserting that damage from Bush’s policies is spreading far beyond U.S. shores through measures such as the ban on federal money for family-planning groups that promote or perform abortions abroad. (CNN)
‘We will encourage participants to go home after the March and demand that their elected officials protect women’s reproductive freedoms and access to reproductive healthcare,’ said Silvia Henriquez, executive director, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. ‘Lawmakers must work to expand-not limit-access to vital women’s health services, family planning, comprehensive sex education and teen pregnancy prevention programs.’
‘In the past few years, federal and state governments have systematically stripped away women’s reproductive rights,’ said Kate Michelman, president, NARAL Pro-Choice America. ‘From the Justice Department’s subpoenas of women’s private medical records to President Bush’s appointment of anti-choice activists to lifetime judgeships, the government’s attacks have been relentless.’ (NOW)
‘Many people,’ says Alice Cohan, the event’s director, ‘now realize that Bush could actually succeed in banning abortion. We’ve got to remind people of what life was like before, when women died from illegal abortions.’ (AlterNet)
Carole Mehlman, 68, came from Tampa, Florida, to support a cause that has motivated her to march for 30 years, as long as abortion has been legal. ‘I just had to be here to fight for the next generation and the generation after that,’ she said. ‘We cannot let them take over our bodies, our health care, our lives.’ (CNN)
A hefty portion of the crowd was under 25, according to organizers, who said the younger women’s presence belied the conventional wisdom that their generation was politically apathetic. (AlterNet)
‘The March will galvanize a new generation to action,’ said Kim Gandy, president, National Organization for Women (NOW). ‘Our daughters don’t remember the dangerous illegal abortions that robbed many women of their fertility, and even their lives. I’m determined that they, and we, will never face those dark days again.’ (NOW)
Although focused on defending a woman’s right to choose from any further restrictions, demonstrators were also rallying around other 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. (Women s eNews)
‘It’s personal now,’ says Juliet Linderman, a 17-year-old senior at San Francisco’s Lowell High School, who could not afford the trip to Washington and has organized a rally, especially designed for people her age, in Dolores Park, SF. ‘I don’t take women’s rights for granted anymore [and it s not just that,] Bush attacks the environment, education and health, and, well, everything else I care about.’ (AlterNet)
While avoiding partisan politics, one speaker after the next warned that the anti-choice leaders who control the White House and Congress will pay a political price in this fall’s elections for restricting the access of women in the United States and around the globe to abortion and reproductive health services. They portrayed the Bush administration’s anti-abortion and abstinence-only policies as steps toward an ultimate goal of outlawing abortion and dramatically reducing the availability of contraception.
‘I’m marching because I’m showing my people we do have a choice, said Melinda Garcia, a 26-year-old mother from Massachusetts who said her main reasons for attending the march were political. ‘If you let Bush win, he’s going to take all choices away,’ she said. ‘He won’t stop.’
Precious Nthanga, a 23-year-old woman who works with Planned Parenthood in Zambia, agreed. ‘It’s the women from the United States who helped liberate the women from Africa,’ she said. ‘If the women from the United States lose their rights, we will be doomed, because there will be no one to stand up for us.’
Unlike that 1986 march, the first national march for abortion rights nearly two decades ago, organized by one group and focused exclusively on the rights of U.S. women, this year’s event is being led by seven activist groups addressing health and reproductive issues on a global scale. (Women s eNews)
Women of color and organizations that represent them were key leaders and organizers of the march. 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. (NOW)
Foreign activists said they were attending not only to show solidarity with their US counterparts but also to highlight the impact of American policies on women abroad, especially in developing countries.
Most prominent among these is the Mexico City policy, or the so-called global gag rule. It bars 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. (Washington Post).
According to the National Organization for Women, ‘Global Gag Rule’ prevent women from having access to information that could prevent up to the 500,000 pregnancy-related, 3 million AIDS-related and more than 80,000 unsafe abortion-related deaths worldwide each year. (NOW)
‘Since the global gag rule is affecting family planning worldwide, this is also our cause,’ Catherina Hinz of the German Foundation for World Population told AP. (BBC)
‘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. (Women s eNews)
A delegation of 500 pro-choice Republicans, with representatives from 12 states, also attended the march. Jennifer Blei Stockman, head of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition, said that her members were marching because they oppose government’s intrusion into individual lives and are deeply concerned by recent actions by Congress and White House that attacked women’s right to choose. ‘We support our party on many traditional issues,’ Stockman said, ‘but we do not agree with the recent actions that limit personal freedom.’
A day before the march, About 150 members of Catholics for a Free Choice protested peacefully outside the Vatican Embassy in Washington with about 50 members of a group that opposes legal abortion. Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice, said: ‘Between the Bush administration and the Vatican, we’re dealing with an unholy alliance of fundamentalists who are trying to erode all of women’s rights.
‘It’s not just about abortion. It’s not just about family planning. It’s about trying to put women back into the kitchens and out of the state houses, and we can’t tolerate that.’ (CNN)
At the day of the march, speaking beyond the masses to policy-makers, Kissling declared, ‘You will hear our pro-choice voices ringing in your ears until such time that you permit all women to make our own reproductive choices.’ (CNN)
Although declared as a-political, 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 control of the House and Senate, that nominee could lead to the repeal of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that guaranteed women the right to decide – free from government interference – whether to end a pregnancy. (Women s eNews)
The Death march
Republicans don’t seem too worried about the message delivered by the marchers. Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, doubts the event will threaten Bush’s bid for reelection. (Women s eNews)
The White House issued a statement that began on a conciliatory note and then turned to administration policies that are popular with conservatives. ‘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 abortion,’ the statement said. (Washington Post)
Several blocks away, on Pennsylvania Avenue, Jay Rhodes of Alexandria held a sign equating abortion with the Holocaust. He shouted sarcastically, ‘Keep murder legal’ when marchers challenged his views. ‘It’s very hostile,’ said Rhodes, 52, who said he came on his own to join counter-protesters who lined part of the march route. ‘There’s a lot of anger on both sides.’ (Washington Post)
Randall Terry, head of the anti-choice group called Operation Witness, said more than 1,000 members of his movement participated. Members of Silent No More Awareness Campaign, with offices in the Northeast, held signs saying ‘I Regret My Abortion’ and ‘I Regret Lost Fatherhood.’ (Women s eNews)
Tabitha Warnica, 36, of Phoenix, said she had two abortions when she was young. ‘We don’t have a choice. God is the only one who can decide,’ she said. (CNN)
Nevertheless, Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, is resolute. The march was about more than the right to a safe abortion. The march is about the totality of women’s lives and the right to make decision about our lives’. (CNN)
Comments and Analysis
— I do not think that we humans feel only one emotion at any given time. I am thinking of the March for Women’s Lives this Sunday and I feel elated. Finally, the fight for women’s reproductive rights is coming back out where it belongs: in the streets. But I am also feeling frustrated: why did it take the ban on the dilation and extraction procedure (the so-called ‘partial birth abortion’), the Bush Administration’s exploitation of Laci Peterson’s horrific murder, and John Ashcroft’s snooping into women’s medical records, to galvanize the mainstream feminist leadership? None of this would have happened if a strong movement were in place to stop it. I could just say better late than later and be happy about Sunday if I were not so apprehensive: I know that many liberals at the march will use this important event as a soapbox to get out the vote for John Kerry: Bush-lite . What Happened to Those Days When We Had Standards?
— The time is right for a public demonstration of historic size in support of reproductive freedom and justice for all women. Threats to these rights have never been so systematic and coordinated, and the lives and health of women have never faced such peril. On April 25th, in our Nation s Capitol we march to uphold Choice, Justice, Access, Health, Abortion, Global and Family Planning
— My friends make no mistake. There is a war on choice. We didn’t start it, but we are going to win it! They’re not just after abortion rights. This is a full-throttle war on your very health. The government does not belong in our bedrooms. It does not belong in our doctors’ offices. We demand an end to coercive and punitive policies that prevent us from making informed decisions about our health, our lives and our futures! This historic march is sending an unmistakable message: women s rights and women s lives are non-negotiable. The March For Women s Lives a word from the organizers.
— Today, a new generation, and a whole lot of mine, showed up in the hundreds of thousands, in a ratio of five women to one male, because it is obvious church and state want ownership of our vaginas, again. We all know who is on the Supreme Court, who is the Attorney General, and who’s trying to dominate the planet and half the population, again . The words of the people on the streets here and also here.
 Now being appealed by a number of pro-choice organizations, the partial-birth law is currently blocked from enforcement by a federal court injunction.