WASHINGTON — Abortion-rights supporters marched in huge numbers Sunday, roused in this election year by what they see as an erosion of reproductive freedoms under President Bush and foreign policies they say hurt women worldwide.
Political agitation suffused the gathering, one of the largest in favor of abortion rights since an estimated 500,000 people assembled in 1992. The target: Bush, like-minded officials in federal and state government and religious conservatives.
Speaking beyond the masses to policymakers, Francis Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice 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.”
Taking aim at President Bush
Women 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.
Carole Mehlman, 68, came from Tampa, Fla., 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.”
Advocates said abortion rights are being weakened at the margins through federal and state restrictions and will be at risk of reversal at the core if Bush gets a second term.
“Know your power and use it,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, House Democratic leader, exhorted the masses. “It is your choice, not the politicians’.”
And feminist Gloria Steinem accused Bush of squandering international good will and taking positions so socially conservative that he seems — according to Steinem — to be in league with the likes of Muslim extremists or the Vatican.
Sen. Clinton speaks
“This administration is filled with people who disparage sexual harassment laws, who claim the pay gap between women and men is phony ... who consider Roe v. Wade the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history,” said Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, referring to the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
She spoke at a pre-rally breakfast and again to the demonstration.
Organizers set up voter registration tables; supporters of John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, handed out stickers. The event was not overtly partisan but denunciations of Bush set the tone from the stage and the ground.
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The throngs gathered by the Washington Monument for opening speeches and set off along Pennsylvania Avenue, looping back to the Mall near the Capitol. They moved slowly, bottlenecked by their own numbers. The Washington-area commuter train system alone carried 138,000 passengers Sunday morning, three times as many as the previous Sunday.
Authorities no longer give formal crowd estimates, but police sources estimated the throng at about 800,000.
That would far exceed the estimated 500,000 people who protested for abortion rights in 1992, as well as other protests in recent years, including the Million Man March in October 1995 (between 400,000-500,000 people) and the celebrated March on Washington for civil rights in August 1963 (about 400,000 attended).
Counter-demonstrators turn out
A contingent of abortion opponents assembled along a portion of the route to protest what they called a “death march.” Among them were women who said they'd had abortions and regretted it; they dressed in black.
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.
Police used barricades and a heavy presence at that site to keep it from becoming a flashpoint. Both sides yelled at each other as the vanguard of the march reached the counter-demonstration.
“Look at the pictures, look at the pictures!” shouted abortion opponents, holding up big posters showing a fetus at eight weeks.
“Lies, lies!” marchers shouted back.
Police arrested 16 people from the Christian Defense Coalition for demonstrating without a permit and another anti-abortion protester for throwing ink-filled plastic eggs at rally signs.
Celebrities familiar to the abortion-rights movement led the parade, among them Whoopi Goldberg, Kathleen Turner, Cybill Shepherd and media mogul Ted Turner.
“There is a religious and moral superiority and arrogance that so many, not all, Republicans have,” said actress Linda Carter. “It is the ultimate intrusion by government to tell a woman when she can have children, if she has them at all.”
Abortion not the only issue
As the list of sponsors, which included the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, attests, the right to an abortion in the United States was the rallying point but not the only issue at stake for these protesters. Organizers were fighting, too, for birth control, sex education and better health care for women worldwide.
“We believe it’s important to be that broad-based and diverse because the threats to reproductive rights are that broad-based and diverse,” said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
“In our country, it’s so important to feel solidarity with the rest of the world on women’s rights,” said Helena Pinto, president of UMAR, an abortion rights group in Portugal, where legal abortion is limited.
Although Roe v. Wade still anchors abortion rights, some states have imposed waiting periods before abortions, requirements that girls under 18 notify their parents, and other limits that have closed abortion clinics or discouraged doctors from performing abortions.
Bush has signed a ban on what critics call partial-birth abortion, and the first federal law to endow a fetus with legal rights distinct from the pregnant woman.
Roe v. Wade still looms large
Abortion-rights supporters say a fragile Supreme Court majority in favor of Roe v. Wade could be lost if Bush is president long enough to fill vacancies that come up in the court. Kerry supports abortion rights.
With the election looming, “this is a year that is most critical,” said Vicki Bailyn, 65, who came from Chicago to march. “The whole political situation ... is something that is of incredible importance to us.”
Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said 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,” she said.
And if there is any question that younger women are not as committed to the abortion-rights movement as their mothers and grandmothers, “this march will answer that question definitively,” she said.
“The big issue for them is that all young people may not realize how threatened the right to choose is.”
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