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1,000 in Abortion Rights Campaign Lobby Congress

Times Staff Writer

In the largest lobbying effort ever undertaken on the abortion issue, more than 1,000 activists jammed the halls of Congress Monday, urging lawmakers to uphold women’s abortion rights, family planning services and equal protection under the laws.

“We’re sending Congress a big signal today because we’re never turning back, we’ll never allow abortion protections to be taken away,” said Eleanor Smeal, former president of the National Organization for Women, which coordinated the turnout on Capitol Hill.

The lobbying, a continuation of a Sunday march that drew participants from across the nation, targeted congressional friends and foes with carefully crafted pitches to preserve the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortion legal.

Advocates also urged lawmakers to increase funds for birth control programs, to pass the equal rights amendment and to support the availability of RU-486, a controversial pill that can induce an abortion. The drug is not sold in the United States.

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“This is the largest campaign we’ve pulled together so far,” Smeal said. She predicted that supporters would continue to visit Washington on behalf of abortion rights and that more demonstrations like Sunday’s would be organized.

Organizers said that the weekend event drew more than 600,000 participants, although U.S. Park police earlier had estimated the number at 300,000.

Monday’s politicking started early, with groups of demonstrators setting out to meet with their representatives in Congress. Before they began knocking on doors, however, many were given briefings by organizers on key issues to raise and strategies to adopt.

When dealing with anti-abortion members, for example, lobbyists were advised to steer clear of “polarizing” questions that could jeopardize meaningful discussion, said Nancy Hirshbein, a lobbyist representing the Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

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“Just tell them what concerns you and don’t be shy,” she said in one briefing session. “Remember that they represent you and that they work for us. It’s their job to listen.”

A 23-year-old Los Angeles woman, who asked not to be identified, said that she would “dearly love” to camp outside the office of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a staunch abortion opponent, to make a personal appeal. Hirshbein cautioned her, however, that lobbyists would have the biggest impact by dealing with their own representatives.

For most, it proved to be an eye-opening experience. Some were dismayed to learn that their congressmen were not in their offices and that they would have to deal with staff members. Others seemed bewildered by the profusion of issues raised in the briefing sessions, many of which they had never encountered before.

As they made their rounds to House and Senate offices, most of the advocates delivered information packages containing a 30-minute “Abortion for Survival” video, as well as check-off lists seeking lawmakers’ opinions on a variety of issues.

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“I’ve never done anything like this before, but I came because of the issue itself,” said Sheila Hittelman-Sohn, a 51-year-old San Diego woman who marched Sunday with her 27-year-old daughter, Deborah. “It really galvanized me to speak out.”

After watching the abortion video in a training session, Hittelman-Sohn set out for the office of her local congressman, Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego). Arriving unannounced, she was given a brief interview with Bates, who said that he supports her positions.


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