Hundreds of thousands of abortion rights supporters rallied Sunday on the National Mall, railing against what they described as a dozen years of government backsliding on the issue of reproductive freedom for women in the United States and around the world.
The huge throng, with many clad in hot pink or purple and yellow T-shirts, marched along the city’s broad avenues, passing its historic monuments, before cramming the Mall for a four-hour rally that featured politicians, Hollywood celebrities, leaders of the sponsoring organizations and icons of the feminist movement.
The rally, called the March for Women’s Lives, was to serve as an election-year challenge to the policies of the Bush administration. But it also had another aim -- to reset the debate about abortion rights and health issues for women after a decade in which abortion foes have gained steady momentum in Washington and in legislatures around the country.
“Know your power and use it,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) encouraged the crowd. “It is your choice, not the politicians’.”
The demonstrators -- from across the United States and 57 countries -- crossed lines of age, race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. The concerns they voiced extended beyond the issue of abortion to healthcare access, AIDS prevention, birth control and civil rights.
“It’s unbelievable we even have to come here and do this,” said Gabrielle Davis, 42, a law professor at the University of Toledo, who drove all day Saturday from Ohio with five other women, encountering cars full of people heading to the same destination. “I felt like the goal was accomplished, like the civil rights movement. But it wasn’t.”
The turnout was among the largest seen in a city with a fabled history for such gatherings.
Authorities no longer offer official crowd estimates, but various police sources informally estimated the throng at 500,000 to 800,000 in the milelong stretch of green space between the Capitol and the Washington Monument.
The last time marchers rallied for a similar cause, in 1992, police officials put the crowd size at about 500,000.
Along Constitution Avenue, abortion opponents lined the sidewalks, standing on chairs and shouting into hand-held megaphones as the marchers passed.
While the crowd was orderly -- “No. 1 rule: Don’t engage,” one woman reminded her companions -- there were occasional angry exchanges. Police in riot gear were stationed along the route, with steel barricades separating the hundreds of thousands of marchers from a sparse but determined line of abortion opponents.
“This is the biggest march in the long and glorious history of the women’s movement,” feminist writer Gloria Steinem, who founded Ms. Magazine in the early 1970s, told the marchers. “We are going to transform and take back this country one more time.”
The event was billed as nonpolitical, but the anti-Bush sentiment was palpable.
Signs exhorting politicians to “Keep Your Laws Off My Body” and proclaiming “My Body, My Choice” bobbed along the parade route, which passed in view of the White House. President Bush was not there.
Rally speakers criticized Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft for seeking women’s medical records in a suit over a law Bush signed last year banning a medical procedure that opponents call “partial-birth abortion.”
Other speakers expressed concern about the long-term prospects for the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade if Bush were reelected and if vacancies on the high court were to occur. That 1973 ruling established, under the constitutional right to privacy, a woman’s ability to choose an abortion as long as the fetus could not live on its own.
Speakers from a number of foreign countries shared first-hand accounts of the effect of Bush administration policies limiting funding for international family planning clinics that provide abortion counseling.
Bush spent the weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the western Maryland mountains. His probable Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, spoke at a rally-related event Friday but did not attend Sunday, although his daughter Vanessa was present.
The event appeared to have its intended effect of mobilizing a new generation of women to the fight -- at least for this one day. Organizers had made a point of reaching out to younger women, concerned that the first generation of feminist warriors was aging and that a new leadership needed to prepare to accept the mantle.
Roughly a third of the participants were high school and college students from across the country.
Buses from Boston pulled in before sunrise, a couple of them filled with more than 100 students from Northeastern University. They were armed with pink pompons and placards assembled during a recent sign-making party. Sustained by trail mix and Luna bars, they said they were marching to preserve a right that had been law for longer than they had been alive.
“I’m scared the rights my parents and grandparents fought for will be lost for my generation,” said Adrianne Ortega, a 21-year-old senior and president of the campus Feminist Student Organization. While abortion is legal, it is hardly accessible, she said, citing the passage in recent years of hundreds of state and federal laws to restrict the procedure.
“The Bush administration has been blatant in expressing they want abortion to be illegal,” Ortega said.
Acknowledging recent polls showing an erosion of support for abortion rights among college-age women, Ortega said apathy was a greater problem than dissent. She noted that of 10,000 students on campus, only 100 were members of her organization.
“We should have so many more,” she said. “Our generation has dropped the ball.”
A group of 25 college students flew in from UCLA, bringing a 45-foot-long banner with the handprints of supporters who were unable to come with them.
“There is incredible frustration, and a lot of folks feel helpless in the face of this administration that has bulldozed over women’s rights,” said Baylee DeCastro, 20, a UCLA junior and a member of the newly formed Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance. “A lot of us are angry and see this election as an opportunity to change that.”
The roster of speakers included comedian Whoopi Goldberg and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. A volunteer choir from Pittsburgh kicked off the event with a rousing rendition of “If Men Could Get Pregnant, What Changes We Would See.”
While police instructed abortion opponents to keep to the sidewalks, one man, Erik Eggleton, 26, of Knoxville, Tenn., walked into a crowd of abortion rights demonstrators and held up a giant placard of what appeared to be an aborted fetus.
Elizabeth Savage, 59, of Philadelphia promptly stationed herself in front of him with a placard of her own.
When he scooted down the sidewalk, so did she. They kept their respective vigils until a park police officer on a tall white horse shooed the man off. The crowd cheered.
“I was here 12 years ago,” Savage said, referring to the 1992 march. She had turned down a family trip to Florida to march Sunday. “I had to be here. I felt committed,” she said.
Among the abortion opponents along the route were women who had had abortions and said they regretted it. They dressed in black and referred to the passing demonstrators as a “death march.”
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 reported few arrests. Sixteen abortion opponents were held for refusing to leave an area designated for the marchers; in a separate incident, a man was arrested for throwing an ink-filled egg as marchers passed by.
Many demonstrators said the next challenge would be finding ways to sustain the enthusiasm beyond this single day. Several college women said they were planning campus rallies and voter registration drives when they returned to school.
“I’m not sure about the effectiveness of marches in general, but I am overwhelmed by the number of young women here,” said Andrea Maresco, 26, a member of the Arlington Young Democrats in Virginia. “The question now is, what do you mobilize people to do next? If we can’t leverage all this energy we’ve created today into something, what’s the point?"*
Times staff writers Jon Marino and Ashleigh Collins contributed to this report.
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Quotes from Sunday’s rally in Washington:
‘The march is about the totality of women’s lives and the right to make decisions about our lives.’
Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America
‘We cannot let them take over our bodies, our healthcare, our lives.’
Protester Carole Mehlman, 68, of Tampa, Fla.
‘We will not make abortion illegal during [Bush’s] presidency. But we will have stepping stones during his presidency.’
Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue and director of a counterprotest
‘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 vs. Wade the worst abomination of constitutional law in
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)
‘I just don’t believe that we have the right to decide who should be killed.’
Pam Hueffmeier, 51, of Boulder City, Nev.
‘Bush, you better beware. When women vote, Democrats win.’
Camryn Manheim, actress
‘Most people that support abortion have no idea about the development of the unborn child ... and it’s certainly not anything they’re told by
Planned Parenthood or their school.’
Counterprotester Mike Muench, of Manassas, Va.
‘It’s really mixed -- all ages, every size, shape
and color.... I’m awed.
Miriam Thompson, 67, of New York City, remarking on the crowd
Source: Associated Press
Los Angeles Times