Marching to Rival Beats on Abortion

Times Staff Writer

Thousands took to the streets of this city Saturday on both sides of the abortion issue, in dual rallies and marches that served as a metaphor for the stark national polarization heightened by the fall election.

The events were among many planned across the country to commemorate or protest the 32nd anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized abortion. But they presented the most contentious pairing of opposing views, delivering red state sentiments into the heart of beleaguered blue state terrain.

Antiabortion forces, who drew busloads of supporters from the Central Valley and beyond, had started planning their event last spring -- well before President Bush’s reelection. They cast their message with a feminist twist, emphasizing that “Women Deserve Better” than abortion.


“When they ask us today, ‘What about the women,’ we will not answer, ‘What about the baby?’ ” Sally Winn, vice president of the Washington-based Feminists for Life of America, told a crowd of antiabortion backers that grew to the thousands as the crisp morning wore on. “We will give them a good answer. We will tell them, ‘We refuse to choose between women and their children.’ ”

Bay Area officials and activists learned several months ago of the planned antiabortion incursion into liberal territory. They reacted viscerally and urgently, pulling together thousands of their own supporters to send a clear signal that San Francisco is and will remain in favor of abortion rights.

“I’m glad they’re here,” San Francisco City Atty. Dennis Herrera told a screaming crowd from the back of a flatbed truck where a panoply of city and state officials gave speeches. “I’m glad they’re here because you are sending them a message: We will not return to a time of back-alley abortions.”

The rallies were held separately, a little less than a mile apart. But as antiabortion forces followed San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada in prayer and sang the national anthem, their opponents were marching toward them.

While each group claimed to outnumber the other, more than 100 police officers worked to keep the two marches -- which they estimated at a total of about 10,000 people -- separate. But officials allowed abortion rights proponents to line the route of the opposing march, creating a gantlet for antiabortion forces to pass through. Officials reported two arrests, each on suspicion of assaulting a police officer.

Organizers and some participants of the Walk for Life West Coast said they had hoped for dialogue. “If we can just stop screaming like we have for 32 years and listen to what women really want, I think we could make a difference,” Winn said hopefully before the rally.


But while Winn’s calls for healthcare, day care and a living wage for women did fall in line with sentiments of many abortion rights activists, that is where agreement ended.

Those who hope the high court will eventually overturn Roe vs. Wade pointed to 45 million babies “killed” since the law was changed. Many prayed, sang and carried crosses and rosaries. As they held banners exhorting “Abortion Hurts Women” and “Celebrate Life,” they were met with critical chants and taunts.

“Pro Life, your name’s a lie. You don’t care if women die,” yelled protesters, some of whom held up coat hangers. Other signs were more entreating. “Please Don’t Force Your Beliefs on Me,” read one.

San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland had all passed resolutions in recent days formally backing the counter-march and declaring Saturday to be Stand Up for Choice Day.

To them, the sentiments of their opponents, many of whom came to San Francisco from more conservative communities, are but one example of what they see as the Bush administration’s push to turn back the clock on a host of civil rights.

A 51-year-old man from Marin who goes by the name Sludge was reprimanded by a police officer for tossing a condom into the sea of opposing marchers. “We support rights for the individuals who are under attack by the current administration,” he said. “These people are just proxies for that administration.”

But 49-year-old Matt Caligaris, a Mountain View banker who marched against abortion with his wife and three young children, said those stereotypes are unfair. “They’ve got a right and we’ve got a right” to expression, he said. “People don’t realize how much opposition there really is to abortion.”