Now or Never

March kicks off renewed fight for reproductive rights.

Miranda Kennedy

If you happened to wander through sunny Senate Park on April 22, you might have thought you’d run into a summer festival from an era past. Close to 10,000 women and men – mostly young, mostly white, mostly middle-class – turned out for the National Organization for Women’s Emergency Action for Women’s Lives. But the carefully orchestrated march and rally conveyed little outrage or urgency. Protesters lounged on the grass listening to elected officials, speakers from a range of progressive organizations and feminist folk singers. Later in the afternoon, they formed tidy lines to march past the Supreme Court – which wasn’t in session – and down Independence Avenue, past rows of anti-choicers waiting with pictures of bloodied fetuses. The marchers toted the familiar NOW rounds,” and signs reading Fight the Radical Right” and Young Feminists Mobilizing.” 

In March, when NOW President Patricia Ireland declared a state of emergency” in women’s lives, she was trying to jump-start feminists out of the complacency of the Clinton years” and bring attention to the startling setbacks George W. Bush has imposed on women’s reproductive choice. 

On Bush’s second day in office, he reinstated the Reagan-era global gag rule, restricting funds to international groups that provide abortions or abortion counseling – even if these services are funded by other means. Bush’s appointments of Attorney General John Ashcroft and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson do not bode well for the enforcement of abortion laws, availability of contraception, insurance coverage for reproductive care, funding of stem-cell research or sex education. Furthermore, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has been the crucial fifth vote (in a 5‑to‑4 split court) upholding Roe v. Wade, may retire at the end of this term. Bush is unlikely to nominate pro-choice justices to replace O’Connor or other anticipated retirees. 

The Bush administration’s attacks on women’s rights and its allegiance with conservative Christian elements clearly signal danger. But it is unlikely that Roe will actually be overturned. Rather, Republicans will just make it easier for states to render reproductive health care inaccessible – just as they did during the Clinton administration. 

While Bill Clinton staved off some major offensives against reproductive freedom, limitations on women’s choice continued unabated during his presidency. During the 90s, abortion services dropped dramatically, leaving 85 percent of counties nationwide without a provider (see Access Denied,” January 8). Hundreds of Catholic hospitals merged with smaller ones, and half of them eliminated some or all reproductive health services. Currently, 31 states are enforcing parental consent or notification laws for minors seeking an abortion. 

What’s more, due to the 1996 welfare reform law – which Clinton proudly backed – many low-income women have lost Medicaid coverage. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, from 1994 to 1998, the number of African-American women of reproductive age enrolled in Medicaid fell by 21 percent. By 1998, nearly one in five women in the same age group had no insurance of any kind. 

It has been widely recognized that most post-Roe women have taken the right to an abortion for granted – even as it is has become increasingly inaccessible to rural women, poor women, young women and women of color. In 1992, when the first Bush administration was threatening choice, NOW’s March for Women’s Lives drew 750,000 supporters, making it the largest abortion rights demonstration ever. Afterward, when Clinton was elected to office, activists breathed a sigh of relief and went off to do other things – just as the floodgates were opened to anti-choice legislation at the state level. During the eight years Clinton was in office, NOW – the largest women’s organization in the country – called no other mass mobilizations for reproductive rights. 

For those on the frontlines of abortion, clinic violence and harassment have long been at a crisis point. One abortion doctor scheduled to speak at the NOW rally asked someone else to read her statement, saying she was afraid for herself and her family after being targeted by anti-choice activists who have her home address. Dr. James Pendergraft, an African-American late-term abortion provider who owns five clinics in Florida, spoke publicly for the first time about his convictions for extortion, conspiracy and mail fraud in federal court. As he awaits a May sentencing that could put him in jail for up to 30 years, his supporters say that the trumped-up charges are about abortion, not extortion. Although NOW has brought him into the fold, most of the national pro-choice groups he shared the stage with have refused to support his case. 

According to the feminist mainstream, the way to tackle what Ireland describes as the beginning of a long and crucial fight for our lives” is through the institutions. This year, NOW has focused on mobilizing young women, visiting 34 college campuses in the 30 days leading up to the rally. The action also capped two weeks of lobbying visits to senators’ homes during the congressional spring break, and kicked off an Internet lobbying campaign for issues like equal pay legislation and reversing the global gag rule. 

But not all agree that feminist activism should be focused on bringing the Democrats back and saving the Supreme Court. A really low point in the day,” says Debra Sweet, a volunteer active in supporting abortion providers, was when march leaders tried to start a response-chant (‘What do we want? A filibuster! When do we want it? Now!’) Is that the highest we can aim for? To filibuster a Bush nominee to the most sour court in the land?” 

March attendees and other activists criticized the NOW action for a lack of diversity and publicity, as well as the timing of the action, which collided with both the FTAA protests in Quebec and Earth Day. According to Ireland, the timing was unfortunate but unavoidable, and was based around religious holidays and college finals. While some suspect that NOW was simply unaware of the thousands of radical youth who were planning to travel to Canada to protest the Summit of the Americas, Ireland emphasizes that they are working across movement lines. I think this opportunity to mobilize for reproductive freedom will only enhance the strength of all our movements: civil rights, environmental and anti-globalization,” she says. 

Organizers hoped to foster alliances, and the list of speakers – including representatives from the global economic justice network 50 Years Is Enough and the Coalition of Labor Union Women–reflected that. Still, although many marchers in Washington were first-time activists, many of them were also one-issue activists. Until that changes, mainstream feminism isn’t going to look like democracy any more than Woodstock did.

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