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Thousands march to defend right to abortion
High school and college students swell rally at U.S. capitol
BY AMY ROBERTS
AND BRIAN WILLIAMS
Defenders of a woman's right to choose abortion march April 22 in Washington
WASHINGTON--Chanting "Not the church, not the state, women will decide our fate" and "Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide," some 7,000 supporters of a woman's right to choose abortion marched past the U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court here on April 22.
The marchers were spirited and enthusiastic, expressing the determination of a new generation of young women stepping forward to answer the government's attacks on abortion rights. High school and college students joined a generation of veterans from earlier mobilizations for women's rights. For many participants this was the first such national demonstration they had ever attended.
As the marchers set out up Constitution Avenue past the Supreme Court on their way to the National Mall, a small group of right-wing antiabortion advocates stood with large posters condemning a woman's right to choose abortion. This fired up the demonstrators, who responded to the rightists with loud chants such as, "Pro-life, your name's a lie, you don't care if women die."
Called an Emergency Action for Women's Lives, the protest was organized by the National Organization for Women (NOW). Some 150 organizations endorsed it, with activists coming from 160 campuses, according to Patricia Ireland, president of NOW.
Among those riding a bus from William Paterson College in Wayne, New Jersey, was Lisa Mycyk, 20, who participated in the October World March for Women and is a volunteer with Planned Parenthood. "We are the majority opinion," she stated, "and women refuse to have their rights taken away."
More than 100 young people organized vans from Boston University in Massachusetts to the action. Participants also came from as far away as Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, as well as from Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, and Virginia.
Laura Aiken, 22, and Angela Baitucci, 22, were two of the 15 people who made the 14-hour drive from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "I'm amazed," stated Aiken, as she looked around at the spirited crowd. "It's good to see all these people here." Added Baitucci, "Our rights are being threatened. Women's rights are not just for women, they're human rights that affect everyone in the nation."
Restricted access to abortion
Over the course of the 28 years since the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion in its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, the capitalist rulers under both Democratic and Republican party administrations on both the state and federal level have been whittling away at the availability of abortion, particularly for working-class women.
In fact, as of 1998, some 86 percent of U.S. counties and one-third of U.S. cities have no abortion providers. These attacks have included the denial of Medicaid funds for abortion, which was adopted by Congress as the Hyde amendment in 1976 and remains in effect to this day; passage of laws forcing young women to get parental consent for this medical procedure; and the imposition of waiting periods.
Prior to the march, a three-hour rally was held in Upper Senate Park. Speakers included Carol Rosenblatt of the Coalition of Labor Union Women; Frances Kissling, Catholics for a Free Choice; Rev. Barry Lynn, Americans United for Separation of Church and State; Kate Michelman, National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League; Eleanor Smeal, Feminist Majority; and Patricia Ireland, president of NOW.
Rosemary Dempsey, from the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, condemned the executive order put into effect by the Bush administration in February that denies federal funds to international health organizations that perform abortions or offer abortion counseling or referrals. "Since 1984, 20 more countries have legalized abortion," she pointed out. "Though today, 78,000 women die of illegal abortions around the world each year." Bush has also moved to place under review the FDA's approval of the abortion pill Mifepristone (RU 486).
Also speaking was abortion provider Dr. James Pendergraft and his attorney, Larry Callington. Pendergraft, an African American physician in Florida, was indicted and found guilty on February 1 of federal extortion and conspiracy charges for seeking to protect his life and his right to provide abortion services to women.
This frame-up began when Pendergraft sought to open a clinic in Ocala, Florida, in 1997, in the same town where in 1989 the only abortion clinic was burned to the ground in an arson attack for which no one has ever been charged.
In a campaign of harassment, the chairman of the Marion County Board of Commissioners and prominent church officials published public letters in the newspaper making clear to Pendergraft that he was not welcome in the city of Ocala. City and county government officials repeatedly denied Pendergraft's request to hire off-duty police officers for security against constant threats and harassment. The doctor then filed a civil lawsuit demanding that county authorities provide such protection for himself and the Ocala Women's Center he opened. The federal charges against him claim that his civil suit is an attempt to extort money from Marion County.
The authorities "are out to stop abortions and to stop me," stated Pendergraft at the abortion rights rally. "They have charged and convicted me of extortion for providing abortion services that women need." He received a rousing round of applause and a standing ovation from rally participants. Several dozen activists from the Gainesville, Florida, area were in attendance at the rally, distributing fact sheets on the case and appealing for support for the defense efforts. Pendergraft will be sentenced on May 24. He could face up to 30 years of prison time and $750,000 in fines.
This protest action is "wonderful," commented Drew Carswell, 21, who came with a contingent of more than 70 students from New York University, and is a co-founder of the campus group Voices for Choice. This "shows a movement that's being rekindled," he said, and "how much support there is for women's and civil rights."
Alanna Sklover, a 17-year-old high school student from McClean, Virginia, came with three other students to the action. "I'm here today because I believe as a member of the future leadership, I should play a role in shaping my own life and if I won't and if I wait, the world will be what I don't want it to be," she said.
"More and more women are part of organizing drives and see that they need unions to collectively fight for our rights," commented march participant Susan Phillips from United Food and Commercial Workers National Women's Network.
"I'm here because I want to revive a second wave of the women's movement. Women aren't considered or treated as equals," said Melissa Sills, a 23-year-old student at George Washington University in Washington. "We need to fight for the Equal Rights Amendment and have a complete overhaul of the system."
For Melissa Murphy, 18, and Rachel Fischer, 18, both students at the University of Hartford, this was their first national demonstration.
After hearing two Cuban youth leaders speak on their campus last month, they got involved in helping to build the Cuba-U.S. Youth Exchange, taking place in Havana July 22–30. "I believe in women's rights," stated Fischer. "There are many issues I like to fight for." She said that a women's rights action is being planned for Hartford on May 27.
New York NOW activists invited those present to participate in an April 25 rally to protest antiabortion violence in front of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in midtown Manhattan, where the National Right to Life Committee is honoring antiabortion rightist Father Frank Pavone.