Reporter's Notebook from DC Emergency Action for Women's Lives

Defending the Right to Choose

By Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #1101, May 6, 2001, posted at

In the weeks before April 22 the Internet buzzed with e-mails sent back and forth by women worried that abortion could become illegal again. Word spread far and wide about the "Emergency Action for Women's Lives" to keep abortion and birth control safe and legal--called by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and endorsed by over 150 organizations and individuals.

Ever since the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973, abortion rights have been under attack. Funding for abortions for poor women has been cut. Women are terrorized at clinics by the antis (anti-abortionists). Abortion providers have been murdered. Laws have been passed requiring parental notification for young women.

After this system elected its new president, George Bush made it clear his administration would mount new assaults on a woman's right to choose. On his first day in office he signed a "global gag order" prohibiting international family planning organizations from getting U.S. funds if they even mention the "A" word. He sent a message of support to the annual anti-abortion march in Washington, D.C. on January 22. He appointed--and Congress quickly confirmed--John Ashcroft as attorney general. Ashcroft not only opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest--he also opposes birth control. As I write this article, the House of Representatives just passed the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act" which would give a fetus legal status. They also plan to try and ban late-term abortions, limit how RU-486 is prescribed, and make it a crime to help minors cross state lines to get an abortion.

Angry and alarmed, many women and men were compelled to take action. Over 15,000 people came to the rally and march in Washington, D.C. on April 22. The majority were college students--from more than 160 campuses around the country. A student from Pittsburgh told me: "We are coming towards our child-bearing years and this is going to be an extremely important issue for us. If we don't have the right to choose and we do end up getting pregnant, we are in our own form of slavery. We have a child that we didn't want to take care of." Another said: "They're completely putting the fetus' rights above the woman's. They're just ignoring the woman's rights and that's a civil assault. Why are you putting the right of a thing over a human? It's just wrong."

A NOW campus organizer came because she was outraged at the impact the global gag rule will have on poor people around the world: "It's not just a matter of the fact that they have no right to their own bodies. It's a matter of they're starving to death. If these people don't comply then they won't get the money and the supplies needed to survive. It's literally a matter of life and death and it's just horrible." Some women pointed to remarks by anti-abortionist Pat Robertson advocating abortion in China as a method of population control, and said that this shows that the opposition of the rightwing Christians to abortion is not about "saving lives" but about controlling women.

The second largest group at the protest were young professional women in their '20s and '30s. One brought an American flag covered with blood and the silhouette of a woman bleeding from a botched abortion with the slogan "The Epitome of Patriarchy: A Woman in Her Place!" She told me: "It sums up all the anger and frustration I feel living in a society where women are getting less and less respect--especially under the new Bush administration...where a fertilized egg has more rights than a woman who is intelligent and thinking." A women's studies professor said: "Women are still more or less property.... I think this attack on abortion rights is just another reinforcement of the patriarchal ideals of this country--another part of women not being able to decide for themselves what to do with their lives--to reinforce the idea that it is men who decide, it is men whose opinion counts, whose lives matter."

Going on the Offensive

"You can't be afraid to speak out and stand up for what's right."

Young woman from Pittsburgh

A lot of the women I met said for the first time they have been forced to confront the fact that if things don't change dramatically they may not be able to get a legal abortion if they need one.

Young women growing up in the 1980s and '90s have spent their entire lives with the antis in their face and under a constant barrage of propaganda that "fetuses are children." As a result, there is a lot of confusion and defensiveness. At the same time many have a deep desire to call out the reactionary attempts to reinforce the oppression of women. And they are searching for answers--for a way out of this madness.

Everywhere I looked women were wearing Refuse & Resist!'s bright red stickers: "Abortion On Demand and Without Apology!" Many women liked the point in the RW article by Mary Lou Greenberg that fetuses are not children and abortion is not murder. One woman said: "People need to realize that abortion is nothing to be ashamed of. It's nothing that you did wrong. It's kind of like rape, how people who have been raped always think it's their fault. We need to turn it around and make a society where everyone is not judging and making all these conclusions."

Across the street from the rally, a small group of antis displayed pictures of aborted fetuses. Osage from the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade (RCYB) told the RW: "If you looked at women's signs and talked to them, there was a lot of anger. Yet the overall atmosphere at the rally was really laid back--music, dancing, people lying on the grass chilling. It was like people were happy for a safe space where it was 'OK' to be pro-choice. But when people passed by the small group of antis who were on the corner near the park--talk about unleash the fury of women! Women seriously let loose on them. And when 'Rock for Life' youth wandered through the crowd, they were followed by angry women with pro-choice signs."

Angrily pointing to the antis, women told the RW:

"They don't show the signs of women who are mutilated from illegal abortions when it was awful and illegal and people did it anyway and women died. What do they say to that?"

"They're allowed to shove their opinion in our face and we're expected to stay quiet and not cause any trouble."

"They talk a big deal about humanity and yet they blow up abortion clinics. They kill doctors. It's restricting a woman physically. It's slavery. I don't believe that they're fighting for the children. They could give two shits about the children. They're trying to restrict women and keep control on society as a whole, trying to make it 'moral'--or their morals."

A woman from the Refuse & Resist! Youth Network told me: "The fight for abortion rights is connected to the way that in Cincinnati people were rising up and rebelling against police brutality, the cops that shot an unarmed Black man. And it's connected to the war zone that's going on in Quebec right now with the protesters who are trying to shut down the FTAA. In Refuse & Resist!, we want to create a culture, a climate, and a community of resistance to all of this. We need to be out in the streets for people to see that abortion rights are important and they can't be glanced over. We're not going to lose them."

Doctor Under Fire

One of the high points of the day was when Dr. James Pendergraft spoke. Dr. Pendergraft is an African-American physician who operates five full-service women's health care facilities in Florida, where two doctors and a clinic escort were murdered. During the Clinton administration he was framed for extortion and on February 1, 2001 he was convicted. He faces up to 30 years in prison, $750,000 in fines, and loss of his medical license (See RW #1093). He will be sentenced May 24 in Ocala, Florida.

He was repeatedly interrupted by applause, shouts of support and "Thank you!" from women in the audience as he said:

"I am an abortion provider in a town where the last clinic was burned to the ground. But women still needed services so I decided to open a new clinic there. I am an abortion provider who was told by local authorities and so-called clergy personnel who are anti-women, anti-choice, anti-abortion, that they did not support my plans to open a clinic and would do everything in their power to prevent me from doing so. But women still needed services, so I began offering services. I am an abortion provider who wears a bulletproof vest to work. My clinic is the site of daily protests and I fear for the physical safety for my patients, my employees and myself.... I provide services to women who are making responsible decisions, to girls who have been raped by family members, to mothers whose pregnancies threaten their lives, to protesters and their daughters who enjoy this right when they need it.... I continue to fight for justice and my freedom."

A student from Florida told me: "In Pensacola it is scary. It's scary when people bomb Black churches in the south or abortion clinics." Her friend said: "In Gainesville it's really pretty bad--especially Ocala, where Dr. Pendergraft is from.... If I were to get pregnant and I were to have an abortion, I'd be afraid of where I would go. There's no way I could have an abortion anywhere north of Tampa in Florida."

Another student told me: "It's very hard to obtain an abortion if you're poor. You don't have the resources to get one--either you don't have the transportation or you don't have the money, you don't have the strength, you don't have the moral support--and they do nothing to help that, absolutely nothing."

A young proletarian man from the RCYB said: "There's a lot of women out here who feel that their lives are in jeopardy right now with all these laws being passed about women not having the right to choose.... Growing up in the ghetto you find that a lot of women have problems because there are not a lot of clinics around there. Plus they can't afford it. They don't have the $400 and something dollars to do these procedures. Sometimes they do a lot more drastic actions like having the child and throwing it in the garbage can and then later get arrested for murder."

Searching for Solutions

The RCYB brought a banner that said "Break the Chains--Unleash the Fury of Women as a Mighty Force for Revolution!" Osage described the response: "Young women were excited by it. A lot of people came up and said 'right on' and stuff. A few wanted pictures of us with it. People's sights were totally lifted when we talked about women's liberation and revolution. Young women we talked to about the RCP's new Draft Programme thought it sounded interesting."

Osage reported that the police tried to drive wedges between the protesters: "Like us, the anarchist black bloc were a visible group of women and men. They said they'd come because during the protests at Bush's inauguration NOW women helped them out when the pigs tried to fuck with them, so they wanted to return the support and show that they're pro-choice. They were decked out in black and masks. The cops tried to fuck with them. The RCYB and R&R! youth stood with them--and they unfurled their "I'm Pro-Choice and I Riot!" banner. NOW folks and others saw they were there in support and didn't distance themselves like the cops were asking them to do."

A woman with the black bloc told me: "You should have the right to choose and live your life the way that you want and make your own decisions. Abortion is a safe, secure process that keeps people from having unwanted children and it should be kept legal.... There's going to be opposition. But as long as we stand together and we make our side strong and our case is good...we'll prevail."

Later a young NOW activist told me: "I agree with the liberals trying to work within the system. I agree with radicals working to destroy the system. I agree that there needs to be some serious changes. And as long as things are the way they are right now with men controlling women and one race dominating all the others and people controlling other people's bodies, nothing is going to change. I think it is going to take a revolution of sorts in order to change the way that people think and act."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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