By ROBIN TONER
Published: April 22, 2004
WASHINGTON, April 21 For the first time in 12 years, a coalition of abortion rights advocates will hold what they hope will be a major march in Washington on Sunday, trying to return the issue to the forefront of American politics and to highlight what they contend is the Bush administration's extremism.
They say President Bush has stayed "below the radar" on abortion and reproductive-health issues, as Kate Michelman, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, put it, and are trying to convey their sense of threat to the voters, after several legislative defeats and months of battling a Congress and a White House that are led by allies of the anti-abortion movement.
"We have to march to make people stop and think," Ms. Michelman said Wednesday at a news conference. "There are two facts that don't quite fit together: Most Americans support a woman's right to choose, and yet the most powerful political institutions of our government are in the hands of people who want to take that right to choose away."
The abortion rights movement faces several hurdles, including an election campaign debate dominated by issues of war and the economy, and an anti-abortion movement that has developed a strategy of restricting abortion by incremental and often politically popular steps.
With Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, abortion opponents also have the advantage of allies who can set the legislative agenda and frame the debate. That was underscored Tuesday night, when Vice President Dick Cheney attended an awards dinner for the National Right to Life Committee and hailed it for leading "a great movement of conscience."
Indeed, leaders of the anti-abortion movement said they were not perturbed by the march. "Whatever happens Sunday, it will not shift where most Americans are on this issue," said Olivia Gans, director of American Victims of Abortion, an outreach project of the National Right to Life Committee.
Ms. Gans and other anti-abortion leaders say that most Americans do not support the broad constitutional right to abortion set forth in the Roe v. Wade ruling 31 years ago.
Similarly, Terry Holt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, said, "The president's policies on family issues are right in the heart of the mainstream." The legislation that Mr. Bush has advanced like the ban on the procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion has "overwhelming support" among the American people, Mr. Holt said.
In general, Mr. Bush has a record of opposing most legalized abortion, with exceptions for cases of rape, incest and when the life of the pregnant woman is threatened. He embraced a platform four years ago that calls for an outright ban on abortion, though he says the country is not ready for it. These days, he more typically speaks of building a "culture of life."
Leaders of the abortion rights movement assert that Mr. Bush is actually pursuing an agenda that restricts both abortion and access to family planning and other reproductive health services, at home and abroad. His emphasis on programs that promote abstinence only, for example, is draining money from other family planning services, they say.
"The government's role in reproductive health care should be to ensure access, not to take it away," said Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, "not to tell people what to do with their lives, not to put the long arm of the politician into the examining room."
Abortion rights leaders also say that Mr. Bush has nominated some staunch opponents of Roe v. Wade as federal appellate judges, contending that such selections indicate what he would do if a vacancy occurred on the Supreme Court. The winner of the presidential election may get the chance to appoint two or more justices.
In short, many abortion rights leaders say that these rights are more imperiled than they have been since 1992 the year of the last large-scale abortion rights march, when the Supreme Court was considering a case that could have overturned Roe. The justices eventually affirmed Roe, and President Bill Clinton's election later that year gave advocates of abortion rights a firewall for the rest of the decade.
The "March for Women's Lives" this Sunday will be led by a coalition of seven women's and civil liberties groups. They are the National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Black Women's Health Imperative, the Feminist Majority, Naral Pro-Choice America, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The march is also endorsed by more than 1,400 other groups, including unions and religious and health care organizations.
The march has a new message intended for a younger and more diverse audience, focusing on privacy and access to a full range of reproductive health services, not just abortion. But the underlying goal is the same as most marches on Washington to flood the capital with a wide cross-section of Americans and send a powerful message.
"This is, to us, just a beginning," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority. "We are going to make women's rights, and especially reproductive rights, another third rail of American politics, just like Social Security. This is no longer going to be a political football debated every two or four years."
The marchers are to include a heavy contingent of celebrities, like Ashley Judd, Whoopi Goldberg and Julianne Moore. But organizers were also careful to highlight the more grassroots elements of the coalition.
Tim Butz, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, said he would join at least 300 Nebraskans at the march, including many who were coming by bus. "They have to travel over 30 hours on the bus," he said. "That really shows a lot of commitment.`
Susan Hilt, 55, of Lenexa, Kan., also plans to attend. Ms. Hilt, a manager of a storage facility, said, "I'm old enough to remember before Roe v. Wade. I live in fear that they might take that right away from people. It appalls me. Personally, I don't think that's a choice I could make, but it's sure as heck not my business to tell anybody else what they can do."
Christina Kucera, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta, said she was playing "mother hen" to three busloads of protesters making the 20-hour trip from New Orleans and Baton Rouge. "This is my first big reproductive rights march," Ms. Kucera said. "I'm incredibly excited."