Abortion-rights demonstrators sweep capital

Posted: Monday, April 26, 2004

WASHINGTON - Abortion-rights supporters marched in the hundreds of thousands Sunday, galvanized by what they see as an erosion of reproductive freedoms under President Bush and foreign policies that hurt women worldwide.

Amid the clamor of an election year, the throng of demonstrators flooded the National Mall. Their target: Bush, like-minded officials in federal and state government and religious conservatives.

Women joined the protest from across the nation and from nearly 60 countries, asserting that damage from Bush's policies is spreading far beyond U.S. shores through measures such as the ban on federal money for family-planning groups that promote or perform abortions abroad.

LaRae Jones, a board member for Planned Parenthood of Alaska and a member of the Juneau Pro-Choice Coalition, was one of about 80 Alaska marchers. The Alaska contingent included Susan Knowles, Fran Ulmer, Molly McCammon, 10 marchers from Juneau, two from Ketchikan, one from Dutch Harbor, several from Fairbanks and Homer and many from the Anchorage area.

"The sheer number of people was just mind-boggling," Jones said. "It was just exhilarating. There were lots of chants and cheers, and it was just a very powerful feeling."

"Education is the top priority," she said. "We were marching for women's lives globally. The Bush administration is literally cutting health and reproductive health care for women all over the world, besides just here at home."

The rally on the National Mall stretched from the base of the U.S. Capitol about a mile back to the Washington Monument. Authorities no longer give formal crowd estimates, but various police sources informally estimated the throng at between 500,000 and 800,000 strong.

That would exceed the estimated 500,000 who protested for abortion rights in 1992.

Jones estimated the crowd at close to 1.5 million. She'd been planning her trip since August, and she stayed with one of her daughters-in-law in Tacoma Park, Maryland. Jones took the Redline Metro into the area and joined the rally at 10 a.m. near the Washington Monument. The Alaska delegation was in the middle of the pack, about three blocks from the front of the march.

"It was very peaceful and loud," Jones said. "They actually had it set up quite well. The organizers of the march had people set up all around the perimeter and had the mall set up in a grid. You could ask the people along the perimeter, 'Where do I find the Alaska delegation?' And they said, 'Look for B-19.' It made it easy to locate everybody else. And the people from Homer had a big Alaska flag, which helped."

Carole Mehlman, 68, came from Tampa, Fla., to support a cause that has motivated her to march for 30 years, as long as abortion has been legal.

"I just had to be here to fight for the next generation and the generation after that," she said. "We cannot let them take over our bodies, our health care, our lives."

Speaking beyond the masses to policy-makers, Francis Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice declared, "You will hear our pro-choice voices ringing in your ears until such time that you permit all women to make our own reproductive choices."

Advocates said abortion rights are being weakened at the margins through federal and state restrictions and will be at risk of reversal at the core if Bush gets a second term.

"Know your power and use it," Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, House Democratic leader, exhorted the masses. "It is your choice, not the politicians'."

And feminist Gloria Steinem accused Bush of squandering international good will and taking positions so socially conservative that he seems - according to Steinem - to be in league with the likes of Muslim extremists or the Vatican.

Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, referring to the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, said the administration is "filled with people who ... consider Roe v. Wade the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history."

Organizers set up voter registration tables; supporters of John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, handed out stickers. The event was not overtly partisan but denunciations of Bush set the tone from the stage and the ground.

The throngs gathered by the Washington Monument for opening speeches and set off along Pennsylvania Avenue, looping back to the Mall near the Capitol. They moved slowly, bottlenecked by their own numbers.

A much smaller contingent of abortion opponents assembled on Pennsylvania Avenue along a portion of the route to protest what they called a "death march." Jones estimated the crowd at about 1,500.

"They heckled," Jones said, "but they were simply ignored by the marchers."

Among the abortion opponents were women who had had abortions and regretted it. They dressed in black.

Tabitha Warnica, 36, of Phoenix, said she had two abortions when she was young. "We don't have a choice. God is the only one who can decide," she said.

Police used barricades and a heavy presence at that site to keep it from becoming a flashpoint. Both sides yelled at each other as the vanguard of the march reached the counter-demonstration.

"Look at the pictures, look at the pictures," shouted abortion opponents, holding up big posters showing a fetus at eight weeks.

"Lies, lies," marchers shouted back.

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