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Pro-choice draws diverse elements

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By David P. Hamilton

WASHINGTON, April 9 -- Protests are famous for attracting all kinds of people, and when 300,000 people assemble, there's more than enough diversity to go around.

Today's march for women's rights has attracted elements from the entire spectrum of left-liberal causes: mainstream pro-choice advocates, members of the no-nukes peace movement, revolutionary Communists, gay and lesbian activists, Gray Panthers, civil libertarians, and feminists of all persuasions. A hodgepodge of what a conservative would label "the usual suspects."

But the marchers were more than a "buncha lefties," as columnist William Safire wrote in The New York Times. A clear and common purpose animates the entire assemblage, a purpose echoed in the marchers' signs and the chants of the crowd: "Keep Your Laws Off My Body," "Separate the church and state, women must decide their fate," or, more to the point, "Keep Abortion Legal."

Although the march was originally intended to draw attention back to the Equal Rights Amendment, the conservative dynamic of the Reagan years -- which has been uniformly hostile to almost every goal of the women's movement -- has threatened a woman's right to an abortion most clearly. No longer does the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, Roe v. Wade, stand unchallenged; perceptions of a conservative majority on the Court and eight (going on nine) years of anti-abortion rhetoric from the White House have shaken the confidence with which women viewed their earlier judicial victory.

"It's very frightening, having Bush in the White House," said a Boston College woman. "He's so anti-choice."

To the pro-choice movement, George Bush is as great an evil as Ronald Reagan, if not greater. His campaign pledge to select judges who "support the right to life," as he put it, and his support for the re-criminalization of abortion are seen as all the more dangerous because of his election now, at the peak of the nation's rightward drift.

And the Justice Department's recent decision -- made with Bush's full support -- to file a brief with the Court recommending the overturn of Roe in an upcoming case merely confirms the movement's worst fears.

There is "no doubt" that the march is aimed at influencing the Supreme Court, according to MIT activist and Association of Women Students coordinator Michelle Bush '91. "Judges are human, too. The Supreme Court is not unaffected by public opinion."

In fact, the intent to influence the Court could hardly be clearer, since the next step in the abortion fight is in the Court's hands. The route for the march originally led down Pennsylvania Avenue past both the White House and the Supreme Court, but has been changed -- at the last minute, according to some -- to lead down Constitution Avenue instead, several blocks from both institutions. No one knows the reasons for the change; some speculate that the crowd's size necessitated the more direct route from the Washington Monument to the Capitol, while others darkly suggest that the march permit has been changed to frustrate the aim of the protest, however slightly.

Regardless of the route's details, however, this much is clear: Americans have turned out in record numbers to make their voices heard. From as far away as Alaska, contingents have traveled by car, by bus, and by plane to join what may be the largest march on Washington in history.

How to describe the size of the crowd? Three hundred thousand people is just too many to imagine all at once: the mind substitutes "many" and leaves it at that. In person, however, the task is easier, although the numbers are still overwhelming. From a quarter mile away, the Washington Monument (which some feminists refer to as "the nation's phallic symbol") overshadows but cannot dominate the thousands of protesters rallying beneath it. Like a glorious human tapestry, the crowd hugs the gentle slope around the monument and spreads into the Oval, spilling into the streets on every side.

A closer perspective reverses the picture. The crowd is no longer distant and serene, but noisy, boisterous, anxious to begin. The panoramic dance of tiny motes against a picture postcard background has broken up into an almost oppressive mass of living, breathing individuals who wave signs, dig their toes in the ground, search for other members of their delegation, or just mill about, taking pictures and listening to Peter, Paul and Mary.

Although a good portion of the crowd is too young to have participated directly in the civil rights marches of the 1960s, older protesters here are quick to draw the parallel. Being a part of the crowd is a heady feeling. It's as if a curtain veiling the past has been drawn aside, allowing those present to experience the unity of purpose that must have suffused the freedom marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. There's an undeniable sense of community unusual in its intensity, especially considering the fear and isolation that large crowds usually inspire.

The anti-abortion protesters first appear as the march moves onto Constitution Avenue. They are a mere handful, less than 200 by most news estimates. At several locations, chanting wars break out, the anti-abortionists calling out "Shame, shame" while the marchers chant another slogan. Nearer the Capitol, several men appear carrying grotesque oversized photographs of aborted fetuses, lettered with the message, "Abortion is Murder." They are matched in graphic detail, if not in sheer bloodiness, by a small number of marchers with photographs of women sprawled naked on the floor, bloody cloths between their legs -- the victims of botched abortions. These posters read, "Have You Forgotten?" or "Never Again."

Two observations about the marchers are particularly striking. The first is the number of men present; between 20 and 25 percent of the marching crowd is male. (Conversely, among the anti-abortion protesters, nearly three-quarters are male.) One woman says, "I'm really, really pleased that so many men came. It's given me a new respect for men in the women's movement." Most of the men seem to be accompanying wives or girlfriends -- none will admit coming to the march alone or with male friends.

The second observation concerns the predominance of blue and white stickers reading, "Catholics for a Free Choice." CFC turns out to be a full-fledged organization, and two CFC members selected at random describe themselves as "lapsed Catholics" who feel Catholicism is unnecessarily restrictive. "Take Jews, for instance," one says. "If you're Jewish, you can be liberal, Conservative, or Orthodox. If you're Catholic, it's an either/or proposition."

The third CFC member is a jackpot of sorts. Mary Hunt, a self-described Catholic theologian, is a board member of CFC. She cites polls in which a majority of Catholics support legal abortion (although with moral qualms about the procedure) and argues that respect for individual conscience has long been a part of Catholic doctrine. Although her position runs squarely against church doctrine, Hunt says that many committed and respectful Catholics find they must disagree with Rome. "It's a question of the church's authority, which is not universal and rather narrow," she says.

At the Capitol, the marchers pile forward onto the lawn before the ornate dome, seating themselves on the damp ground as the public address system carries the words of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) across the greensward. A succession of other notables appear at the podium, including Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-CO), Whoopi Goldberg, Judy Collins (who leads the audience in singing Amazing Grace), and a series of actresses, including Morgan Fairchild and Cybill Shepard. All are forthrightly supportive of the march, eliciting applause time and again with lines such as, "We shall never return to the days of back-alley abortions!"

By far the most attention-getting speaker, however, is Jesse Jackson, who appears at the podium with his wife and declares, "This march is about freedom, and no one must take that freedom away." Jackson goes on to borrow from Abraham Lincoln, thundering, "This nation cannot long remain half-slave and half-free!" Launching into a lengthy conceit using the three-fifths compromise in the Constitution, which counted each black as equivalent to three-fifths of a white man for census purposes, Jackson demands "five-fifths of humanity for women." Women make three-fifths of what men do, but they cannot buy bread any more cheaply, cannot educate their children more cheaply, and cannot buy a house more cheaply, he proclaims.

The crowd could care less about his mixed metaphors. By the end of his first sentence none in the audience is seated anymore, and when he concludes, the cheers and applause roar as if they will never stop.

Once Jackson has finished speaking, everyday conventions begin to reassert themselves. Despite two more hours of scheduled speakers, people begin to pick themselves off the ground and drift off in small groups, succumbing to the fatigue of marching and travel. The Washington subway is packed tightly, with lines extending several hundred feet out of the station.

The protesters are tired but satisfied, convinced they've accomplished what they set out to do. Several are impressed that Jackson attended the rally, although one woman derides his appearance as a "campaign speech."

Susan, a woman from Pittsburgh, feels the march has affected both its targets and its participants. "I think it lets them know we're in the majority on this issue," she said. She drew further optimism from the fact that nearly 200 Department of Justice lawyers had recently signed a petition arguing that Roe should not be overturned. "I hope Bush will see it's not a presidential issue and will leave it alone," she said.

Others are not so confident, although they remain hopeful. Tiya, a Harvard freshman, might speak for that great middle ground when she recalls the size of the march, asking, "How could they ignore it?" How, indeed.