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Monday, November 04, 2013

On the March

From the Pages of History Dept.: I’ve taken a few cracks at political reporting in Metroland, where’s there no hypocrisy about having a point of view. Here are a pair of my earliest such pieces, the first my coverage of the March for Women’s Equality and Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., on April 9, 1989; the second a thought piece on abortion ideology’s unresolvable divide.

It became the surprise rallying cry of the march, as a crowd estimated at between 300,000 and 600,000 chanted the slogan from pedestrian-packed Pennsylvania Ave., Constitution Ave., 1st St., 3rd St. and the steps and lawn of the Capitol itself.

The march officially began Sunday morning on the north lawn of the Washington Monument, but for many Albany-area residents, the march began late Saturday as they boarded buses sponsored by local affiliates of the National Organization for Women, the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood.

At 10:30 PM, three Greyhound buses idle their engines in a parking lot at the State Office Campus. During the next few minutes the scene resembles a workday morning as car after car arrives, parks, unloads. Just as it seems that the crowd will overwhelm the bus capacity, six more buses pull in and circle the lot in formation before joining the caravan. There’s a happy sense of a picnic or vacation, but buoyed by the energy of a crowd met to fight – or, in this case, affirm. The group is varied in age, but there’s an obvious socio-economic homogeneity. These are middle-class buses, carrying a segment of society that has been accused of too much complacency during the past administration.

At 11:30, the fleet hits the highway. Conversation dies out after a couple of hours and people listen to headphoned music, read, watch the traffic on the Jersey Turnpike, attempt to sleep. It’s apparent, as the horizon grows dusky with dawn, that more and more buses are joining the parade. The night was drizzly and left the ground damp, but by 7 AM the sun breaks through with the promise of a warm, clear day.

WE’RE DROPPED BY the Washington Monument just before 9 AM. Assembly begins a half-hour later as facilitators send groups to pre-arranged areas on the North Lawn. At 10 a report is broadcast through the public address system that traffic is backed up from RFK Stadium to the freeway, which means as much as a mile of cars and buses. The rally begins, as do most rallies, with speeches, but there’s a passion in this group that gives extra weight to issues raised: and the issues are raised with none of the doubletalk we expect from political rallies.

NARAL executive director Kate Michelman welcomes the group with the advice, “Today you are making history. We will look back and say that April 9, 1989 was the turning point, the day when America’s pro-choice majority took control of its own destiny.”

Even as the various factions from New York assembled in their assigned area, a number of the state’s representatives on both the state and federal levels add their voices. Says Democratic State Senator Louise Slaughter, “In all of America, this is the place to be today. I come from Rochester the home of the great Susan B. Anthony.” She recalls the abortion atrocities from before 1973 and concludes, “We will not let that kind of degradation to happen to us again.”

Ted Weiss, newly elected from Manhattan to the U.S. House of Representatives, says, “No matter the pretensions of the shrill minority of the so-called Right-to-Life group. The fact is that you are the strong clear voice of the American people, and you’re speaking to your government, and you’re saying loud and clear: no retreat from Roe against Wade, yes to pro-choice, yes to the constitution.”

Says Jim Scheuer, a House member from Westchester County, “I have a dream, just as Martin Luther King had a dream: That our Supreme Court will not retrogress, will not retreat on the human rights that have been guaranteed by the Constitution. I have a dream that the Court will not infringe on the right of young couples to determine the number and spacing of their children.”

THE ALBANY NOW CONTINGENT stands massed behind a purple banner. In front of them is the Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood group. Nearby are groups with banners from Buffalo, Syracuse, Brooklyn; an Ohio faction is to the left. The music and speeches continue to blare from the huge banks of loudspeakers. All of the marching groups carry banners. Most of the signs are parked just now, but individual ones wave from time to time and an occasional ripple of cheers sounds from one group or another. The more impatient set up chants of “We want to march!”

With the first sign of group movement, at about half past noon, all of the banners are thrust aloft, as if a myriad fleet of ships unfurled sails in unison. The advance is sluggish; the chants continue.

On stage, Holly Near is stirring the mood with songs of struggle; she interrupts herself to advise the marchers that there is a delay on the street because of an assembly of anti-abortion protestors. “Don’t talk to them,” she advises. “Just keep on moving.”

Constitution Ave. is packed thick with a slow, steady surge, already halfway to the Capitol. In front of the Department of Commerce is the Right-to-Life line, holding their own highly-colored pickets. Separating them from the marchers are two rows of police, one on horseback, the front line standing akimbo.

Impressive as the waiting crowd looked, there’s a galvanizing energy about a throng in motion. Some carry percussion instruments as simple as kitchen pots and beat them in syncopated rhythm. Others take up snatches of chants, punctuating their cries with aggressive thrusts of their banners. Ahead is the grey bulk of the Capitol, its venerable appearance enhanced by the thousands already clogging its steps.

The sidewalks are overrun with people; they have climbed trees, street signs and statuary to get better views. Close to the Capitol very few of the anti-abortion faction is seen; one lone protestor, his angry sign aloft, is surrounded by a ring of hand-holding pro-choice people gently chanting.

Although a “cemetery of the innocents” was erected by anti-abortion protesters in an area alongside the mall, the park of symbolic white crosses is blocked from view by a wall of portable toilets.

Cheering, chanting, singing, clapping, the marchers now take over the sidewalks. Past 14th Street the mass flows over the curbs to the surprise of the few who are obviously tourists.

On a stage erected in front of the Capitol, Molly Yard, president of NOW, welcomes the assembly with a tirade of enthusiasm. “All of you who are here, push over to my left, make room for the people still arriving. And they are arriving! They’re in the Metro, they’re still on the highways.”

It is reported that by 2 PM over 200,000 people had used the Metro that day, an unprecedented number. The issue of numbers was a hot one. The Park Police estimates a crowd of 300,000, but Eleanor Smeal, Chair of the NOW National Advisory Board, disagrees: “In 1970 in New York City, the women’s rights movement marched 50,000 strong. In 1978 right here in Washington DC for the ERA extension we marched 100,000 strong. In 1986 for reproductive rights, we marched right here in Washington DC 125,000 strong. And today, we are marching over 600,000 strong!”

Her exhortations bring cheers from the assembly, now fanned in front of the Capitol and extended several blocks back. “I want you to feel the strength of this moment. And I want you to make a pledge with all of us together: we are not just going home. We are going home and we are going to make sure that this country stops the harassment of abortion clinics. We are going to stop Operation Rescue. And we are going home to spread the truth about women’s rights and to spread the truth that we are the majority!”

The thicket in the street still surges forward, still trying to get closer. They’re perched on the port-o-lets now, and some have climbed trees. With typical DC entrepreneurship, hot dog and souvenir vendors work the crowd, selling T-shirts and balloons to the same people buying shashes and buttons from rally facilitators.

AS ACTRESS WHOOPI GOLDBERG is introduced, she receives the acclaim of a media celebrity. By the time she finishes a short, blunt statement, there is a more sober quality to the enthusiasm. “It’s very nice to be back in Washington,” she begins, “talking to the government once again, letting them know that there’s something wrong. There’s something very, very wrong. Hangers as an alternative are wrong. These are the alternatives our daughters are facing. Should this happen I’m here to say to Mr. Bush and I’m here to say to the Supreme Court I will make it my job to make sure that never again will a woman have to search out a butcher or a bathroom with a hanger or put her life on the line. Legal or illegal – never again.”

Then she plants the seed for that rallying cry: “I’m here to say to Mr. Bush – and I’m sorry Barbara Bush isn’t here because I know Barbara Bush shares our sentiments and I hope that over the next four years that she is the first lady of the nation, she stands with us in solidarity for pro-choice. I’m also here to pass the message to Mr. Bush and the Supreme Court, because we are always accused of murder – if you overturn this decision, a cry of murder is going to come up in this nation and tumble the Capitol. A cry so loud that you won’t know what hit you, and I predict, that like Pharaoh’s firstborn, your daughters will be the first to go.”

What may have been the single most awe-inspiring moment of the event occurs when Judy Collins gets up to sing. First, a cappella, Amazing Grace, then the stirring protest from the beginning of the century, Bread and Roses. And she sings it with the accompanying voices of a half-million people.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson brings his wife to the speaker’s podium, and amplifies the mood of the crowd with a skillfully-turned analysis of the event. “Yes, there are serious questions in the air today. What is life? When does it begin? What moral and legal rights are inherent to it? These questions are neither simple nor clear. While we must take a stand, we should not take a stand in haughtiness. It must be in humility and respect for other people. We must realize our mortality and imperfection and not play God on someone else’s. Each of us must fight for what we believe in, and fight in concert with others.

“We cannot fight for our freedom using the means of death. We cannot fight for life and shoot into the home of Mrs. Norma McCorvey. Let’s be consistent! We can not fight for freedom and life and blow up medical clinics. Let’s be civilized in the struggle to make America better, to make America strong. We fight for the human rights of all human beings.

“Why do I support equal rights for women unequivocally? Because God has affirmed the humanity of women unequivocally. Women are whole human beings and must have whole freedom, whole respect, whole politics and whole self-determination.”

The name of Barbara Bush is mentioned again and again. Molly Yard mentions it. Bella Abzug mentions it. And then that rallying cry starts, hilariously: “Free Barbara Bush!”

(On Monday, the First Lady’s press secretary would offer no comment other than to state with admirable equivocation, “Her position is that this is one of those issues where she will not discuss her views with anyone except, perhaps, her husband.” Barbara Bush is subsequently reported to have called the rally “great – that’s what America is all about.”)

While there is a hope that the numbers affirmed by this rally, the largest ever to assemble in the nation’s capital, will persuade the Supreme Court to maintain the status quo created by the Roe v. Wade decision, even the sunniest optimists are predicting a state-by-state battle.

Unlike the anti-abortion protestors who appeared at the Capitol in January on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, this assembly receives no phone call from the President. Instead, it’s the Vice-President who responds, the following day, with the ho-hum observation that it was just “another Washington march.”

But a mood of triumph prevails. It follows the crowds as they jam the Metro to ride to RFK Stadium, where buses await. The throng jams the escalators, and the people look back at one another and cheer.

On one bus, the effect is capped by a moment of sublime comedy. “I know a lot of you have soda cans,” says the driver, a pleasant, burly man. “And that’s fine. I just wanted to ask you, when you finish with it, if you could crush the can so it won’t roll around on the floor.” The capper is delivered with total sincerity: “And if you ladies have any trouble, just ask one of the guys. They’ll help you.”

It takes four hours to cross Maryland. Nobody complains. As one woman is overheard to say:  “This has changed my life. I finally feel a sense that I can share in the heritage of being a woman.”

Metroland Magazine, 13 April 1989

AT THE HEART OF THE abortion controversy are issues that have resisted easy analysis. Two opposing camps push perceptions into a realm of black and white that does not satisfy the ideological demands of the controversy.

Are there any truths both sides would agree on? Certainly that abortions take place, probably that they will take place regardless of the legal status of the operation. From there, it’s an emotional battlefield.

Each side has a moral center. To those who oppose abortion, it’s a sense of protecting an unborn, but living, creature, to uphold laws of man and God that prohibit killing. Those who argue freedom of choice do so from the standpoint that a woman’s decision to sustain or abort a pregnancy is a necessary and private right, and that any accompanying moral decision should be as privately held as any religious conviction.

There is no common ground for argument, which may be the only incontrovertible truth in the issue.

The opposing factions have two characteristics that make the issues all the more difficult to resolve: there is a fundamentalist, deeply spiritual platform upon which abortion opponents stand, while their enemies try to resolve the issue on a secular front. The pro-choice camp also tends to comprise a better-educated middle class, more comfortable with dialectic.

Locally, the battle is fought on the streets wherever abortion services are provided, and it’s been a one-way battle until very recently. The anti-abortion front has designed a highly-charged, extremely emotional line of attack that uses graphic depictions of the purported murders they wish to stop, fraught with tug-at-the heartstrings buzzwords. Recent Operation Rescue demonstrations, which have reached Columbia County and, unofficially, Albany, have brought out the pro-choice counterparts who are beginning to employ similar tactics of civil disobedience. It’s become a game of Who Gets Arrested, which seems to depend upon the ideological sway of the local District Attorney.

Given the fundamentalist underpinnings of the arguments, the source authority is never available for questioning. His missionaries assure us they act in His name and thus are able to promise unattractive but rather abstract punishments of eternal damnation, hellfire and the like. But self-righteousness gets in the way of intelligent argument because each side imposes a standard upon the other that the other doesn’t accept. We cannot resolve the moral issue of abortion, say the pro-choice advocates, and therefore are looking at what we see as the larger picture of individual rights.

Nonsense, say the others. That moral issue is the larger picture.

In a brilliant tactical coup, the Schenectady County Right-to-Life Committee moved its headquarters in 1985 into a building adjacent to Schenectady’s Planned Parenthood office on Union Street. Planned Parenthood has a facade of undistinguished brick; next door, under the banner “Life Education Center,” is a window display that features plastic models of a developing foetus.

Inside the atmosphere is hushed, pleasant. Tables run the perimeter of the room sporting leaflets and brochures, all offering testimony to the horrors of abortion, testimony reinforced by the person on hand.

The focus is upon Planned Parenthood, indicated with a nod of the head in its direction and a grimly-spoken pronoun. “People don’t really know what they do over there.”

A 30-page pamphlet is offered, titled The Challenge to Be “Pro Life.” Two graphically-written pages allege the serious medical complications that can arise from abortion. The complications are intelligently detailed, but lack a cohesive statistical analysis. Statistics are given in a breathtaking array, but the credited sources are a mixture of studies, most dating from Great Britain in the early 1970s with no recognizable authority.

The pro-choice response is a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control concluding that childbirth is likely to prove 13 times more fatal to a woman than abortion, and that “the reality is that legalized abortion has had a definite impact on the health of American women (by providing them with a safer way to terminate their pregnancies than by either illegal abortion or childbirth.)”

The anti-abortion line received its worst slap in the face when U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s refused to issue a Reagan-requested report on abortion-related health risks last January because of inconclusive data. Koop has long been known as a vocal opponent of abortion, and his refusal prompted the Ad Hoc Committee in Defense of Life to term the action “an insult to the Reagan administration’s principled stand against the evil of abortion on demand.”

A taunt often hurled at anti-abortion demonstrators is the group’s apparent lack of care for the child once it is born, but the Right to Life forces do manifest an awareness of the problem. It’s best exemplified in the nationally-based Birthright concern, which offers supplies counseling and pre- and post-natal care.

With a large number of volunteers staffing the Birthright centers, it becomes a pleasant forum for exchanges of information and child-related supplies. What’s missing, of course, is any acknowledgement of abortion as an alternative. The Birthright charter forbids it.

“We probably save two or three babies a week,” a staffer says proudly, producing one of the out-of-thin-air statistics that make up so much of the rhetoric. Birthright centers attract clients, particularly the poor, young and frightened, with large signs and billboards advertising free pregnancy testing. There is no obvious indication of the center’s ideological stand, so a woman who is proven pregnant can be counseled the Right-to-Life line under the guise of a fair presentation of alternatives.

Of course, to the counselors it is fair. The literature is fraught with pictures of “tiny feet” and “poor little murdered children,” captioned with bathetic adjectives, but anti-abortion party-line followers are taught to think in those simplistic terms.

A film documentary titled The Silent Scream is a mainstay of anti-abortion counseling, filled as it is with deeply emotional renderings of the nightmare of pregnancy termination. The film would have us believe that a 12-week fetus experiences pain, that it tries to avoid suction cannula, ignoring the fact that there is no cerebral cortex on the brain to allow such phenomena. A model intended to represent the 12-week fetus is more than twice the size it should be. And the abortion process itself is much briefer than the film would indicate.

Nevertheless, Ronald Reagan hailed the film, the text of which was read into the Congressional Record. The manipulative style of documentary is a testimony to effective filmmaking, and reinforces the need of devotional followers to substitute emotional knee-jerks for considered argument.

This makes them easy prey for the likes of Randall Terry, most visible organizer of the Operation Rescue campaign that has received so much media attention in recent months. Terry, a used-car salesman turned evangelist, works out of a Binghamton office that follows Birthright’s example of offering free pregnancy tests to unwitting women.

While the Right to Life people have formed a strong, viable political presence that includes successful lobbying and a close watch on politicians, Operation Rescue has taken the issue into the streets with a well-organized technique of civil disobedience. Each assault is admirably constructed, planned with secrecy and well-covered in the press.

But Terry himself speaks fire-and-brimstone. He scorns birth control (“You consummate your marriage as often as you like – and if you have babies, you have babies”) and practices an evangelism that once got him arrested when he refused to allow doctors to treat a man’s severed hand while he prayed over the victim.

All of which gives the pro-choice contingent a sense of secular righteousness. When the opposition veers its argument into the realm of religion, those who wish to maintain legalized, safe abortions upon demand remind them that this is a country founded on religious freedom.

In the April 24 issue of The Nation, Christopher Hitchens argues the anti-abortion cause with the reason and intelligence that the radical opponents lack. “The leading element in the ‘right to life’ movement is indeed composed of hypocrites, who are either indifferent to the suffering of others or in some cases positively enthusiastic about it; who are marketers of religious cretinism; and who have been thoroughly and revealingly unsettled by one of the century’s most positive developments, the sexual autonomy of women.”

Central to his argument is an assumption that conception produces a life worth saving, and he proposes a society that asserts care for the unborn child by establishing, under a National Health Service plan, free contraception, a national school curriculum for sexual and contraceptive education, abortion for specific medical and psychological expediencies and a national adoption service.

Still, he sidesteps what many see as the greater issue: a woman’s fundamental right to make her own choices with her own body. While that phrase is nauseous to the anti-abortionists, nobody will argue that legislation can no more eliminate abortion than it can make a fundamentally moral, even religious decision. The present concession, offering safe, legal abortions for those who wish to make that choice, has been proven physically viable. We may all of us have to wait to accept whatever Great Reward is coming before we learn the moral viability.

Metroland Magazine, 13 April 1989

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