You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

New Choice

Big-tent abortion politics.

The last time the pro-choice movement converged on the capital for a major abortion-rights rally, in 1992, the scene was very different from Sunday’s March for Women’s Lives. Then, the crowd that filled the Mall was primarily white, female, and baby-boomer. Thousands held round blue signs that read KEEP ABORTION LEGAL. Jesse Jackson and Jane Fonda were featured speakers. And the event was spearheaded by the National Organization for Women (NOW), which, after the disappearance of the Equal Rights Amendment as a national issue in 1983, made abortion a raison d’être.

At last weekend’s march, by contrast, you had to look hard to even find the word “abortion.” The few blue banners recycled from the 1992 rally were lost in a sea of pink stickers and posters that cheerily declared, STAND UP FOR CHOICE, a campaign sponsored by Planned Parenthood. The protesters, too, had changed—in no small part because they had been lured to Washington not just by NOW, but by some 1,400 groups that helped organize the event. On the Mall, blacks and Latinos, grandmothers and strollers, gay marriage advocates and school groups all competed for space.

But the crowd’s diversity was not a function of the political success abortion supporters have had over the last twelve years. It was a function of their failures. Since the first Bush administration, the threat to legalized abortion has not lessened, but it has become less obvious, making it harder for the pro-choice movement to mobilize. At the same time, abortion opponents have grown savvier, repackaging their message, appealing to majority opinion, and ultimately winning a few key legislative victories. Those developments had failed to galvanize most advocates for reproductive rights—until now.

IN 1992, THE pro-choice movement was bursting with energy. Three years earlier, in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the Supreme Court upheld Missouri’s deeply restrictive abortion laws, which forbid health facilities that received state aid from administering or encouraging abortion and demanded fetal viability testing after the twentieth week of pregnancy. And, by the time of the march, which took place in April, abortion activists were anticipating a Supreme Court decision in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, which would address Pennsylvania’s parental and spousal notification laws, as well as its mandatory 24-hour waiting period.

Casey was settled two months after the march, preserving Roe v. Wade (if only barely—the slim 5-4 ruling made a point of saying Roe still stood but upheld the waiting period and parental notification, striking down only the requirement that a woman notify her husband) and effectively ensuring that abortion would remain legal, at least until the retirement of a Supreme Court justice. The decision, which appeared to placate both sides, in fact deflated the pro-choice movement but energized conservatives, who, recognizing that a majority of Americans supported abortion rights, revised their strategy. Strong-arm tactics that alienated moderates, such as blocking the entrances to abortion clinics, were largely abandoned, and radicals who bombed clinics and killed abortion providers were explicitly denounced. The new pro-life rhetoric focused on the role of the “unborn” in the “human family,” and “healing the scars of abortion”—precursors to what President Bush calls the “culture of life.” That’s why, on Sunday, one found among the counterprotesters not just brutal images of fetuses, but also posters of a beautiful woman against a fuzzy background, with the slogan abortion: WOMEN DESERVE BETTER. (Ironically, the tactical shift mirrored that made by gay activists, who all but abandoned ACT UP’s Holocaust-evoking pink triangle and the “Silence = Death” slogan of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in favor of the Human Rights Campaign’s simple equal sign.)

The change in tactics extended to the legislative arena. Instead of directly attacking Roe, conservatives pursued poll-tested initiatives that drew moderates to their cause while furthering the long-term goal of a ban on abortion. The 2002 Born Alive Infants Protection Act gave legal status to a baby “born alive”—even if it had “survive[d] an abortion procedure.” The partial-birth abortion ban, which Bush signed in November of last year, shifted political debate from what to how and when, drawing support from more squeamish pro-choicers. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act (also called Laci and Conner’s law, after the murder of an eight-months pregnant Laci Peterson), signed on April 1, criminalized an assault on a fetus, meaning that an attack on a pregnant woman now has “two victims.” These victories have driven a wedge between the pro-choice camp and those that support abortion in some, but not all, circumstances.

Such subtle rollbacks may be as frightening to Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and NOW as earlier Supreme Court cases, but they are far more difficult to challenge. So the pro-choice movement has taken a page from the right’s playbook. The message at Sunday’s march was carefully crafted to appeal to an audience beyond traditional abortion supporters, while reminding them that conservatives continue to undermine reproductive rights. The march highlighted uncontroversial issues, such as treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and access to prenatal care. And, though there was the occasional ABORTION ON DEMAND WITHOUT APOLOGY placard or t-shirt, far more common were yellow and blue posters that slyly asked, on one side, WHO DECIDES? and, on the other side, answered, IT’S YOUR CHOICE ... NOT THEIRS. As William Saletan, author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, wrote in Slate last Thursday, by not specifying who “you” or “they” might be, such slogans allow readers to interpret the message for themselves: It might be libertarian, it might be pro-family, it might be feminist. (Here, too, are parallels to gay activism, which, a decade ago, shifted from an aids-focused message to the broader theme of gay rights, including the rights to serve in the military and to marry.) “There was a real effort to reach out beyond the most predictable of groups to be much more inclusive,” says Judith Lichtman, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

THE EFFORT PAID OFF, attracting groups not usually associated with abortion rights. Where the 1992 rally was dominated by NOW, banners, t-shirts, and speakers continually reminded Sunday’s crowd that seven organizations had sponsored this march, and that 1,400 more—from the NAACP to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism—had lent their names as co-sponsors. While the majority of marchers were still white (and likely middle-class), there were also huge delegations of Latinos, blacks, and Asians. Importantly, organizers succeeded in attracting many young protesters.

The march also broadened its appeal—especially among minorities—by attacking George W. Bush. Speakers and marchers alike spoke of the general arrogance of the administration and of Bush’s failure to live up to the compassionate side of compassionate conservatism. The event occasionally seemed like a rally for John Kerry wrapped in abortion-rights clothing, as campaign volunteers wrote names down on clipboards and slapped large, round WOMEN FOR KERRY stickers on any takers (including men). Speakers, from Senator Hillary Clinton to actress Camryn Manheim, urged attendees to vote Democratic in November.

As Sunday afternoon turned into evening, marchers trudged away from the Mall looking for places to eat. At the Capitol City Brewing Company, the foyer was littered with placards from the march. NARAL signs mixed with posters from the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, forming a jumble of color and politics. At a table near the bar, five women from Boston mulled over why they had come to the protest. All said they liked that the march wasn’t specifically about abortion—that it included global-health and family-planning issues, and that it touched on lesbian and gay rights, as well. Said one, “I wouldn’t have come if it were only about choice.” Outside, Marian, a 64-year-old from San Francisco, agreed. “It’s a very broad agenda,” she said, her daughter nodding in agreement. “No pun intended.”

Sarah Wildman is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a former TNR assistant editor.