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National NOW Times >> Summer, 2001 >> Article

NOW Declares State of Emergency: Feminists Respond in Force

By Patricia Ireland, President

After an unprecedented, whirlwind seven-and-a-half week organizing blitz for the Emergency Action for Women’s Lives, the National Organization for Women marched with more than 150 organizational and congressional sponsors, representatives of some 160 campuses and activists from across the country. The Action targeted U.S. Senators to stop the packing of the Supreme Court with nominees who do not support women’s rights to self-determination, privacy and reproductive freedom.

With the Capitol in the background on a bright spring day, rally speakers and performers inspired and invigorated participants. The Washington Post described the march as "the capital’s largest abortion rights rally in recent years." Marchers, chanting and carrying colorful homemade and printed signs, poured onto Constitution Ave., made their way past Senate office buildings and up to the historic Women’s Party Building, from which suffragists waged the final, successful push for women's right to vote.

As the march wound past the Supreme Court, where Roe v. Wade hangs by a fragile five-to-four vote, activists shouted their determination to "Save the Court!"

A loud cheer erupted when the front line moved down Independence Ave. to the National Mall, as word spread that the last of the marchers were just stepping off and the Capitol was completely surrounded, with the march on three sides and the Reproductive Health Fair, sponsored by the NOW Foundation, on the fourth.

At the Fair, activists visited dozens of exhibits and listened to live music and stories of women’s experiences with legal and illegal abortion. Participants also took part in the Virtual Action, sponsored by NOWworld–the first feminist Internet Service Provider (ISP).

The Young Face of Feminism
Reflecting results of an intense campus organizing drive, the Emergency Action was remarkable for the young activists who were easily half, and perhaps as high as three quarters of the crowd.

The first rally speaker, Brown University senior Ellen Schoenfeldt, has been collecting stories from women and doctors involved in illegal abortions. Schoenfeldt, who plans to attend medical school and works part-time at a clinic in Providence, RI, has turned the experiences into monologues that are available for campus and community groups to perform.

"We need to remind the country that we won’t go back to coat hangers and back alleys," Schoenfeldt told rally participants.

"There are 5 million children in neglectful, abusive homes in this country ... 2 million children lost in foster care," said Angela Carswell, at the march with 2 busloads of other University of Delaware students and her mother. “Don’t we have enough unwanted children? Do we have to force people to be parents?"

High school seniors Laura Bullock and Adam Schenk, both 18, traveled from Harrisburg, PA, to express their determination not to lose a right they have grown up with.

"I just want to know that if I ever need an abortion I’ll be able to get one," said Bullock.

I'm just dumbfounded that it has to be such an issue. It should be a given for everyone. And having Bush in office, I wanted to come up here and protest something," added Schenk.

And young feminists keep getting younger. Eight-year-old Cady Lornell took her place on the front line of a march for the second time.

"After holding the lead banner at the World March of Women 2000 last October, she was quite insistent that she be there this time as well," said her mother NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy.

Abortion Providers Endangered
Medical Students for Choice is concerned that many doctors who perform abortions are retiring and few medical students are willing to take their places due to anti-abortion rights violence and harassment. The students say fewer than 20 percent of medical schools require gynecological residents to train in abortion procedures.

"We want women to get the best care possible," said Deborah Simon-Weisberg, a student at George Washington University Medical School. "But we hear doctors saying, 'I don’t know if I want to become an activist for abortion.'"

Dr. James Pendergraft, a Florida physician with five women’s health clinics in the state, gave chilling testimony to the use of force, both the force of law and physical force, to stop doctors from including abortion in their practices. He also showed an inspiring commitment.

"I am an abortion provider in a town where the last clinic was burned to the ground. I wear a bullet-proof vest to work. My clinic is the site of daily protests, and I fear for the physical safety of my patients, my employees and myself," said Pendergraft. "But women still need abortion services, and so we provide them."

Actively discouraged by city and county officials from opening the clinic in Ocala, Dr. Pendergraft was then prohibited from hiring off-duty police to provide security from anti-abortion rights protesters. His lawsuit to force the city to allow him to do so, an option allowed to other businesses in the area, resulted in criminal charges being brought against the doctor, in an apparent effort to force him to stop providing services.

In a trial marred by racial slurs against the doctor and his lawyer, both of whom are African American, evidence revealed close ties between organizers of the anti-abortion protests and the federal prosecutor, a county commissioner who engaged in fraudulent settlement negotiations in order to tape Dr. Pendergraft and his lawyer surreptitiously, and the FBI agent who set up, but failed to supervise the taping.

Activists were urged to support Dr. Pendergraft with petitions to the court prior to sentencing and contributions to the defense fund for the doctor’s appeal, and to visit the defense web site www.righttofight.org.

This is Just the Beginning
Movement leaders urged the crowd to take action for reproductive rights and to understand what is at stake.

"What we have to remember is that we are walking the high ground here. ...The greatest right a woman has is to have a life and to have, absolutely, control over managing her fertility," said Byllye Avery, founder of the National Black Women's Health Project.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, said of George W. Bush, "This is not a president whom we can trust to protect the health and safety of women. He will nominate anti-choice zealots [to the U.S. Supreme Court] to lead the assault on Roe v. Wade."

"We must begin now a filibuster campaign," urged Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal. If a nominee will not commit to uphold Roe, Smeal told the crowd, the message to Senators must be to "filibuster, filibuster, filibuster!"

What's Next: Campaign for Women's Lives
The weekend following the Action, NOW’s National Board members outlined the next steps in the Emergency Campaign for Women’s Lives, including action to expand media coverage, pressure Senators, and prepare for more protests in the streets.

The board encourages NOW chapters and activists to protest lack of coverage about the threats to women’s lives and to meet with local editorial boards to increase coverage of women’s issues, particularly the Emergency Campaign.

Chapters can organize letter-writing campaigns calling on Senators to filibuster any Bush nominees who do not support reproductive freedom and to oppose the so-called Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which the board renamed the Embryo Personhood Act, and other anti-reproductive rights legislation. See "Reproductive Rights Status Report: Outlook Negative."

Chapters are strongly encouraged to begin gathering names and to plan now their local actions that will take place immediately upon the resignation of a Supreme Court justice. The National Action Center is preparing an Emergency Campaign action kit and making contingency plans for a zap action to take place in Philadelphia during the National NOW Conference, should a Supreme Court justice step down before then.

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