Abortion rights fight kicks into high gear
Joe Courter
May/June 2001

Fifty-three people gathered in the parking lot of Toys R Us at 7:30 am Saturday morning, April 21st for the fifteen hour bus ride to Washington, DC and the Emergency Action for Women's Lives, coordinated at short notice (7 weeks) by the National Organization for Women.

Some were going to be seeing DC for the first time. Some may have been in DC before but not for a protest. Some were movement veterans who've been there before, but not many, because the abortion rights movement had largely gone to sleep during the Clinton administration, kinda trusting the Democrats to do right by us after the 12 years of the Reagan/Bush era.

Of course we know that the eight years of Clinton/Gore saw a continued erosion of abortions availability coupled with an aggressive anti-abortion movement which, beyond activity in the legislative arena, has employed tactics from killing doctors and bombing clinics; posting through the internet contact information on abortion doctors; inviting their harassment or killing; all the way down to the subterfuge of operating chains of phony clinics which portray themselves as "rescue centers" or "crisis pregnancy" centers but are actually anti-abortion propaganda centers.

What should be the right of a woman to control her own destiny becomes their business because in their mind the women's choice ends when the sperm hits the egg, after that it's incubator city. And now these people have one of their own in the White House, and for the abortion rights movement - this was the wake-up call, especially after resident Bush's early action against international family planning efforts.

The 53 women and men who went on the bus from Gainesville were joined by about 10,000 others from around the country for the rally and march. They came from a wide range of perspectives, reflecting the reality of the abortion issue, and the many ways abortion rights are under attack.

The opening speaker presented readings from a project she's doing, compiling firsthand accounts of abortion from the pre-legal days--the suffering, the fear, the shame and the isolation, and closed with "never again--we wont go back." A representative from the NJ Women's Association of Abortion Providers (NAAP) spoke about the courage of providers and the need for people to support and show thanks to them for their work. A letter was read from a provider too scared to come out in public, who talked about her patients' lack of her patients insurance coverage, the decreasing numbers of clinics, and the slow "extinction" of providers due to the climate of terror and the lack of teaching of abortion techniques in medical schools. The welfare reform going on across the country was cited by another speaker as being punitive of poor single women with children, pushing them toward marriage and pushing ineffective abstinence programs.

Carol Rosenblatt of the Coalition of Labor Union Women brought in other women's issues under the gun in a Bush presidency, including the problems of office related injury such as carpel-tunnel syndrome and the bogus tax cut which will hurt programs for women and children. "We're not gonna stand for our health and safety rights being taken away by forcing ergonomic standards to be rescinded, when women have such a large preponderance of carpel-tunnel syndrome. We're going to join with our sisters and brothers in Canada who are trying to urn around the free trade agreement that is being considered right now, which will force millions of children and women to suffer. We know what this compassionate conservatism is about. Bush's heart is in the pocket of big business that's what he cares about most, that's what he's doing and were not going to let that happen.

"Our rights to organize, our rights to a decent job, our rights to be free from discrimination, our rights to be free from sexual harassment and our most basic rights, our rights to our own bodies, will not be taken away--we won't let that happen" Rosenblatt said.

Njuki Njorege Njehu of 80 Years is Enough was the next speaker. She referred to the near-colony status of the District of Columbia (taxation without representation) and the imminent closure of DC General Hospital due to privatization pressures. She also expanded her analysis to include the struggle of women around the globe and how in most cases the struggle for economic justice is essential for there to be any form of gender justice, and that women around the globe are suffering under the pressures brought by global capital and international banking policies under the IMF and World Bank.

Angela Arbolada was next, a young Latina from DC 51st State NOW chapter. Her perspective was of a young woman who grew up under legal abortion, but who encountered women in DC with no knowledge of how to go about finding abortion information or services, and how hard it was for them and how hard the Bush administration was trying to make it for all women, and how we must never go back.

Following Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice who closed with "Just say nope to the pope," Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State spoke. "why come to an event like this? It's because we refuse to be hidden, because we refuse to be moved to the back of the reproductive choice bus, because we refuse to believe that the only moral values women will be able to adopt are those that Tom Delay, George Bush, and John Aschcroft think are appropriate. Bush's first act in office was to declare a national day of prayer. Now, regrettably, this was not because even he had finally realized that his election (sic) spelled bad news for the country, it's because it was one more sop to the religious right that had supported him. The next day he imposed a Reagan-era gag order to deny comprehensive family planning to women all over the world. That is an act of unspeakable political arrogance that suggests that the lives of hundreds of thousands of women will be put at risk because of the myopic notion of a moral fixation on fetal life. George Bush has gone on to admit that part of his so-called faith-based initiative that he's talked about--he made these in an unexpectedly reported meeting with the Catholic Bishops when the microphones were turned on--much of his faith-based initiative, he said, was to promote the idea of money going to organizations that are anti-reproductive choice. And frankly, that legislation's already been introduced and it needs to be stopped!" Lynn went on to say that if an anti-choice Supreme Court nomination comes along it needs to be blocked--that we should ride at a period when "8 is enough."

Rosemary Dempsey pointed out that when Bush reinstated the global gag rule first put in by Reagan in 1984, he was doing it in a different world, a world that has seen a huge rise in women's organizing, the Cairo and Beijing conferences, and international women's movement, and all the work that has followed, when now, "In a majority of countries all over the world--women's rights are human rights and reproductive rights are women's rights are human rights--Bush is saying to these women all over the world "you are not to speak. You are not to organize. He's saying that to organizations like [my organization] the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, that works with our partners all over the world to to do away with criminal abortion laws. Since 1984, 20 more countries have legalized abortion. But still today 78,000 women we know of die from unsafe and illegal abortions around the world." Dempsey referred to the Senate as "our firewall" in protecting women's rights to abortion--"they need to hear from us".

The next speaker was Dr. James Pendergraft, a Florida abortion provider facing criminal prosecution in Ocala, Florida. Introduced by Patricia Ireland, Pendergraft said: "I am an abortion provider in a town where the last clinic was burned to the ground. But women still need services, so I decided to open a new clinic there. I'm an abortion provider who was told by local authorities and Éclergy who are anti-women, anti-choice, and anti-abortion, that they did not support my plans to open a clinic and would do everything in their power to prevent me from doing so. But women still needed services, so I began offering services.

"I'm an abortion provider who wears 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. When I opened the medical facility, I was denied the right to hire off-duty police for protection, becoming the only employer in town barred from this protection, and the only one needing it. But women still needed services so I continued to offer the services. And while there was no law enforcement protestors went wild. Harassing, intimidation, obstructing our driveways, creating an environment of terrorism. Videotaping our patients, accosting them, taking down their license plates, and scaring them. The protestors orbited the facility seven days a week. The actions escalated without anyone to intercede on behalf of the women seeking medical services.

"I am an abortion provider who challenged the local authorities and won the right to off-duty law enforcement. Yet when I tried to hire this protection the city doubled the cost rate and drafted a special contract that was simply unconstitutional, a document I was unable to sign, and therefore, once again, unable to obtain the protection I needed, so I decided I would not longer stand for this discrimination. I challenged the local authorities, the authorities that were out to stop abortion and out to stop me.

"When I threatened to sue them for these discriminatory acts that put me in personal jeopardy, they charged me with and convicted me of extortion. And so in this town that accepts clinics being burned to the ground, and in this town where I provide services to women who are making responsible decisions, to girls who have been raped by family members, to mothers whose pregnancies threaten their lives, to protesters and their daughters who enjoy the right when they need it, I offer services. I continue to fight for justice and my freedom but if they lock me away, who would be willing to endure this much to provide abortion services? Thank you."

Larry Colleton, Pendergraft's attorney stated: "On May 24, Dr. Pendergraft will be sentenced. He faces 30 years in prison, $750,000 in fines and loss of his medical license. He needs your support." There is a rally for Dr. Pendergraft on May 19 in Ocala, at 11 a.m. at the Gazebo in the Park in downtown Ocala. For more information on the Pendergraft case you can visit http://www.righttofight.org.

Other speakers and musicians spoke and performed including Kate Michelman, Ellie Smeal, Patricia Ireland, Rep. Gerald Nadler, all sharing their message of organizing family, organizing friends, and to demand that the Senate be strong in the face of any Bush Supreme Court nominee who does not support abortion rights, to filibuster if necessary to block any Bush "court-packing" against abortion rights.

Patricia Ireland, outgoing NOW president, particularly ripped into Bush appointees John Ashcroft and Tommy Thompson as anti-abortion zealots who would bring back the days of illegal abortions when "botched abortions were the leading cause of maternal-related deaths." She also charged the crowd with the need to be a catalyst for an abortion rights movement that will grow exponentially in the coming years: "You are the ones who will launch this movement...do you know that by fighting together we will win??!" The strong enthusiasm shown at the rally and the march says that, yes--it was not a crowd of depressed and fearful people, it was charged up and ready for a fight.

At the close of the rally, NOW's founder and first president Betty Frieden was acknowledged in the seating area in front of the stage. Watching young women come up and greet her after the rally was inspiring--you could see the warmth and love, but also the commitment to the struggle as the next wave begins to build.

It was also very special to be a Gainesville activist April 22. Byllye Avery of the National Black Women's Health Project, upon hitting the stage, proclaimed how she had begun her feminist work in Gainesville, Florida in 1974, and how proud she was to look out and see the Gainesville Women's Liberation banner. "Keep fighting sisters, that's what it's all about." Avery was one of the founders of the Gainesville Women's Health Center.

At the rally were Gainesville Women's Liberation founding member Carol Giardina, ex-Gainesvillian Alex Leader, now the NYC NOW Executive Director, and Andrea Costello, recently returned to Gainesville and now a movement lawyer. At the post-march rally on the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, two Gainesville feminists were invited to speak. As reported in the Gainesville NOW letter, "Nicole Hardin from Gainesville Area NOW and Natalie Maxwell from Campus NOW spoke about their personal experiences with abortion. Nicole spoke about the need to fight for the right to abortion: "I am here today because I am really pissed off. I am speaking out today because I am tired of being apologetic about having abortions. Being able to decide if and when I have a child is a cornerstone of all our freedom...We know that the reason we can vote, own property, wear shorts, and have our own bank accounts is the result of a mass feminist movement demanding these things. Let's not forget, the Supreme Court didn't hand us the right to abortion--we won it through having a strong women's liberation movement. But we still have to fight if we want to win freedom--we will fight until we win!"

Natalie Maxwell spoke about learning the real history surrounding our fight for abortion rights and how we can use these lessons today to win more reproductive freedom for women: "In history classes I was told Roe vs. Wade gave women the right to abortion, but nothing was given to us. The right to have a safe, legal abortion in America was won by women rallying, speaking out, committing acts of civil disobedience and most of all organizing. From my own experience as an organizer and from feminist history I have learned that consciousness-raising and speak-outs have been and continue to be powerful tools in organizing women into the feminist movement and furthering our abortion rights.' Natalie ended by leading the crowd in a chant, "Abolish all abortion laws. Freedom for women now!...'"

To join the emergency campaign, call Gainesville Area NOW at 377-9935 or Campus NOW at 380-9934.

RALLY for REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS, and for abortion provider Dr. James Pendergraft

When: Saturday, May 19 - 11:00 AM

Where: Downtown Ocala, at the Gazebo in the Square

Who: Florida State NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR WOMEN (FL NOW) and Marion /Lake Chapter of NOW, Gainesville Area NOW

Donna Slutiak, President of Marion/Lake Chapter of Florida NOW and Clarice Pollock, Florida State NOW President have announced a SPEAK OUT FOR ACCESS rally to be held in Ocala's downtown public square on Saturday May 19th at 11:00 AM. The State NOW organization voted to hold this Reproductive Rights rally in Ocala, as a result of the prosecution on extortion charges of Dr. James Pendergraft, owner of Ocala Women's Clinic. Following a religiously and racially bigoted investigation and trial Dr. Pendergraft has been convicted of extortion. His crime? He sued the City of Ocala and Marion County, Florida for failing to protect women's constitutional rights to self-determination. Both the city and the county refused law enforcement protection to the Women's Clinic.

Coupled with Governor Jeb Bush's proposal to divert family planning funds to religiously oriented "Just say no to sex" programs, the continuing efforts by government to strip women of access to whole, safe, reproductive health care, has forced women to speak out and take back control of our bodies and our lives from the interference of churches and politicians.

In Gainesville, contact Gainesville Area NOW, 377-9935 or Campus NOW at 380-9934.

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