One million march for women's reproductive rights
Jenny Brown
May/June 2004

Between 800,000 and 1.15 million women, girls, and male allies rallied and marched in Washington, D.C.. on April 25. It was the largest women's rights march in the history of the U.S., and it focused not just on abortion rights, contraceptives, and sex education, which have been repeatedly attacked by the Bush administration, but also on moving forward to health care, childcare, and full equality for women. "Feminists, we are calling you" read one sign, and they came from every state in the union.

"This historic march is sending an unmistakable message: women's rights and women's lives are non-negotiable," stated Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority. "We are building an expanded and inclusive movement that will make women's reproductive rights-just like social security-a third rail of politics."

Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America said "They're not just after abortion rights. This is a full-throttle war on your very health--on your access to real sex education, birth control, medical privacy, and life-saving research."

"We envision a day... when every person has access to comprehensive and affordable health care," said Silvia Henriquez, executive director of the National Latina Institute of Reproductive Health, a co-sponsor of the march. "That is reproductive justice!"

The march was noticeably larger than similar marches organized by feminists and reproductive rights groups in 1989 and 1992, which drew 3-500,000 and 6-800,000 respectively. Those marches were responding to pending Supreme Court decisions and their size, energy, and message are credited with saving the parts of the Roe vs. Wade decision which are still in effect.

March organizers used standard crowd estimate methods, march participants were counted in designated grids on the National Mall. They said they verified this count by assigning 2,500 volunteers to stand at key entry points and count people by placing stickers on participants as they entered these entry points. By their count, 1.15 million people participated.

This year the march was most immediately responding to Congress passing and Bush signing a ban on the mischaracterized 'partial birth abortion,' a political term whose definition in the law is so vague it could be applied to most abortions. The law is now being challenged in court. As part of the court case, Attorney General John Ashcroft demanded hospital records of women who had had the types of abortion apparently banned by the law. Outrage from feminists, resistance from the hospitals involved, and then the march, apparently led Ashcroft to drop this line of inquiry on April 30.

Bush adminstration attacks on abortion rights also included the passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, defining federal crimes which harm a pregnant woman as harming two individuals. National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy said, "This is a deceptive ploy that does nothing to increase protections for pregnant women, who are at increased risk of domestic violence." A similar law which would have increased the penalties but did not include a fetal 'personhood' clause was defeated, showing that the law is not aimed at protecting pregnant women or their pregnancies, but is laying the legal groundwork to claim that embryos and fetuses are separate legal entities apart from the women who bear them.

And Bush reinstated and then expanded the Reagan-era "Global Gag Rule" which prevents international agencies that receive any family planning funds from the U.S. even informing their patients that abortion exists, let alone providing them. The ban means that family planning organizations that refuse to buckle under are starved for funds.

Morning-After Pill blocked
Then on May 6 the Bush Administration took another swipe at U.S. women when the acting Food and Drug Administration chief, Lester Crawford, announced that he was going against the FDAs own experts and advisory panels to keep the Morning-After Pill from U.S. women. The FDA's decision sent the makers of "Plan B" (levenogestrel) back to the drawing board. Barr pharmaceuticals and its predecessor, Women's Capital Corporation, had spent several years in the application process to get this after-sex contraceptive approved for over-the-counter sale. It is currently available in the U.S. only by prescription.

Prospects had looked good in December, when a combined FDA advisory panel voted 23 to 4 to approve the drug, noting that it is 'extraordinarily safe.' Public testifiers at the December 16 FDA hearing, including many feminists from Gainesville, pointed out that the Morning After Pill is available without a prescription in 38 other countries, including Canada and England. By contrast, many women testified that here in the U.S. it was impossible or near-impossible to get the drug in a timely manner since the prescription requirement forced them to make a doctor's appointment, see the doctor and pay for the appointment, obtain a prescription, find a pharmacist who will fill it, and pay for the drug, all while the clock is ticking. The Morning After Pill (also known as 'emergency contraception') is most effective if taken in the first 24 hours after unprotected sex. It can be used, with diminishing effectiveness, up to 120 hours after sex. (The Morning-After Pill is frequently confused with RU-486, the so-called "French Abortion Pill" but it is not the same medication. The Morning-After Pill prevents pregnancy, which is defined medically as the moment a fertilized egg implants in the womb. If a woman is already pregnant, the pill has no effect.)

The FDA told Barr that it needed to study and report on the effects of the pill on women under 16, or it could devise a regime whereby all women would be forced to present a proof-of-age in order to buy the drug, and those under 16 would be required to get a doctor's prescription.

Feminists have responded that the question of young women is a red herring, which is being used to block access for all women. "If you're old enough to get pregnant," the "Morning After Pill Conspiracy" said in an April 25 press release, "you're old enough to decide that you don't want to be pregnant." Doctors on the advisory panel rejected these arguments about younger women when they were broached at the hearings in December, saying that there is no evidence of different effects in younger women. It was pointed out by panelists that the alternative to young women having access to the Morning-After Pill, pregnancy among early teens, is the negative outcome of the prescription requirement.

At the March for Women's Lives, organizations making up the "Morning-After Pill Conspiracy," including Redstockings Allies and Veterans, two Gainesville NOW chapters, and Gainesville Women's Liberation, held a mini-rally during the main rally. Hundreds gathered around as about a dozen women testified about rushing around trying to get the Morning-After Pill after a condom broke during sex, about the prohibitive costs associated with a doctor's visit, and about the tragicomic idea that anyone can get a doctor's appointment in 24 hours, especially starting on a Friday or Saturday night. Expressing their view that the Morning-After Pill should immediately be made over-the-counter, they defied the prescription law by passing pills to friends and finally by flinging boxes of "Plan B" into the waiting crowd.

They invited the crowd to join them in signing the Morning After Pill Conspiracy pledge to defy the prescription requirement (and break the law) by giving a friend the Morning-After Pill whenever she needs it. About 800 signed pledges, which the groups are now sending to the FDA in protest of the decision. (Pledges can be viewed and signed at

A group of physicians with the Access Project also brought their prescription pads and wrote prescriptions for any woman who wanted one. They scribbled furiously to keep up with a line of waiting women. The doctors were illustrating a point which was repeated over and over in the FDA's advisory hearings--no physical evaluation or instruction from medical professionals is needed to safely and effectively use this medication.

Several states have passed laws to put the morning-after pill in a 'behind the counter' status, with women having to ask for it from a pharmacist, but not required to get a physician's prescription. In December the FDA advisory panels heard that the program has been a flop in California, mostly because pharmacies find the process too cumbersome and 86% don't participate.

Additionally, studies by Planned Parenthood in New York and an ACLU study in Pennsylvania showed that pharmacists are ill-informed about the Morning-After Pill and gave all kinds of wrong advice about it when asked in phone surveys. Additionally, pharmacists have refused to fill prescriptions for the drug on 'moral' grounds, as in a widely publicized case in Texas where a rape victim tried to get her prescription filled and was turned away by an Eckerd pharmacist. The pharmacist and two co-workers were later fired over the incident. At the University of Florida infirmary women have had problems since at least the early 90s getting their prescriptions filled, and a pharmacist at UF was fired after feminists exposed and protested his refusal to fill women's morning-after pill prescriptions. Feminists say that a switch to over-the-counter status, like condoms and cold medicine, would remove these unnecessary obstacles.

The Morning-After Pill Conspiracy released the following after the FDA's decision was announced:

"For the past 10 months, a coalition of feminist groups called the Morning-After Pill Conspiracy has been campaigning for over-the-counter access to this safe, effective form of birth control. Since February we have conducted civil disobedience in New York and Florida and Washington DC by giving out the Morning-After Pill in front of the public and press. On April 25, we defied the prescription requirement again by passing out the Morning-After Pill at the March for Women's Lives in Washington D.C. Approximately 1,500 women all over the country have signed our pledge promising to break the law by giving their prescription-only Morning-After Pills to friends whenever they need it.

"We will hand-deliver our pledge signatures to the FDA from more than a thousand women who plan to blatantly disregard the prescription requirement for the Morning-After Pill. In the tradition of women like Margaret Sanger, who broke the law by passing out information on birth control when it was illegal to do so, the members of the MAP Conspiracy pledge to bring our civil disobedience directly to the FDA- to illegally pass out the Morning-After Pill on their doorstep- in protest of this unjust ruling.

"The Morning-After Pill is one tool that women can use to control our bodies and direct our lives, a tool which the FDA continues to keep from millions of women who can't afford, don't have time, or aren't able to get MAP from their doctors. Women of all ages should have unrestricted, over-the-counter access to the Morning-After Pill; we will continue to fight for this right by whatever means necessary."

The demonstration at the FDA is planned for July 2. Go to for more information and updates, or call the Gainesville Area or Campus NOW chapters at 377-2301.

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