Marching against their “March for Lies”

February 1, 2016

The anti-abortion fanatics faced an opposition in Chicago when they held their misnamed "March for Life," write Lauren Bianchi and Hannah Utain-Evans.

THREE HUNDRED pro-choice Chicagoans braved frigid weather on January 17 to reclaim the anniversary of Roe v. Wade--the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal--for our side by counterprotesting the largest anti-abortion event in the Midwest, IL March for Life.

Veteran community activists and first-time protesters rallied in Federal Plaza to speak out about the need for an unapologetic, fighting pro-choice movement to stave off further attacks on reproductive freedoms in 2016.

For the second year in a row, a coalition of pro-choice activists led by FURIE (Feminist Uprising to Resist Inequality and Exploitation) organized a counterdemonstration to make sure that the "March for Life"--or more accurately, "March for Lies"--wouldn't go unopposed.

Each year, local anti-abortion groups including the Pro-Life Action League and Illinois Right to Life host the event as an alternative for anti-choice activists around the Midwest who are unable to attend the larger protest in Washington, D.C. In 2015, they brought out a record crowd of 4,000 people, most of who were bused in from outside of the city.

Reproductive rights activists march through Chicago's streets in the bitter cold
Reproductive rights activists march through Chicago's streets in the bitter cold (Bob Simpson)

This year, abortion opponents numbered in the thousands again. But due in part to the heightened attacks on Planned Parenthood and abortion rights overall in 2015, this year's pro-choice counterprotest was much larger and even more spirited than last year's event. The crowd was mostly white women under 30 years old, but included people of all ages, genders and races.

There were parents with their young children, college students from DePaul University's Democrats club, and a noticeable presence of Bernie Sanders supporters with buttons and signs. Some pro-choice marchers had even traveled from as far as Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana to be there.

This action was the culmination of over a year of organizing by activists in FURIE. In 2015, the new organization initiated multiple protests at a local Crisis Pregnancy Center and a rally in opposition to congress voting to defund Planned Parenthood.

When two individuals not connected to a group called for protests at multiple locations of Planned Parenthood via social media, FURIE members were able to provide organizational support. Besides efforts led by individuals or local NGOs, FURIE is currently the only feminist group in Chicago to call for street protest as a response to the recent onslaught against abortion rights.

This most recent counterprotest reflected an attitude particular to grassroots organizing, as opposed to the quieter, more polite and unobtrusive characteristic typical of most pro-choice events.

AFTER MAKING their oppositional presence known to growing numbers at the anti-abortion event across the street, the pro-choice protesters kicked off their march with a speak-out. An LGBT activist spoke about the need to connect the fights against sexism and homophobia. A clinic escort volunteer noted the importance of celebrating the legacy of Roe for our side.

An activist who participated in the women's liberation movement in the 1970s argued that the only way we can win our rights is by taking the streets and making demands. Georgette Kirkendall, a member of the ISO, pointed out the hypocrisy of the anti-choice movement which claims to advocate for life, "but not when the Chicago police kill unarmed Black people, and not when the water is poisoning people in Flint, Michigan," she said.

The larger crowd meant protesters could safely take the streets. The most popular chants included "Abortion is health care, health care is a right" and "Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide." The one-mile march (which mirrored the anti-choice march route) ended with a quick speak-out at DePaul University's downtown campus where any individual could share their abortion story or speak about why they were protesting.

Several people talked about the struggle to access abortion services and facing shame and stigma for their choice to end a pregnancy. Others shared how having an abortion was one of the best decisions in their lives, helping them to achieve their educational and personal goals.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, no fewer than 288 laws restricting abortion have been enacted since 2011 and 57 such measures were passed in 2015 alone. In addition to the overwhelming legal efforts targeting abortion access, we have also witnessed a spike in clinic violence targeting abortion providers and medical facilities--the most deadly attack being the shooting at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic in addition to several cases of arson and building damage.

In this climate, the need for people who support access to reproductive health care to go on the offensive becomes painfully clear. Forty-three years after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, it is not our side, but the anti-abortion right that takes the streets every January.

As Elizabeth Schulte wrote in

The fact that the anti-abortion side annually steals the spotlight on the anniversary of Roe speaks volumes about the way the right wing has approached the question of abortion--head-on. An anniversary that should be a public celebration for those who support reproductive justice is instead an opportunity for the other side to share its anti-women message.

IT'S BECOME a rarity today for pro-choice people to respond to rising anti-abortion protest and extremism with protests of our own. Some in and around the non-profit NGO sphere feel that fundraising and volunteer work (not organizing) is a more effective way to help patients access care.

There are also pro-choice advocates that argue against counter protest altogether because they feel it encourages a stronger reaction from the right. It's understandable that after decades of losses for our side, few are convinced that we have the power to win any victories.

The leading abortion rights organizations in the U.S. tell their supporters to put their faith in the Democratic Party every four years and that voting for lesser evil candidates is the only way we can protect what's left of our reproductive rights. While organizations like Planned Parenthood provide essential life saving services and we must defend them from right-wing attacks, the political strategy that their leadership advocates is one that has long been proven failed for the pro-choice movement.

Earlier this month, both Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America announced they would endorse Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. In Planned Parenthood's first-ever presidential endorsement, the organization's president, Cecile Richards said of Clinton, "We don't need just a friend, a solid vote, a supporting statement. We need a fighter."

But Clinton's record indicates otherwise. Clinton, who has regularly summarized her views on abortion since the 1990s with the phrase, "safe, legal, but rare" is far from being the champion we need. Giving up key ground to the right by conceding that abortion is somehow a negative thing we should seek to limit is precisely why we've been unable to mount any defense against the war on women's rights.

There is simply no common ground to be had with the anti-abortion right, and the legacy of the Democratic Party shows that they are pro-choice in name only, not in principal.

A lesson can be found in the landmark win for abortion rights of 1973--Roe was not achieved because of a "good" politician in office, nor was it found through negotiating with right-wing opponents or the right set of moral arguments. If our side is to have any hope of gaining ground, we cannot apologize for our unconditional support of abortion rights and access.

The greatest mistake of the previous women's movement was to relax their demands and expect politics to naturally progress without further pressure. One of the slogans that galvanized the Women's Liberation Movement, "Free abortion on demand, without apology," should tell us what it will take to win again.

We have yet to reach the political moment that makes a new mass feminist movement possible--a movement that can take the streets and demand more funding for more clinics, the repeal of the Hyde Amendment and free child care for all parents. But until we reach that point, small but deeply empowering events like this one can point the way forward for future pro-choice leaders.

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