Defending the Right to Choose

Against the Current No. 19, March/April 1989

Norine Gutekanst

THE HARD-FOUGHT gams of women for the right to abortion are being threatened on two fronts. The “right-to-life” movement is mobilizing to shut down abortion clinics in targeted cities throughout the nation. At the same time, the Supreme Court, dominated by Reagan appointees, will be reviewing the constitutionality of an anti-abortion law. These events have galvanized many women who had not previously felt their rights were endangered. New coalitions and committees are springing up around the country. Some, such as Emergency Clinic Defense Coalition (ECDC) in Chicago, are determined to go beyond clinic defense, to organize around the full spectrum of reproductive rights.

Anti-abortionists blockaded a local abortion clinic last August, preventing women from entering, and using civil disobedience tactics. A number of pro-choice supporters responded, but in a somewhat disorganized manner. So last fall, when in conjunction with the “National Day of Rescue,” a local call by anti-abortionists went out, supporters of reproductive rights felt the need for a broad and effective response.

Women Organized for Reproductive Rights (WORC), a long-standing multi-issue reproductive-rights group, and No Pasaran, a women’s direct-action affinity group associated with the Pledge of Resistance, issued a public call for a meeting that could plan a response. They pointed out that the stated intention of “Operation Rescue” was to stop women from obtaining abortions by “physically blockading abortion mills with their bodies.”

First they contacted the traditional abortion-rights organizations, such as National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and the National Organization for Women (NOW). But those groups had already decided only to provide clinic escorts and issue a statement to the media. They felt organizing a counter-demonstration at a clinic would serve further to disorient women arriving for abortions.

The WORC/No Pasaran-initiated meeting drew thirty-five women from universities, women who had belonged to the former Jane Collective, members of the Chicago branches of Solidarity and Democratic Socialists of America, anarchists and a number of unaffiliated women.

First, they organized small groups of clinic watchers to monitor each clinic for anti-choice activity. They called for a large number of people to assemble at six am in a central location, ready to counter-picket any clinics targeted by the right. This method of flexible organizing was first utilized in the 1930s in the union movement as “flying squads” to be deployed or redeployed as necessary. Above all it involves teamwork and coordination.

Second, they planned to have their own event — deciding on a noon-time picket line and rally at the Bush Campaign Headquarters. The headquarters was selected because Bush had stated in the fall debates that he was for making abortion illegal. However, when the media asked him if he was for putting women who obtained “illegal” abortions on trial, he claimed not to have formulated an opinion! The demonstration was intended to hold Bush accountable.

On October 29, the day the self-styled “Green Berets” of the anti-abortion movement targeted as their “day of rescue,” over a hundred people, young and old, showed up to defend women’s right to abortion.

Defending Our Rights

In general the “Operation Rescue” forces send a number of “decoys” to clinics, then concentrate their forces on one place. Small teams of pro-choice activists were sent to each clinic, ready to call into a central office at the sign of any anti-abortion activity. The idea was that the supporters of women’s rights would be present at all clinics in order to monitor and escort women into the clinics, but would not show up in massive numbers unless that was necessary.

As Cathy Christeller, on the staff of WORC, described the experience: “It gave us a strong sense of cooperation as each team was put together at the crack of dawn and assigned to a specific clinic.” She noted that “It was not our job to physically protect the clinics. We were there simply to affirm our determination to stand with women in their choice to have an abortion.”

Operation Rescue did target one clinic, but the coalition’s monitors, who had preceded them to the clinic, phoned the information back to the assembly point. Teams were immediately dispatched and the pro-choice forces eventually outnumbered the antis eighty-to-forty. The clinic was not shut down, and women able to use its facilities that day. The police, who were present, kept the groups separate but otherwise played no role.

Following the rally at the Bush campaign headquarters, a number of people signed up to join ECDC. The coalition set up a “‘response network in order to remain prepared against future “Operation Rescues.” In addition, there was a continuing need to publicize the attacks on women’s reproductive rights. January 22, the sixteenth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, was a logical time for a follow­ up action.

Twice as many supporters of women’s rights were involved in organizing the second event. Perhaps most obvious was the increasing involvement of the college campuses as an organizing base. A number of student groups, including the Progressive Student Network, Democratic Socialists of America, University of Illinois Lesbian Alliance, the International Socialist Organization and the Northwestern University Women’s Studies Center helped to mobilize campus support.

The ECDC leaflet commemorating the 1973 decision summarized the current situation this way:

“January 22 marks the sixteenth anniversary of the legalization of women’s right to choose in the United States. But we can’t take this right for granted. The organized opposition to abortion rights has campaigned relentlessly to overturn this right Today only thirteen states still provide any funding for abortions for poor women. Teenagers in many states have lost the right to decide. At the same time, poor women face an increasing crisis of healthcare, pre-natal care and childcare. Anti-abortionists have stepped up their campaign both in the courtroom and in harassing women outside clinics. They have vowed to overturn legal abortion. We can’t let this happen.”

On Saturday, January 21, about 750 people, including over 100 students from Northwestern University, marched past two bogus clinics. These use deceptive advertising as a means to lure women into viewing medically inaccurate anti­abortion videos. Demonstrators gathered for a rally at the State of Illinois Building in downtown Chicago. In choosing the State Building, ECDC focused attention not only on the legal attacks against abortion and right-wing harassment, but spotlighted the earlier cutoff of state funding for abortion as an important aspect of the attack against women’s rights.

No Going Back

The demonstrators represented a range of experience. There were women who had been part of the Jane Collective, a group of feminists in Chicago operating an underground abortion facility back in the days when abortion was illegal. There were students — both men and women — too young to remember the days of back-alley abortions, women who had been active in various aspects of the reproductive rights movement in the 1970s, and women who had never been to a picket or rally before.

Some came alone, others arrived with friends or with their children. But all were united in their determination that the focus must be on the right of women to control their own reproductive lives.

For many women who had been involved in the reproductive rights fight over the last period and who had fought against the cut off of Medicaid funding years before, the contingents of students and youth represented a new beginning. The rally included speakers from the religious community, students and the left, combining music and street theatre as well, At the end of the rally, scores of women waited in line to sign up to be on the ECDC mailing list.

ECDC also helped circulate the signature ad campaign in support of reproductive freedom sponsored by the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance. This ad was run in the Chicago Tribune on Bush’s inauguration day.

The Emergency Clinic Defense Coalition has outlined a series of tasks over the course of the spring. These include holding educational events on the campus, developing a plan when “Operation Rescue” brings its full national weight to bear on Chicago later in the year, organizing to take Chicagoans to the April 9 demonstration in Washington, D.C., and having public forums that can address the range of reproductive-rights issues that confront women in their daily lives. These could include such questions as access to adequate sex education in the public schools, infant mortality rates in the inner city, and the particular problems women of color, who make up a substantial part of the city’s population, face.

Different forces within the coalition have differing approaches. Some favor local direct-action projects, such as demonstrating against the offices of the Catholic Archdiocese. While others, including Solidarity members, place a greater importance on large-scale public actions such as the NOW-initiated National March on Washington, D.C. April 9. Yet there is a basic compatibility, as Solidarity member and ECDC activist Debby Pope summed up:

“We feel that we represent the majority. We’re not willing to let the right wing set our agenda. Although we must respond to any large-scale attack they organize, our focus is on a strong, public affirmation of the right of women to control their bodies.”

Despite differences, the coalition is strong and united — and has the capacity to act on an emergency footing.

March-April 1989, ATC 19

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