WASHINGTON, April 21 (UPI) -- In an emotionally charged press conference Wednesday, leaders of the seven major organizations behind the March for Women's Lives in Washington kicked off a series of events building up to the march on Sunday. Nearly 1,400 women's rights, civil rights and healthcare groups back the event and are summoning supporters to attend the rally, which is expected to bring together thousands in support of reproductive rights.
Events leading up to the march include Planned Parenthood's annual conference Friday, a rally at the Vatican Embassy sponsored by Catholics for Free Choice and a NARAL Pro-Choice America family picnic Saturday.
Sporting yellow-and-purple rally badges on their lapels, the organizers said the event comes as "a giant wake-up call to the country" in response to what they described as an all-out though cagey assault on reproductive rights by the Bush administration.
"The government does not belong in our bedrooms or in our doctors' offices anymore than it belongs snooping in our bank accounts, monitoring our private computers or tracking our bookstore purchases," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who depicted attempts to block access to abortion as part of a broader attack on civil rights in recent years.
Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, pointed out that George W. Bush made history as the first U.S. president to sign into a law a federal ban on abortion, referring to the 2003 legislation outlawing so-called partial-birth abortions. The march organizers expressed concern about the likely shift in the balance of power on the Supreme Court if Bush is allowed to fill imminent vacancies.
But organizers noted that federal policies affecting reproductive rights reach beyond abortion, and so marchers will push for a general recognition of women's right to health services. For instance, said Eleanor Smeal, president of Feminist Majority, "We have a policy that converts family planning money into 'abstinence only' money." The organizers decried regresses in access to medically accurate sex education and birth control, including emergency contraception.
As the freshest evidence of the Bush administration's take on reproductive freedom, Michelman quoted Vice President Dick Cheney's statement that "America still has some distance to travel" in an address to a National Right to Life conference the night before.
"We will show how far pro-choice Americans will travel to protect reproductive rights," Michelman said. The organizers are expecting groups of marchers to flock to the capital from as far away as New Mexico, California and Washington state.
Romero announced that, at a 10:30 p.m. kick-off party on Friday, a group from Nebraska will board a bus to Washington, expected to arrive on Sunday morning in time for the march. The march is scheduled to start at noon after a two-hour succession of appearances by activists, public officials and celebrities.
Among the more than 100 prominent actors and artists scheduled to march on the National Mall are Ellen DeGeneres, Sheryl Crow, Jane Fonda, Whoopi Goldberg and Alec Baldwin. The event organizers, however, said that attendance by everyday people will make for the most compelling stories.
Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, welcomed the scheduled participation of Susan Wicklund, the abortion provider in rural Montana who was featured on "60 Minutes" in 1992 after threats and harassment by anti-abortion activists. Wicklund is expected to march with her daughter, who was stalked at school.
In response to an audience question, the organizers said presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry will not attend the march, in keeping with the nonpartisan spirit of the event. A massive congressional delegation from both sides of the aisle will be there, however, and volunteers will conduct voter registration drives.
Organizers also predicted Sunday's march will be the most diverse reproductive rights rally so far. Romero pointed out that young women, women of color and low-income women are hardest hit by measures limiting access to reproductive health services.
"The reproductive health of black women is in a state of crisis," said Dr. Lorraine Cole, executive director of Black Women's Health Imperative. She noted that one-third of black women don't have health insurance and cited the high incidence of HIV and AIDS among African-American women and a high infant mortality rate.
"We want to raise the national sense of urgency about this crisis," Cole said. "That's why black women will be marching on Sunday."
Silvia Henriquez, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, said Hispanic marchers from across the country will gather on the Mall Sunday, from sixth-generation Latinas to recent arrivals who will leave their cities for the first time since moving to the United States. She decried Hispanics' poor access to healthcare, a function of expensive health insurance and anti-immigration policies that make some Latinos reluctant to seek medical help.
The march will also boast a multinational presence in the face of reproductive health advocates from 53 countries. They will be there primarily to protest the so-called Global Gag Rule, a U.S. policy that prohibits foreign non-governmental organizations that receive U.S. family-planning funding to provide abortion-related services. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is expected to speak about U.S. foreign policy and reproductive rights at the march.
"The government's role in reproductive care should be to ensure success, not to take it away or tell us what to do," said Gloria Feldt, Planned Parenthood president. "This is about core American values. This is about human rights."
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