Cover Story


An embedded reporter's look inside the paranoid, determined, and sad world of pro-choice activism

Issue: "Abortion: All the rage," May 8, 2004

The row of black-robed priests stood on the sidewalk behind police barricades as the abortion marchers drew near. Some priests held crosses, one a communion cup, and all fixed determined eyes on the thousands who oozed past them on Pennsylvania Avenue. In return came the yells from the marchers: "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!" "Separation of church and state!"

April 25 was a glorious day for hundreds of thousands of men and women flaunting pro-abortion signs, buttons, and T-shirts. The presence of politicians and movie stars had attracted some, but so had basic organizing work by determined (and sometimes paranoid) volunteers. Here's a view from inside the belly of the beast.

Friday, March 26

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NARAL (The National Abortion Rights Action League) is like KFC: It doesn't like to spell out its initials very often, since "abortion" and "fried" both engender opposition. So 30 days before the march the NARAL Pro-Choice America "Pro-Choice Action Center" was ramping up for the march after a year of planning with six other abortion groups.

NARAL officials had picked a visible corner shop to be its center for canvassing, goading, and galvanizing members and other followers into marching. The storefront glass windows at 1119 F St. NW, across from the Metro Center stop, look out on a high-traffic commuter hub. I walked in on a sunny Friday afternoon to get a look from the inside as a "volunteer." Vesta, a 30-ish woman with brown hair, sat at a welcome table inside the doors: She was the center's manager, and also an Iranian whose family had moved to America when she was 9 years old. "Can I help you?" she asked in a chirpy voice.

Inside the center, with its terracotta-orange walls and purple pillars, three people were busy tapping at computers. Rally posters reminded them why they should give their hours: One had a fake snapshot of a newspaper front page picturing a Supreme Court justice and the headline, "Abortion Outlawed!" Another had a red pixel-dot outline of a woman's curved body and one word-"Mine." Vesta explained why the march was important. "We're under attack," she said. "It's not just about abortion, it's about birth control."

I gave my real name and later my affiliation-WORLD magazine reporter-but that did not set off any of Vesta's alarms. What did was my word usage: "Do you have a march every year?" I asked. "I know the pro-life people have theirs in January-"

For a second, Vesta froze.

She hiked her eyebrows and cocked her head. "Anti-choice," she corrected, flexing each syllable slowly.

She said I could help by volunteering for the phone banks on Wednesday evening, calling D.C. NARAL members.

Wednesday, March 31

Five evenings later the center was abuzz with voices. About 12 young women jabbed at telephone buttons, calling dozens of Washington residents and persuading them to come to the march (and volunteer, too, if they sounded friendly). An action center intern, Lisa, handed out marching orders as volunteers arrived. Each received a phone-number list and a telephone script for explaining the rally's purpose: "We're marching on Washington to let anti-choice policymakers know that we will not allow them to rollback [sic] our reproductive rights."

Volunteers sat at three telephone tables. One regular crowed to almost every new arrival about the ACLU protest she'd attended that afternoon, where demonstrators had improvised on the Baha Men's rhythmic hit. "Who let the jobs out?" she chanted. "Bush, Bush, Bush, Bush!" A

fast-talking volunteer named Aimee swept in wearing a wool coat festooned with pro-choice, anti-Bush buttons. She plowed through her phone list, bellowing, "You're never too old to care about freedom of choice! Never!" after reaching several elderly citizens who claimed age as a reason for skipping the march.

NARAL's mission statement hung above Aimee's head, as did this battle cry in green marker: "The erosion of reproductive rights ends now. This is the day that the anti-choice leadership begins to crumble." But phone banking was a low-yield business. Most contacts were not home, or were more angry about disrupted dinners than attacks on "reproductive rights."

Sunday, April 4

Twenty-one days until the march, declared the countdown clipboard, and the center was having a four-hour grassroots training session to equip would-be activists. Intern Lisa, with soft green eyes and an even softer voice, had estimated 20 would come. Only about 15 showed up, a third of them NARAL employees leading the training. This time the crowd was split between aging feminists and young women, with one man present, and all present to learn crowd and phone-canvassing skills.


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