Demonstrators take over Loop to march for women’s reproductive rights

By Enrica Nicoli Aldini

Frigid temperatures Sunday caused an expanding crowd of pro-choice marchers to bundle up more than usual on an otherwise clear afternoon at Federal Plaza. Abortion activists with Feminist Uprising to Resist Inequality and Exploitation, a local group also called FURIE, braved below-zero wind chills to march through the Loop, and protest the Chicago chapter of pro-life advocates, who gathered just on the opposite side of the street for the March for Life.

“The majority of Americans are pro-choice,” Mallory Harwardt, FURIE organizer, told the crowd as it assembled in front of the Federal Courthouse before the march. “It’s time we stopped acting like we are the silent majority.”

Thanking demonstrators for coming out and showing support for abortion rights in bitterly cold weather, Harwardt said women don’t need lawmakers to legislate against their bodies. They must have the right to affordable reproductive health care.

“Anti-choicers will say that they care deeply about women and children,” Harwardt said. “We believe that a pregnant woman is smart enough to make decisions for herself.”

Encouraging the crowd with such chants as “They say no choice; we say pro-choice,” Harwardt pledged to show anti-choice demonstrators on the other side of Dearborn Street that “people from Chicago are pro-choice.” She urged her fellow activists to continue to fight for women’s reproductive rights, especially as the Supreme Court is set, in just a few weeks, to hear a case on a Texas law that would shut down dozens of abortion clinics in that state.

Andy Thayer of the Gay Liberation Network echoed Harwardt’s words. “We have an obligation to win this case to guarantee access to safe and legal abortion,” he said.

Thayer voiced pro-choice activists’ concerns that no politician in Washington will truly champion women’s rights and their reproductive freedom. Voting for the Democrats in November as a way to defend abortion rights is “mistaken,” Thayer said. He reminded the crowd that the landmark Roe v. Wade 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion came as a result of a movement for the liberation of women, rather than political intervention.

On their part, pro-life activists assembled on Federal Plaza to march against that same decision. “We mark with sadness the legalization of abortion,” said Emily Zender, executive director of Illinois Right to Life, a non-profit organization that put Sunday’s March for Life together.

During a phone interview a few days prior to the march, Zender explained that her anti-abortion beliefs are rooted in both science and her personal experience with counseling women who had abortions. She said these women were left emotionally and physically harmed as a result.

“There is no such thing as safe access to abortion,” Zender said. “Abortion ends the life of a human being and harms a woman. There is no compromise with that. We hope that not only will abortion be made illegal again, but that it will also never be a thinkable option.”

Zender said she believes there’s still much room for pro-life and pro-choice activists to find common ground and work together. “We can all make sure abortion clinics receive the necessary health inspections, and that parents know when their minor daughters receive the surgery,” she said.

Zender said she wishes pro-choicers and pro-lifers would listen to each other more often. She added she wants the abortion activists that protested against the March for Life on Sunday to know that pro-lifers “will be there for them no matter what.”

“We love you and welcome you,” said Zender, adding that there is no religious component to her beliefs.

Many March for Life advocates said religion is an integral part of their anti-abortion views. Seventeen-year-old Ariana Valdez traveled from Milwaukee to voice her objection to abortion, saying that as far as she is concerned, it constitutes the murder a child and disrespect of a woman’s life.

Valdez, a senior in high school, said her advocacy began in the corridors of her catholic school. “I’ve been a pro-life [advocate] for a while. I talk to a lot of people at my school, and I don’t want to say I want to persuade them, but at least change their views,” she said.

Rose Figueroa, a professed Roman Catholic, said she took part in the March for Life as an “advocate for the unborn.” As for the pro-choice activists on the other side of Federal Plaza, Figueroa said “they need to educate themselves a little more and realize life begins at conception.”

For pro-choice demonstrators, however, the issue boils down to the right for a woman to make decisions about her own body. One religion cannot prescribe the right path for everyone, said Elisabeth Angeroth Franks, who came from Iowa to march and speak up because “women are more than just incubators.”

For social work student Christina Keoppen, “the choice needs to be there.” “Reproductive choice benefits everyone. If pro-lifers saw the benefits of reproductive choice, they’d see the benefits of our side,” she said.

Just like many other fellow pro-choice demonstrators, Keoppen waved a sign picturing a coat hanger, a symbol of the brutal methods women used to self-induce abortion before it became legal. And while women were the majority of attendees, many men marched along in support of all women’s right to choose.

“I believe in women’s rights,” said Hugo Dominguez from behind his knitted hat and face mask. “And I’m here today to march for the important women in my life and defend their individual choices.”

Young abortion activists marched with the feminist organization FURIE on Sunday, Jan. 17. Twenty-one-year-old Alice Thompson, kneeling on the left, said she welcomed this opportunity to stand for what she believes in, as women often don’t have a chance to speak their voice. (Enrica Nicoli Aldini/MEDILL)