Chanting "Life, Life," and "No Compromise," an estimated 60,000 people marched down Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House to the Capitol yesterday in the sixth annual protest against the Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion.
Fresh from what they claim are "prolife" victories in unseating several congressmen who supported abortion, the marchers renewed their call for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortions under any circumstances and vowed to defeat other proabortion candidates at the polls.
Earlier in the day, the National Organization for Women held a press conference to announcing it has invited some 40 antiabortion and "prochoice" organizations to a meeting in Washington on Feb. 15 in an attempt to establish a dialogue between the two sides in the increasingly bitter dispute.
The invitation was immediately rejected by March for Life President Nellie J. Gray, who, speaking from the steps of the Capitol, declared to cheering supporters, "I do not sit down and negotiate with baby killers."
The rhetoric and rancor resounded across the city throughout the day as various groups vied for center stage to be heard on the sensitive issue.
"We believe it is time for both sides of the abortion controversy to seek ways to lessen the need for abortion, to reduce the incidence of unwanted and troubled pregnancies, and to end the increasing polarization and violence that surrounds this issue," said NOW president Eleanor Smeal at her press conference.
"We are convinced that the leadership on both sides of the issue have a responsibility to meet and begin a dialogue, although we know our respective positions on abortion itself will not change," she said.
The NOW invitation was sent out by telegram to some 19 organizations, including the March For Life, sponsors of yesterday's rally at the Capitol, and about 5 other major antiabortion groups.
The spurning of the NOW offer by Gray of the March for Life was greeted with enthusiastic chants of "No Compromise" by the almost all-white crowd estimated by U.S. Capitol Police at 60,000. Their ranks included large numbers of school-age children, many bused from Catholic schools, according to march participants, as well as individuals and antiabortion groups from across the country.
As in past years, there were varying unofficial estimates on the number of marchers. It was clear this year that many people, particularly women with young children, dropped out of the march before it reached the Capitol, apparently as a result of the 36-degree temperatures and heavy winds.
About two dozen marchers who were interviewed at random said they were from out of town and were Roman Catholics. Religious banners identifying marchers as members of such Catholic societies as Knights of Columbus and as representatives of various Catholic dioceses and schools were visible throughout the crowd.
Some 150 people from the Pittsburgh area marched behind a huge banner that said "Stop the Murders, Catholics for Life Pittsburgh Archdiocese, Byzantine Rite." They were lead by the Rev. Robert Bayusik who said the delegation was "traveling as family units" and that a third of the marchers were children. Many of them carried high in the air red and black pictures of an infant crucified on the cross. Asked about the possible effects of the pictures on the general public, Father Bayusik said, "As far as I'm concerned, it tells the message as it is."
"This is my sixth march," said Diane Trombley, a member of Michigan Citizens for Life, who said some 200 people came from that state by plane and bus for the march. "We're obviously becoming a political force."
Told of NOW's overture, Trombley, who favors abortion only when the life of the mother is in danger, said she believes there are areas apart from the abortion question where the two sides could find common ground. "There are these collateral areas where I'm sure dialogue is possible. As far as (sex) education, I'm sure there's dialogue to be had there. As for artificial birth control, there's dialogue to be had there. There's always room for dialogue when you're not considering destruction of human life."
Lucille Canty, a Catholic mother of two from Worchester, Mass., disagreed. "Our basic values are in conflict," she said.
Like the marchers themselves, several members of Congress speaking at the rally all hit hard at abortion as the "killing of babies."
Some, like Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), laced their messages with sarcasm not lost on the enthusiastic crowd.
"Are we here to save the snail darter?" asked Dornan, reterring to the congressional battle to save a tiny species of fish. "No!" roared the crowd.
"Are we here to speak out for those cute little seals who are killed in Canada?... We are here to stop the abuse of children," Dornan thundered, "an abuse that's always fatal. The official death toll that we are here to stop is 1,300,000 that are killed in their mothers' wombs.
"The unofficial total is closer to three million," said Dornan, "and that's a war! We are now asking for a moratorium on the death toll in that war raging across America before we will sit down at any peace table and negotiate the terms of what will be the parameters for the respect for life in our nation in its future."
"[Sen. Richard] Dick Clark [D-Iowa], where are you now?" Rep. Robert E. Bauman (R-Md.) asked rhetorically to the delight of the crowd. "Where are you now, [Sen.] [Edward] Brooke [R-Mass.]?" The antiabortion movement is claiming credit for defeating both Clark and Brooke in last November's election and has publicly stated it has a "hit list" of six other senators and six representatives, including Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) whom it wants to defeat because of their proabortion voting records.
The antiabortion forces have also been instrumental in getting federal Medicaid funds for abortions cut off.
The National Abortion Rights Action League announced yesterday the formation of the Rosie Jimenez Fund to help impoverished women obtain legal abortions. The fund will start off helping 10 women in Texas, where Jimenez lived. "Prochoice" forces, who believe a woman is entitled to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy, claim that Jimenez was the first of several women to die following illegal abortions since Medicaid abortion funds were cut off.
Yesterday's march ended on an emotional note as the crowd held hands and sang songs such as "Ave Maria." As marchers dispersed to go into the Capitol and lobby members of Congress, a group of several hundred people remained behind to say the rosary on the steps of the Capitol.