Forty-one years ago, I marched on the National Mall in Washington, D.c=, and listened—my heart and my conscience stirred to the core—as Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the United States to live out the true meaning of its creed.
Today the March on Washington is remembered as a milepost on a national journey leading steadily, inexorably toward a more perfect union. At the time, the outcome was far less sure.
On Sunday, a record number of pro-choice Americans will gather on the Mall for the March for Women’s Lives, facing a different kind of uncertainty. We march in the same spirit as our forbears did – to achieve freedom and equality for all – but now, instead of a hope of expanding freedom, we march with a fear of losing it.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade marked the apex of women’s struggle for equality, dignity and autonomy that had been waged for well over a century. But only a few decades later, the rights it recognizes have been systematically eroded – and we stand on the brink of losing them entirely.
State legislatures have enacted nearly 400 restrictions on a woman’s freedom to choose since 1995 alone. And for the first time, we have a federal government in which the White House and both houses of Congress are controlled by those who want to end legal abortion.
You wouldn’t know it from his public remarks, but President Bush has been the most actively anti-choice president ever. He has sent his Justice Department to seize the private medical records of thousands of women who had abortions. He has signed the first-ever federal criminal ban on abortion. And he has nominated a host of zealous anti-choice activists to some of the most powerful lifetime positions on the federal courts.
Now, Roe v. Wade itself is at the brink. Most recent Supreme Court cases on a woman’s right to choose have been decided by a 5-4 margin. Just one more anti-choice justice could be enough to demolish Roe beyond meaning; two more could overturn it outright.
And with the Supreme Court having gone longer with a vacancy than at any time since James Monroe was in the White House, the next president is highly likely to have the opportunity to make those appointments. Bush, who has said he will do everything in his power to restrict abortion, has promised to fill any openings with jurists in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the Court’s most virulently anti-choice members. With Roe out of the way, many states will ban abortion immediately, and the federal government could well follow suit.
If those trends sound ominous, it is because they are. If they sound difficult to believe, it is because—when it comes to our national journey toward a more perfect union—America does not typically shift into reverse.
But if these trends sound inevitable—if the entrenched power of an anti-choice White House and Congressional leadership, the steady erosion of support for Roe on the Court, the alignment of anti-choice statehouses across the country seems too much to possibly overcome—that pessimism would be just as demonstrably wrong.
As clear as the course may seem in history’s retrospective view, liberty and justice for all seemed just as far from our grasp 41 years ago. So they must have seemed to our forebears in the women’s movement. But they prevailed—one heart, one home, one neighborhood at a time – and women became more free. Across the arc of history, marches that established the moral authority and broad-based support behind the cause of equality were essential tools for achieving liberty. So was the assumption that liberty, even once achieved, is never secure. Rights are obtained and defended through action. That is why, on April 25, we follow in a long and hallowed American tradition: we march.
Kate Michelman is president of NARAL Pro-Choice America in Washington, D.C.