Communication Currents

Choice and the 2004 March for Women's Lives

June 1, 2009
Political Communication

Abortion has been the focus of one of the most contentious and long-lasting battles of the contemporary U.S. culture wars. It is a battle that takes place largely through symbols as opponents of abortion insist that a fetus is a life whereas advocates for abortion rights demand that women have the right to choose. Sara Hayden, a communication researcher at the University of Montana, argues that the 2004 March for Women's Lives was a particularly productive event for abortion-rights advocates. Participants in this march offered a wide array of messages that brought new meaning to the demand for choice while also challenging key pro-life claims.

In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to terminate a pregnancy was protected under the U.S. Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment. Mainstream feminist organizations cheered, believing that women's right to choose was guaranteed. Since that ruling, however, both courts and legislatures have chipped away at abortion rights, limiting public funding and imposing barriers to services. Thus, choice has assumed a narrow meaning in U.S. culture and law. U.S. women may have the right to choose, but that does not mean that they have access to abortion services or abortion providers. Recognizing the slow but steady attrition of abortion rights, pro-choice advocates seek to revitalize the meaning of choice. The 2004 March for Women's Lives was an important event in that larger effort.

The 2004 March was the fourth reproductive rights demonstration to take place on the Washington Mall since 1986; however, it differed from previous marches in important ways. Earlier demonstrations were sponsored by a small number of mainstream pro-choice organizations whose leaders sought to keep tight control over the events' messages. In contrast, the 2004 March was sponsored by seven organizations: The Black Women's Health Imperative, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the American Civil Liberties Union. The inclusion of women of color groups had a profound effect on the march, leading to a broader, more complex, and more productive set of messages.

Originally billed as the March for Freedom of Choice, women of color persuaded their colleagues to change the name to the March for Women's Lives. However, March organizers did not abandon choice. Instead, they reframed it in terms of a broader set of demands. For example, the official March logo consisted of the words “March for Women's Lives” in large block print surrounded by the words “Choice,” “Justice,” “Access,” Health,” “Abortion,” “Global,” and “Family Planning” in smaller font. Through the logo, March organizers indicated their adherence to choice at the same time they implied that it was only one of several commitments for which the March stood. At the same time, March organizers and participants made it clear that choice means more than the right to legal abortion. As Caricia Catalani of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health put it “choice means more than legal freedom. It means access to doctors. It means access to education. It means access to care in your language. We will have a choice when our communities survive.”

In addition to articulating a broad meaning of choice, marchers also challenged key pro-life claims. Since the mid-1960s, pro-life advocates have used fetal imagery in support of their arguments. Tapping into the common-sense belief that photography reflects reality, pro-life advocates argue that if fetuses look like babies, they must be babies. Importantly, however, as used by the pro-life movement, fetal images are cropped, magnified, and profoundly out of context. Indeed, pro-life imagery does not even depict the women in whose bodies the fetuses reside.

Participants in the March challenged pro-life advocates' depiction of fetal life in several ways. Many people marched in family groupings, wearing signs indicating that they were mothers, fathers, daughters, and sisters for choice. By marching in family groupings, these participants called attention to the radical isolation of fetal imagery and highlighted the fact that reproductive decisions are always made in the context of relationships. Reinforcing this message, several speakers told the stories of women who died as a result of illegal abortion, reminding the crowd that when abortion rights are limited, family ties are broken.

In another challenge to pro-life fetal imagery, pregnant women in the crowd called attention to their bodies. Some wore tee shirts with slogans, others wrote directly on their bared stomachs, informing viewers that “this is my choice, not yours” and defining themselves as “Mothers by Choice.” In contrast to fetal imagery that erases the presence of women, these marchers brought women back into focus.

Finally, several marchers echoed the decontextualization of the fetus common in pro-life rhetoric through a similar decontextualization of women's body parts. For example, one set of marchers carried a giant three-dimensional paper mâché uterus on which was written “My Body My Choice” and to which was connected two fallopian tubes ending in pink ovaries in the shape of boxing gloves. Another woman carried a sign with an image of a uterus colored like an American flag underneath which was written “Proud to be an American--Proud to Own my Own Uterus.” Perhaps most striking was the person dressed in a costume representing a woman's genital area. Feminists have bemoaned the use of women's body parts in advertisements arguing that such usage dehumanizes women. Given these charges, the use of women's body parts in a march for reproductive rights is a risky strategy. However, it is possible that the images of women's body parts functioned to the advantage of the pro-choice cause.

Neither the sign, the giant uterus, nor the genital costume was presented so as to suggest that it reflected the reality of women's bodies. Rather, the images were brightly colored, exponentially enlarged, and unquestionably out of context. Pro-life counter-protestors stood at the sides of the March route displaying signs of fetal imagery. When these fetal images were seen in the context of the enlarged female body parts, viewers were led to see just how profoundly unnatural pro-life fetal images are, too. The costumes and signs used by participants in the March therefore challenged the common sense belief that photography reflects reality, raising questions about the status of the fetuses in pro-life rhetoric.

Following the lead of women of color, participants in the March for Women's Lives promoted the broad concept of reproductive justice, offering a wide array of arguments and images to illustrate their demands. Such arguments and images are not easy to condense; moreover, social movements take significant risks when they engage in this sort of image event. Hayden argues that it is precisely the kinetic quality of the March that enables organizers and marchers to bring new life and vitality to the demand for choice.

Since the 2004 March, women of color groups have continued to lead the fight for reproductive justice. For example, Sistersong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective regularly writes articles, lobbies legislatures, and organizes at the grass roots level. In all of their efforts, this group places reproductive rights in the contexts of race, class, environmental justice, and spirituality; the collective also addresses issues faced by various groups of women including those who are incarcerated, disabled, and immigrants. Some mainstream feminist organizations, such as the National Organization for Women, have followed suit, adopting the language of reproductive justice and broadening their agenda. As occurred during the 2004 March, through their efforts, these and other groups productively express the complex, varied, but always significant meanings of choice in the contexts of women's lives.

About the author (s)

Sara Hayden

University of Montana