NOW Sponsors a March for Abortion Rights Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Washington, D.C., at an event sponsored by the National Organization for Women to express support for women’s freedom to control their own fertility.

Summary of Event

In the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right to privacy included the choice of abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. After the first trimester, increasing restrictions were permissible, so that by the final trimester, abortion could be blocked unless the pregnancy clearly could be shown to be a significant threat to the physical or psychological health of the mother. This compromise decision, which the Court apparently expected to settle the issue, resulted in a firestorm of protest. National Organization for Women Abortion;activism Reproductive rights [kw]NOW Sponsors a March for Abortion Rights (Apr. 9, 1989) [kw]March for Abortion Rights, NOW Sponsors a (Apr. 9, 1989) [kw]Abortion Rights, NOW Sponsors a March for (Apr. 9, 1989) [kw]Rights, NOW Sponsors a March for Abortion (Apr. 9, 1989) March for Women’s Equality and Women’s Lives National Organization for Women Abortion;activism Reproductive rights [g]North America;Apr. 9, 1989: NOW Sponsors a March for Abortion Rights[07220] [g]United States;Apr. 9, 1989: NOW Sponsors a March for Abortion Rights[07220] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 9, 1989: NOW Sponsors a March for Abortion Rights[07220] [c]Women’s issues;Apr. 9, 1989: NOW Sponsors a March for Abortion Rights[07220] Yard, Molly Michelman, Kate Wattleton, Faye

The Bible contains no explicit statement about abortion, but early Christian documents, such as the Didache from the first century c.e., explicitly condemned the practice. It was not surprising, therefore, that conservative Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church undertook a campaign to reestablish the illegality of abortion in the United States. As emotions grew hotter, militant, sometimes violent, groups such as Operation Rescue Operation Rescue and the Pro-Life Action League Pro-Life Action League[Prolife Action League] formed.

Public opinion polls in the 1970’s and 1980’s consistently showed that a majority of Americans favored legal abortion in at least some circumstances. In 1989, for example, a poll done by the Gallup Organization for Newsweek indicated that 89 percent of Americans approved of abortion to save a mother’s life, 81 percent approved in cases of rape or incest, and 75 percent approved if carrying the pregnancy to term would damage the mother’s health. Majorities also opposed the idea of abortion on demand or for purposes of convenience, however. Despite the widespread support that existed for abortion rights in at least some circumstances, those opposed to abortion were able to chip away at the availability of the procedure. The Hyde Amendment of 1977, which limited the use of public funds for abortions, is one example.

Antiabortionists were also encouraged by the shifting membership of the Supreme Court. Supreme Court, U.S.;reproductive rights. The vote on the Roe decision had been seven to two, but by 1989 three of the Court’s majority in the decision had retired. Two of the replacements, Antonin Scalia Scalia, Antonin and Anthony Kennedy, Kennedy, Anthony had no judicial records regarding abortion, but both were Catholic and conservative and were expected to oppose abortion. The third new member, Sandra Day O’Connor, O’Connor, Sandra Day appeared to be a moderate. She was on record as saying that curbs on abortion would be acceptable only if they were not “an undue burden” on women. On the other side, she had also expressed the mistaken belief that medical technology was pushing the point of fetal viability below the approximately twenty-four weeks that had underlaid the Roe decision. As a five-to-four decision in 1986, before Kennedy joined the Court, indicated, the pro-choice majority on the Supreme Court was no longer dependable.

The stage was set for a showdown by the 1986 passage of a Missouri law, written in conjunction with antiabortion activists, that asserted that life begins at conception and restricted the use of public money and buildings not only for actual abortions but also for counseling concerning abortion. Quickly challenged, this law worked its way through the federal courts until it reached the Supreme Court docket in 1989. Although legal scholars generally predicted that the case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989) was unlikely to result in a decision either clearly affirming or overturning Roe, the Court was expected to accept increased restrictions on abortion. Jubilant antiabortion forces worried mostly about how complete their victory would be, and those favoring choice began to realize that they could lose the right to abortion.

Feminists and others who favored choice had been quiescent since Roe. Perhaps a bit intimidated by the virulence of their opponents, they seem to have assumed that, having been recognized by the Supreme Court, the right to abortion was secure. Faced by the changed Court about to rule in the Webster case, they realized that, unless they could convince the justices and politicians that the public actually favored choice (at least in some circumstances), that right was actually in jeopardy. The result was the March for Women’s Equality and Women’s Lives, sponsored by the National Organization for Women. The march was held on April 9, just seventeen days before the Court heard the Webster case; the goal of the event was to make clear to legislators and to the justices that the loudly expressed opposition to abortion was not representative of the American public generally.

Supporters of abortion rights came from all over the United States and from several foreign countries to take part in the march, and an enormous crowd—estimated at 300,000 by the U.S. Park Service and twice that by the march organizers—gathered in Washington, D.C. The march proceeded from the Washington Monument to the Capitol and, despite the presence of a few hundred counterdemonstrators, was conducted without serious incident. In comparison, an antiabortion gathering held earlier in 1989 drew an estimated 67,000 people. The turnout on April 9, 1989, made the march the largest pro-choice demonstration in U.S. history up to that time.

One impressive aspect of the march was the variety of people involved. Student groups from five hundred American colleges and universities marched. The delegation from Georgia numbered three thousand, and New York City sent 150 busloads of marchers. Other countries represented included the United Kingdom, France, Brazil, Peru, Norway, Japan, Ethiopia, and Australia. Also impressive was the number of celebrities in attendance. These included entertainers such as Whoopi Goldberg, Glenn Close, Leonard Nimoy, and Judy Collins. Eighteen members of Congress addressed the gathering, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jackson, Jesse accompanied by his son and daughter, spoke of his conversion to the pro-choice side as a result of his examination of economic discrimination against women. Jackson noted that poor women had already lost access to abortion because of restrictions on public funding. It was, he said, another example of unfair social policy that gave those with wealth a freedom denied to the less fortunate.

More direct political action was also a part of pro-choice plans. The Hollywood Women’s Political Committee, Hollywood Women’s Political Committee which had raised some two million dollars for the 1986 Senate elections, pressured members of Congress who were reluctant to participate in a breakfast meeting. Five thousand marchers representing all fifty states made the rounds of representatives’ offices to lobby for a variety of women’s issues. In addition to abortion rights, these included the Equal Rights Amendment and the Family and Medical Leave Act. Those involved in the march were determined to make it clear that, however quiescent the pro-choice side had been in the past, it was going to be a major political force in the future.

One of the few disappointments for the organizers of the march was that few African Americans participated. Given that minority and poor women are usually the most burdened when abortion rights are restricted—it has been estimated that 75 percent of the deaths from illegal abortions before the Roe decision occurred among women of color—organizers hoped that blacks would be prominent among the demonstrators. It is likely that a number of factors were responsible for the low turnout: African Americans were generally less able to afford the expense of going to Washington, blacks were divided on the question of abortion, black churches were influential and in many cases were opposed to abortion, and civil rights groups feared that involvement in the abortion debate would cost them support on other issues.


The march seemed to achieve the goals of the pro-choice forces. The large number of demonstrators showed the political potential of a pro-choice stand. After an initial refusal to comment, a White House spokesperson acknowledged that the march was “very successful.” Because President George H. W. Bush Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;abortion had courted the religious and political Right with adamant opposition to abortion, his representatives were not likely to give any more credit to the march than they absolutely had to. It was left to Vice President Dan Quayle Quayle, Dan to sneer that the demonstration was “nothing unusual.” Roe v. Wade (1973) March for Women’s Equality and Women’s Lives

Although the Supreme Court tended to follow the dictates of public opinion, the Webster decision, which came in mid-July, was of little comfort to the pro-choice forces. Although Roe was not overturned, significant new restrictions on abortion were allowed. These included viability testing after the twentieth week (very few abortions were done past that point in a pregnancy anyway), limits on public funding, mandates that parents be notified when teenagers seek abortion, standards for clinics that would make them too expensive to operate, and requirements of informed consent that included exposure to graphic literature designed to cause women to change their minds. Ultimately, the marchers could claim only partial success.

The question of a woman’s right to an abortion became one of the most divisive issues in American society in the late twentieth century. Abortion had, however, been a fact of life for all of recorded history. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, physicians denounced the practice as the combination of medical technology and professionalization led them to take control of gynecology. Prior to that time, the act of abortion had been mostly a woman-to-woman matter. Midwives, relatives, and friends created networks of information and aid. In a real sense, the practice of infanticide was an extension of abortion.

During the twentieth century, the demand for safe abortion grew with the availability of the technology to perform such procedures. Liberalization of the laws in New York in the early 1970’s resulted in thousands of women traveling there to seek abortions. Doctors, happy to be freed of the legal ambiguities of the common practice of getting a pro forma declaration that the pregnancy was causing serious psychological problems, created very profitable and successful clinics that did nothing but abortions. Such practices declined in size when the Roe decision of 1973 made abortion legal all over the country.

The opposition to abortion that hinged on the necessarily arbitrary decision of when life begins grew increasingly strident over the sixteen years between Roe and the 1989 march and rally. Norma McCorvey, McCorvey, Norma the woman identified as “Jane Roe” in the 1973 case, was in seclusion before the 1989 march because someone had fired on her Texas home with a shotgun the week before (McCorvey later converted to the pro-life cause). At the time of the march, two clinics in Florida were firebombed, although word of these events did not reach Washington in time to put a damper on the excitement caused by the tremendous success of the demonstration.

Many women and their male supporters wanted the march to sway Congress and the Supreme Court to the side of the right to choose. They hoped to force the decision makers to acknowledge that decisions about procreation are made in the midst of a variety of personal and social pressures over many of which women have little control. Whatever the factors behind a pregnancy, being forced to carry it to term means that the quality of a woman’s life is very directly influenced.

The march in April, 1989, did several things. It provided a rallying point for those favoring choice to begin to make a more active defense of abortion rights. It put elected officials on notice that there was a pro-choice vote that they could ignore only at risk of losing office. It helped to redefine the choice position away from the question of population issues and toward the question of reproductive rights. The march marked a new determination on the part of pro-choice Americans to defend the right of abortion. March for Women’s Equality and Women’s Lives National Organization for Women Abortion;activism Reproductive rights

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bader, Eleanor J. “March on Washington.” The Humanist 49 (July/August, 1989): 26-28. A participant in the April 9 march provides a clear, brief account that includes interesting details about other participants and the day’s activities. One of the best accounts of the march available.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardin, Garrett J. Mandatory Motherhood: The True Meaning of “Right to Life.” Boston: Beacon Press, 1974. Presents the definitive statement of the hard-line position concerning the importance of abortion as a response to the danger of population pressure. Recommended for readers seeking a full understanding of the spectrum of pro-choice views.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrison, Beverly Wildung. Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion. 2d ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. Provides an excellent survey of attitudes concerning abortion among various religious groups. Written from a Christian perspective, but remains critical and open-minded. Argues that a pro-choice position is not incompatible with Christian views.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McFarlane, Deborah R., and Kenneth J. Meier. The Politics of Fertility Control: Family Planning and Abortion Policies in the American States. New York: Chatham House, 2001. Scholarly work reviews and analyzes American public policy concerning contraception and abortion in the last decades of the twentieth century, with a focus on the influence of morality politics. Includes tables, figures, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mohr, James C. Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. One of the best studies available concerning abortion policy in the United States. Provides background essential to an understanding of the issues involved in the abortion debate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, Karen. No Neutral Ground? Abortion Politics in an Age of Absolutes. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. Focuses on the dilemma of abortion as a political issue. Examines key court cases and events in the history of the abortion debate in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reagan, Leslie J. When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Examines the history of abortion during the period when it was illegal in the United States and portrays the experiences of women who sought illegal abortions. Draws on court records, police reports, and coroners’ reports, among other sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tax, Meredith. “March to a Crossroads.” The Nation, May 8, 1989, 613, 631-633. Participant in the April 9 march makes a clear statement of the growing unity in the pro-choice ranks and identifies the new emphasis on reproductive rights.

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Categories: History