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In Converging Marches On Washington, Deep Divides Remain

Abortion rights supporters stand in front of opponents during the Women's March on Saturday, Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C.. The march was held one day after the 45th annual March for Life.
Abortion rights supporters stand in front of opponents during the Women's March on Saturday, Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C.. The march was held one day after the 45th annual March for Life.

Last Friday, advocates who oppose abortion rights flooded Washington, D.C., for the 45th annual March for Life. The next day, thousands gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, while other groups gathered across the world, for the first anniversary of the Women's March that followed the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

But while they marched on the same grass, and advocates on each side say their issue could transcend politics, participants were deeply divided. Many who attended the March for Life didn't participate in, and some even protested, the Women's March that took place the next day. Some who oppose abortion rights say they didn't feel welcome at the Women's March.

Last year, a rift emerged between abortion rights opponents and organizers of the Women's March. March organizers revoked partnership status from New Wave Feminists, a group that opposes abortion rights. Organizers say the march is open to women of all political affiliations, but also affirmed that the march supports "open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people, regardless of income, location or education." That division continued this year, opponents of abortion rights said.

This year, Mary Brigante, who drove with fellow students from the University of Nebraska at Omaha for over 24 hours to make the pilgrimage to join the March for Life, didn't attend the Women's March the following day. And Natalie Valentine, who lives near Washington, attended the March for Life with her 6-year-old but didn't come back for the Women's March.

"I think one thing that we saw last year with the Women's March that certainly was not rectified this year is that the Women's March organizers have specific ideas about what it means pro-woman and what it means to be feminist," said Mallory Quigley, communications director for the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion-rights group. "And that does not include supporting the right to life of the unborn and supporting women in choosing life."

Quigley, who protested the Women's March in D.C. last year, blames sponsorship of the Women's March from abortion-rights groups as one of the biggest reasons for the divide.

Planned Parenthood, which supports abortion rights, is one of the march's main partners.

"So long as the abortion lobby continues to be corporate sponsors of the Women's March, I don't see how we will, in any way, find common ground, at least with the organizers," Quigley said.

But Erica Sackin, political communications director for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said that fighting for the right for women to choose what happens with their own bodies is one of the biggest motivations behind the march.

"What they're fighting for is full equality, what they're fighting for is the ability to make their own health care decisions and to control their bodies, and you can't do that halfway," Sackin said. "These attacks on women's health and rights are what you see motivating people to march by the millions in the streets."

Sackin said the marchers are fighting against "a number of different attacks from the Trump-Pence administration taking away women's rights, taking away their own health care and to control their own bodies."

Quigley also noted that opinions about the Trump administration contributes to the conflict between the marches.

Trump made history by addressing the crowd via video feed from the White House. It was the first time a sitting president has done so. Last year, Vice President Mike Pence attended the March for Life in person.

"That the president of the United States would understand the political and cultural importance of taking a pro-life stand and take time out of his day to address the hundreds of thousands of marchers," Quigley, who has attended the March for Life since she was in middle school, said. "It's very exciting."

Quigley didn't protest the Women's March this year, but said she caught fringes of the march while she was visiting New York City. She contrasted the anti-Trump signs she saw with the fact that he spoke to the March for Life crowd.

Referencing the clashing feelings about the president, she said, "I definitely don't think that there's much, from my perspective, there's not much in common."

While Trump made history by speaking to the March for Life crowds in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Jan. 19, via video stream, anti-Trump signs were popular at the Women's March in D.C. and across the country the next day.
Adrienne St. Clair / NPR
While Trump made history by speaking to the March for Life crowds in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Jan. 19, via video stream, anti-Trump signs were popular at the Women's March in D.C. and across the country the next day.

Some marchers managed to find overlap, though — like Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, president and founder of New Wave Feminists, the group that lost partnership status last year. She attended both marches despite disagreeing with the Women's March organizers on abortion rights.

"As far as feeling not welcome, in my opinion, that's all the more reason to be there," Herndon-De La Rosa said.

She calls herself a "pro-life feminist." She is fervently against abortion rights, but also does not support Trump. She hosted a separate rally during Trump's speech to the March for Life crowd and said her group is made up of people from all different backgrounds, what she called "non-traditional pro-lifers."

She said some people tell her that she's not a feminist, but she's not waiting for permission to call herself one.

"I think that's kind of the inherent beauty of feminism," she said. "By definition, this is a movement rooted in rebellion, and so, I think that there needs to be a lot of challenges made from within the feminist movement right now because it's become very status quo in a lot of ways."

She said the important thing for her is to "literally just show up." While the women's movement may be divided by multiple voices, she says she wants to make sure her "voice is heard in spaces where it is normally not heard."

But Sackin said the Women's March movement is largely about fighting for abortion and other reproductive rights.

"It is very difficult to say that you are fighting for women's full autonomy, for women to be able to control their own bodies, and yet, at the same time argue that women should be able to control their bodies, except when it comes to this fundamental decision about if and when and whether you want to become a parent," Sackin said.

But Herndon-De La Rosa said there shouldn't be exceptions to what women can say.

"It almost becomes anti-feminist by silencing us and saying, 'women can be anything, except for one of these things.'" she said. "Anytime we start censoring or silencing women, that is not feminism."

Adrienne St. Clair is an intern on NPR's National Desk.

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