Protest: The Illinois March for Life at Federal Plaza Saturday. Credit: Aimee Levitt

On Sunday afternoon, in single-digit temperatures, two groups of protestors faced off across Dearborn Street over abortion rights. On the south side of the street, in Federal Plaza, behind a banner that read “Human Life Has Value,” was the March for Life. On the north side, on the sidewalk beside the Dirksen Federal Building, behind a banner that read “Abortion is Healthcare” was a pro-choice counterprotest. Both groups planned to march the same route through the Loop, up Dearborn to Lake and then back down State Street, past several state and federal buildings and City Hall. Not that any sane person would have stood around outside in the frigid cold to watch, though drivers along Dearborn honked and rolled down their windows to shout words of encouragement. 

Counter protest: Pro-choice groups rallied across the street.Credit: Aimee Levitt

The pro-choice contingent was scheduled to march first, and started rallying before the March for Life was fully assembled—which made the crowd of 100 (mostly young, white women) appear to have outnumbered the opposition, at least briefly. Speakers included members of FURIE, a feminist group that had organized the protest; Benita Ulisano, chair clinic escort organizer at the Illinois Choice Action Team, a group that organizes clinic escorts; Andy Thayer, cofounder of the Gay Liberation Network; and a longtime activist from the Roe vs. Wade days who identified herself only as Nancy.

Each of the speakers emphasized that the fight for reproductive rights was not about “killing babies,” as the March for Life contingent puts it, but rather about giving women autonomy over their health and bodies.

“If you really care so much about life,” said FURIE’s Georgette Kirkendall, “why not come up here to Chicago to protest police brutality? Why aren’t you in Michigan protesting the drinking water?”

All the speakers emphasized the need for greater activism around the issue, especially with the Supreme Court preparing to decide Whole Woman’s Health vs. Cole on March 2, and warned the crowd not to believe politicians and their promises, especially in an election year. Thayer listed the many campaign promises President Obama has broken since he was elected.

“If a candidate tells you they’re going to defend abortion rights,” he said, “remember that over the last five Democratic administrations—two Obama, two Clinton, and one Carter—there has been a steady erosion of abortion rights.”

He and Nancy reminded the crowd that the Roe vs. Wade decision had been made during the Nixon administration, by a Supreme Court largely packed with Nixon appointees.

“The Supreme Court is not immune to social pressures,” said Nancy.

During a speakout that was kept short due to the cold, an older woman recalled how she had marched in support of Roe vs. Wade more than 40 years ago. “Why am I still fighting this battle?” she wondered aloud.
She said that she had an abortion after she’d become pregnant despite using an IUD and a diaphragm simultaneously.

“All kinds of people have abortions for all kinds of reasons,” she said. Added Rachel, a FURIE leader: “Three-quarters of women who have abortions say it’s because they don’t have enough income to support a child.”

Among the chants by the pro-choice protesters: “Pro life? You’re a killer! Just remember Dr. Tiller!”Credit: Aimee Levitt

As the counterprotesters spoke and began chanting “Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide”, Federal Plaza began to fill up with Marchers for Life, arriving via CTA and on buses from the suburbs and elsewhere across Illinois and the midwest. In addition to signs, many of them carried yellow umbrellas and balloons that symbolized their joy and love of life. A row of news crews and shivering police officers on bicycles lined both sides of Dearborn, but the two groups of protesters had very little to say to each other.

Federal Plaza was nearly full by the time the counterprotesters stepped off on their march. Last year’s March for Life brought a record-breaking 4,000 protesters to Chicago, and organizers anticipated even more this year. But that was before they saw the weather report. Still, the antiabortion crowd far outnumbered the pro-choice contingent.

The streets were nearly empty as the counterprotesters marched, except for a thin stream of shoppers outside of Macy’s, some of whom shouted encouragement. A woman who stood in the doorway of a chiropractic clinic on State pumped her fist in solidarity.

A pair of latecomers on their way to Federal Plaza stood on the curb as the marchers passed by, chanting “Abortion is health care! Health care is a right!”

“Oh, no it’s not,” said one of the latecomers. She was holding a sign that read, “Abortion hurts women.” She smiled pityingly at the pro-choice marchers. “We love you guys,” she said.

Meanwhile, back at Federal Plaza, the March for Life rally was in full swing. “The womb should not be their tomb,” Chicago archbishop Blase Cupich told the crowd in his keynote adress. “Their lives matter. We should make room at the table for them, each and every child. . . We can’t sit still and let another day go by without bringing to the attention of everyone that there are those who are struggling—literally struggling—to come into the world.”

Reverend Corey Brooks of New Beginnings Church of Chicago linked the pro-life movement to #BlackLivesMatter. “I have heard it said many times over and over,” Brooks said. ” ‘Black lives matter.’ And they do. I’ve heard it said many times from many people, ‘All lives matter.’ And they do. I’m here to say, ‘Babies’ lives matter!’ ” 

Activist Melissa Ohden described how her mother had tried and failed to abort her in 1977, and how she was “grateful to be alive.” This failed abortion, she said, had given her a mission in life. (It was a mirror of a speech during the pro-choice speakout, when a young woman told the story of how her mother’s inability to get an abortion meant that she’d had to spend her life with an abusive husband. “I wish she’d had the abortion,” she said.)

Two congressmen, Randy Hultgren, a Republican, and Dan Lipinski, a Democrat, both pledged their support to advancing pro-life legislation. Although Illinois has the least restrictive abortion laws in the midwest, over the past six years abortion rates have been falling, march organizer Emily Zender told the Christian Post. She attributed this to new parental notification laws and the replacing of abortion clinics with crisis pregnancy centers.

The March for Life had left Federal Plaza by the time the counterprotesters made their circuit and gathered again in front of the Barnes & Noble at DePaul Center. A few more marchers got up to speak.

“I’ve been in those [antiabortion] meetings,” one woman told the group. “I heard a man say, ‘I pray to God to lift the curse of independent women.’ ” A young man told the group that he had read in the book Freakonomics that an anticipated crimewave in the 1990s never materialized because there were fewer unwanted children, thanks to abortion rights.

Another speaker, observing the whiteness of the crowd, reminded the marchers to show up for other social justice protests in order to build solidarity with groups across race and gender lines. Mary Bowman, a nurse practitioner who works in an abortion clinic, reminded the group that reproductive justice doesn’t just affect women who are seeking abortions. 

“Reproductive justice is safety from police violence,” she said. “It’s economic justice, environmental justice. Intersectionality is solidarity.”

This post has been updated to reflect Benita Ulisano’s correct title.