A crowd of about 1,000 turned out Saturday afternoon on Benjamin Franklin Parkway for Philadelphia’s Bans Off Our Bodies March, joining a nationwide day of mobilization in support of women’s reproductive rights amid moves by states to limit abortion access.
The group Women’s March organized the national action — hundreds of events were scheduled Saturday — as a final push before the U.S. Supreme Court reconvenes on Monday. The local march and rally were planned by Kelly Kostelich, a therapist at Jefferson, and Benjamin Abella, a physician at Penn Medicine. Though the primary focus of the march was to highlight legal threats to Roe v. Wade, the pair also wanted a call to action on a related issue.
“Roe is important to keep abortion legal, but it really doesn’t help make it accessible or affordable, so there’s still a lot of barriers to health care. So we’re trying to bring awareness to that,” Kostelich said in an interview prior to Saturday’s event.
She hoped this day would lead to successful fundraising for partner organizations such as the Women’s Medical Fund because, Kostelich said, she doesn’t want the activism to be a fleeting affair.
“We’re marching, we’re rallying, and that’s great. And that’s amazing to draw attention. But we really want to talk about the next step, like what are we going to do when this is over? So we’re really focusing on donating or volunteering or educating or voting … all those things to keep it moving,” Kostelich said.
Demonstrators arrived at the Washington Monument across from the Philadelphia Museum of Art around noon to the sound of Batalá Philly, a samba reggae percussion band. The crowd quickly marched to City Hall’s north side for a 1 p.m. rally for reproductive justice, opened by local high school students/rally organizers Lexi Valez and Lillie Abella with a brief introduction that outlined the importance of the moment.
Eleanor Levie, 70, of Philadelphia, representing the National Council of Jewish Women, said it has been decades since she was in the fight for abortion rights. But she was back, she said, because she wants to emphasize the ties between reproductive justice and religious freedom.
“It should not be up to any one religion to impose their views on another or any other people. So it’s really important for us to stand firm,” Levie said. Though she believes Roe v. Wade should be saved, she is also asking federal lawmakers to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would protect a person’s ability to determine whether to continue or end a pregnancy, and protect a health care provider’s ability to provide abortion services.
The crowd’s chants were loud, but Sam Goldman, 34, of Philadelphia, managed to stand out. She came with a microphone and loudspeaker of her own to call attention to what she said was a “fascist assault on abortion rights” all across the country, especially Texas and Mississippi.
“We need to fight for this. We need to struggle with people to think about what it means when people cannot control their own bodies and their own destinies — that they are reduced to incubators,” Goldman said, adding that she hoped the rally can be a turning point.
Karron Ross, 54, who lives in Delaware, said this march was her first time protesting anything.
“So I had fear and overcame my fear. I have a 25-year-old daughter, who is the reason why I’m here. She has a right to choose, and so does everyone else,” Ross said.
But Ross said she had another newfound fear: that Saturday’s march would mean nothing if Roe v. Wade is struck down. She added that she believes the Supreme Court will ultimately uphold abortion rights.
Halle Levinson, 15, of Philadelphia, among one of the younger participants in the march, said it was important for her to be out there because it is one of the few avenues that she has to have her voice heard.
“A lot of the younger people can’t vote to make change. So this is, like, the only way they really can make change,” Levinson said.
Kate Koob, 18, of Philadelphia, called into question the framing of some anti-abortion rhetoric during a global pandemic.
“They’re the ones who also don’t wear a mask. So like, if you’re pro-life, then how the hell are you like not gonna wear masks and then cause like the deaths of other people from COVID. It just makes me mad,” Koob said.
Actions like Saturday’s march are important, said Yasmin Wassmer, 18, of Philadelphia, because if people don’t show up in large enough numbers, abortion rights could continue to be in jeopardy.
“Rallying together is what’s gonna make things change,” Wassmer said.
A number of medical professionals from health care networks in the region were among those who gathered for the march. Some said they were calling attention to abortion rights issues decades ago.
Registered nurse Patricia Khan said times in the late 1960s were etched in her brain — and that they were her motivation for coming out.
“I worked in the emergency room of a hospital. I had two women, they were both married women. They had children at home. One woman had three children, and the other woman had five. Both women died from a botched abortion, because abortion was not legal and safe in 1968 and 1969. I’m here today because this should never ever, ever happen again,” Khan said.
She stood in a group that included her son, nurse Tarik Khan, as well as a former OB-GYN, Dr. Judith Funches.
Funches said that her patients were never happy during abortions — they were hurting, so she believes women need to be supported in their choices.
“I don’t want to go back to the time where women were forced to put their health at risk and sometimes their life at risk, because they, unfortunately, were in a situation that they had an unwanted pregnancy,” Funches said.
Dr. Jessica Chen, a resident physician in obstetrics and gynecology at Penn Medicine, delivered remarks to the crowd. She said she was born and raised in Texas.
“I’m fortunate to do this work here, but my colleagues in Texas are fighting to regain the same opportunity with the passage of S.B. 8, which as many of you may have heard has banned abortion after six weeks, before most even know they’re pregnant. This is essentially a ban on all abortion in Texas. I want to point out an important reality: It is a very real possibility that the same could happen here,” Chen said.
Before a brief musical intermission by Temple University’s student a capella group, Signe Espinoza, the interim executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, said that Pennsylvania’s abortion access is already slipping backward.
“There were over 100 abortion clinics in Pennsylvania when Roe became the law. We have less than 20 now — less than 20 across our entire state. Think about that. And while abortion is nearly banned in Texas, we know that many rich, white, cis-identifying women will be able to access care today and tomorrow and the next day after that. Because that is how it has always been,” Espinoza said.
With the judicial system the focus of the day, lawyer Kathryn Kolbert, who argued the landmark 1990s abortion-rights case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey before the Supreme Court, told the crowd that the strategy has changed.
“I spent nearly 30 years in this fight, and throughout all of that time our mantra has been, ‘Save Roe. Save Roe. Save Roe.’ Well, I’m here to tell you today to quit banging your heads against those marble walls because Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey are dead. This Supreme Court will not save us,” Kolbert said.
The new approach, she said, is to take back political power in conservative states, particularly in the legislatures. For those in Pennsylvania, Kolbert urged starting at home and voting.
“Political power requires hard work,” Kolbert said. “Those who oppose us have been at this for 40 years or more. They had a long-term plan. They implemented it in every branch of government. And we also must do the same.”
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