By Marie Haka

Tens of thousands of participants gathered in San Francisco last Saturday for the fourth annual West Coast Walk for Life, an event that protested abortion and advocated for ‘pro-life’ initiatives.

People came from across California and the United States; even a few Canadian flags could be spotted among the masses. Signs bore messages ranging from the standard issued ‘Women Deserve Better than Abortion’ to ‘Adoption not Abortion,’ and from ‘Jesus Loves the Unborn’ to enlarged pictures of aborted fetuses.

The rhetoric ranged from advocating adoption to a more conservative call for an end to all abortions.

Walk for Life volunteer Penelope Boldrick said that the group intended to reach out to the women and men whom abortion affects, and emphasize the ways in which abortion hurts them. “Every abortion is a failure on the part of society not being there for a woman in need, and we’re trying to reach out to those women,” she said. “The government should be set up to help women; right now it’s the contrary.”

When City on a Hill Press (CHP) asked Karen Hodel, one of the organizers and original founders of Walk for Life-West Coast, whether the group also advocated sex education and contraception to help prevent unwanted pregnancies, she said no.

“Our message is really reaching out to people who’ve been harmed by abortion, [so] we don’t get into preventative things,” she said. “It’s not about politics at all. It’s about offering people alternatives to abortion.”

Hodel said that the aims of the march were not political or about overturning Roe v. Wade, but were rather to advocate “Sarah’s Law,” a rephrased version of the California parental notification law for minors seeking an abortion, which was rejected in two previous elections and will reappear on the ballot in November.

Right beside the Walk for Life was a responding protest called Forward-Not Back! Reproductive Justice for All!. Although only a few hundred strong, these advocates for reproductive rights did not stand by in silence.

This counter-protest was staged by a handful of local groups and publicized via e-mail and word of mouth. In contrast to the mass-produced signs of their opposition, most of the signs in this group were handmade and advocated contraception, sex education and health care.

Their messages ranged from the importance of prevention to criticizing a society that condones many forms of violence and oppression, and more radical calls for social revolution and free abortion on demand.

Anita O’Shea, an organizer for Forward-Not Back and member of the Bay Area Coalition for Our Reproductive Rights, called the abortion issue a matter of control.

“Women should be able to control their own bodies,” she said. “We are calling for a better quality of life for all women, if and when they choose to have children. Let’s try to make conditions better for the generation that’s living right now.”

O’Shea also stressed that Forward-Not Back was about more than just protecting Roe v. Wade. She listed many causes the rally advocated for: free, accessible abortion on demand for women who seek it; universal healthcare; pre- and post-natal care; childcare for all; safe and accessible contraceptives; comprehensive sex education; an acceptance of human sexuality, rather than denial; and more.

Mia Thedford, a member of The World Can’t Wait-Drive Out the Bush Regime, spoke at the pre-march rally for Forward-Not Back.

She said that it was important for people to come out in support of reproductive rights because legality equates to safety.

“If legal abortion is taken away women will be sent back to back alley abortions and women will die,” Thedford said.

As the tens of thousands of Walk for Life participants marched down the San Francisco piers, embarking from Justin Herman Plaza, the Forward-Not Back protesters marched parallel to them down the sidewalk, waving their handmade signs and attempting to tout their messages as well.

Ann Murphy, a Forward-Not Back participant, expressed desire for a dialogue between the two groups on what could be done to prevent unintended pregnancies in the first place, such as contraception, sex education and especially an improvement in health care, which was the one issue that both groups overwhelmingly supported.

In addition to her thoughts on possible common ground between the sides, Murphy also argued against common generalizations about the groups. “I don’t believe that pro-life people all hate women and I don’t believe that pro-choice people are anti-life,” she said. “I think that’s ridiculous.”

Despite the proximity of their demonstrations, at no point did the two groups come together for a peaceful and rational dialogue.