I arrive at Pioneer Square with a big bag of signs for this year’s Rally for Life. Umbrellas and yellow helium balloons with “Life” printed on them hover over the crowd facing the giant covered stage. There’s still plenty of room to move about, though the crowd is spread throughout the upper and lower areas. About 30 young people standing in a rectangular formation have red tape over their mouths with “Life” written on it. Many supporters are holding placards reading “Defend Life”. I think I see a theme here: life vs death.
There’s no anti-rally rally this year, so it’s quieter. No giant photos of bloody fetuses, so it’s visually quieter too. Low metal barricades surround the square and line the streets so crowds won’t spill onto the light rail tracks or into traffic on Broadway. Security is well supplied, with transit police, private security guards, bicycle and motorcycle police dispersed and alert. A row of covered booths sits on the upper level, with tables of information.
Lena meets me at the designated corner, and chooses the “Contraception prevents abortion” sign. I have two taped together for front and back signs: “Unite to prevent abortions” and “Condoms prevent abortions.” We wander around the edge of the crowd and a woman offers Lena a flier. Lena offers her a “Vasectomy prevents abortion” sticker.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she hesitates as she reads it. “That still wouldn’t stop immoral behavior.”
“No,” I allow, “we still have to work on that, but at least no one would get pregnant.” We exchange flier for sticker.
Young people in pairs pass out plastic baggies of information and Lena accepts one. “I’ll read hers.” It contains small fliers telling of events like the 40 Days for Life vigil at Planned Parenthood’s “abortion facility,” and Camp Joshua, where “tomorrow’s pro-life leaders” aged 16-21 receive “intense leadership training.”
A man reads Lena’s sign and tells us that contraception is demeaning to women because it makes them nothing but sex objects for man’s pleasure.
“Don’t you think women get pleasure from sex too?“ Lena asks. While he ponders this concept, she politely adds, “I use contraception and I don’t feel demeaned.” He seems surprised by her frankness, and rewords his line about men treating women as objects for pleasure.
“Better than treating them as breed sows,” I joke. He doesn’t appreciate my attempted humor and our conversation ends.
Olivia joins us, choosing “Sex Ed prevents abortion.” We stand near one of the openings in the barricades where our signs evoke puzzled expressions. A couple of counter-ralliers come over to talk, glad to see they’re not alone. I offer a sign, reading through the options. “Abstinence prevents abortion”?
“Not real big on that,” he says, and chooses “Gay sex prevents abortion.”
“I’d totally carry that one.”
“You’re brave,” I tell him.
“I like to think so,” he says as he wanders off through the crowd by himself. His friend sticks with her own handmade sign. Around 8 to 10 people are countering the dominant perspective, but we’re not sticking together. A few people stand blocking our way in, perhaps intentionally. Olivia and Lena maneuver around them and go to the upper level. The guy with the gay sex sign returns with reports of shocked expressions.
Another woman arrives at the rally intending to oppose it. “I wish I’d brought a bullhorn to get the message out there.”
“Oh, it’s just as well you didn’t—interrupting this wouldn’t be good.”
It’s hard to tell, but I think the speaker is praying through the PA system. Yes, he ends with “Amen” so he must have been.
A young woman holding a large hand-lettered, poster board sign, and waving a wire coat hanger, moves about the crowd, engaging anyone who’s willing. Her sign reads something like, “Roe wasn’t the start of abortions, it was the end of unsafe abortions.” We meander over and listen in while two men explain that “one of the early proponents of abortion has admitted that he made up all his statistics.”
“They were all lies,” affirms the other.
That eliminates all statistics from the discussion. Coat hanger woman listens attentively, rapidly chewing her gum. She moves on and I ask what he thinks about preventing abortions with contraception. He’s opposed to anything besides Natural Family Planning, which he assures us has come a long way and is very effective. I ask if he knows what they call couples who use NFP and it’s apparent he’s heard it too many times.
“Parents,” we both say.
“Oh, you know that one,” I joke. “Seems like a simple snip snip would take care of it.” I say. “Isn’t vasectomy better than abortion?”
“Sure, one takes a life, but it’s still wrong.” He explains it’s not right to alter our bodies from God’s intended design, though clearly that doesn’t include wearing glasses and shaving. He recites the “birth control disrespects women” line and Olivia tells him, “I’m a woman and I don’t think it’s disrespectful.”
I ask if he thinks abortion should be outlawed and he does. “The law is a great teacher,” he intones.
I see Bill Diss, who hosts the website “Precious Children of Portland” and organizes protests at Planned Parenthood. I know him as a teacher at Benson High. He moves on before I can break away and engage him in conversation.
On stage, a speaker with a feminist perspective tells how abortion is anti-woman because in India and China they abort girls. In one area of India, “out of a thousand babies only 50 were girls.” Imagine that. Lena observes that “Roe v Wade doesn’t extend to India.” I note that the speaker presents another potential slogan for uniting to prevent abortions: gender equality.
Everyone is encouraged to sing along as the band plays “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.”
Occasionally, a yellow balloon wafts away toward the river. I think about wildlife choking to death on a piece of plastic labeled “Life”.
A news videographer climbs to a high spot and begins to pan the crowd. Lena and Olivia subtly move to where their signs will show, and the lens pauses in their direction.
I notice a woman holding a Knights of Columbus “Defend life” sign in front of her, staring at Lena and her sign, She looks as if she’s thinking, “Tisk, tisk, poor deluded child.” In a few minutes she passes by us and says to Lena, “I’ll pray for you.” Maybe Olivia and I look too far gone to be prayed for.
A street is blocked off for the Walk for Life, and we mix into the crowd as the walk begins in a sudden, cold downpour. Olivia wraps her camera in a neck scarf. As I walk along, a woman comments matter-of-factly from under her umbrella, “You’re an infiltrator.”
“No, we’re on the same side.” I turn my sign to Unite to prevent abortion. “We all respect life and want to prevent abortions.”
“People need to save themselves for marriage.”
“Married people get pregnant too.” She isn’t interested in more dialog.
I engage a man with questions and try to find something we can agree on as we walk. He sees Bill Diss standing in the middle of the road facing the marchers, greeting them like a politician and reveling in the recognition. I shake his hand too, calling him Mister Diss, as I know her prefers. He doesn’t seem to recognize me.
A man sees my “Condoms prevent abortion” sign and says, “If your parents used condoms you wouldn’t be here, Dude.”
“No, I’d still be here. I don’t have 15 siblings because they used them.”
“But you wouldn’t be here, Dude.” We may have exhausted his talking points.
As the walk ends, we’re all soaked and cold—Lena is shivering. We turn around to head back, and a woman engages Lena in a very friendly manner, asking her name and offering hers. “You’re half way there, Lena.” She’s halfway to hypothermia and now we’ve missed the walk light. She wants to give Lena a flier promoting NFP and warning of the risks of contraceptives. Apparently halfway there is using contraceptives and all the way there means not using them.
The rain finally lets up as we slog our way to the car. I’m thinking about 2013, the 40th anniversary of Roe vs Wade, which should generate a big rally: fertile ground for Respect for Life’s middle ground.
The next day: The Oregonian publishes an editorial advocating basically the same philosophy as Respect for Life. Remaining divided into two opposing sides leads to attitudes which allow potentially fatal restrictions on reproductive freedom.