April 24, 1989 12:00 PM

The small woman in the blue sweatshirt sat quietly near the steps of the Capitol, trembling slightly each time a microphone was thrust in her face. Yet when a reporter asked how she felt about the possibility that the Supreme Court’s historic Roe v. Wade decision might be overturned, Norma McCorvey, 41, steadied herself and spoke clearly, even angrily. “Mad,” she said. “Just damn mad.”

McCorvey’s reaction isn’t unusual; the very personal nature of her anger is. Now a cleaning woman in Texas, McCorvey was the real-life “Jane Roe” whose case reached the Supreme Court and resulted in the 1973 landmark declaration establishing a woman’s right to abortion. For the past 16 years, McCorvey, like millions of other women, believed that right to be virtually inalienable. But as a new, more conservative Court prepared to hear arguments next week on the constitutionality of a Missouri law restricting abortions, proponents of legal abortion feared that this time the Court might reverse itself.

“People all across the country are waking up to the knowledge that their right to make this decision could be gone overnight,” said Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League. “And it has politicized them in a way nothing has in a long, long time.”

As cherry blossom petals flew like confetti in a blustery spring wind, 500,000 marchers, many clad in white to commemorate early 20th-century suffragettes, tramped from the Washington Monument to the Capitol in what was hailed as the largest women’s rights demonstration in U.S. history. Fathers pushed strollers alongside an association of prochoice Catholic nuns; students from 500 college campuses closed ranks with delegates from Japan, Australia, Norway and France; Dancers for Choice marched shoulder to shoulder with other special contingents, including Mormons for Choice, Indiana Republicans for Choice, Northwest Indians for Choice and Gray Panthers for Choice. Eighty-three-year-old Hilda Danzig said she had come from New York City on behalf of a friend. “I see people with coat hangers marching, and it reminds me of what it used to be like,” she said. “I had a friend who had an abortion, and she didn’t survive. She was 20. Her name was Beatrice. I’m marching for her.”

Hollywood, too, was heavily represented, with more than 30 big names flying in to take part in press conferences, a Saturday night gala and the march itself. “Entertainment people are symbols for Americans,” said organizer Michelman, “and when they make a decision to speak out on a controversial issue, it sends a signal.”

Not everyone, of course, thought it was the right signal. “Naturally the entertainment world is for abortion because the entertainment world has been a leading profiteer of promiscuity,” sniped antiabortion advocate Phyllis Schlafly, when asked her opinion of the proceedings. “Look at Glenn Close, who played in Fatal Attraction.”

Some of the celebs were new to political activism. Michele Lee, who with Donna Mills made up the Knots Landing delegation, confessed that the march was her first ever, for any cause. “You have to make noise with your feet,” she said. “This is a very dangerous time that we’re living in, and we have to stand up and be counted. I looked at my 19-year-old son, David, yesterday as I left the house, and I said, ‘Your mom is going to march.’ He said, ‘Right on!’ It was really a great feeling.”

Other celeb marchers were seasoned vets. Longtime pro-choice activist Morgan Fairchild has even confronted militant pro-lifers at L.A. abortion clinics. “We’d get up at 4 every morning and go to the clinics to keep them open,” said Fairchild, who marched in rhinestone-encrusted sneakers.

For those who told personal stories of their own botched backroom abortions, the issue seemed fraught with special urgency. Some, like Gloria Steinem and CNN commentator Linda Ellerbee, have long spoken openly about their own abortion experiences. But on the day before the march, actress Polly Bergen, puffing pensively on a cigarette, told her story publicly for the first time.

“I have never discussed this before,” she said, “but I had an illegal abortion 40 years ago. I was 17 at the time, living in Los Angeles, trying to make it in show business, singing with bands. The man I’d been seeing disappeared when he heard that I was pregnant. I had almost no money and was sharing a place to live with a girlfriend. I couldn’t discuss it with my parents because it would have hurt them too much.

“I really didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a doctor or friends. I’d only recently left home and was on my own in Hollywood. Someone I met told me he could arrange an abortion, and I borrowed $300 from my manager and he drove me to this little house. There was some lady I never saw again, and it happened on the kitchen table. There was no anesthetic, nothing. I got back in the car, and my manager drove me home. I hemorrhaged for a week. I didn’t have anybody to call. I thought I was dying, and I probably was. My roommate had been away, and when she came back she found me in bed, and the bed was saturated with blood.”

Though doctors saved her life, Bergen continued to suffer tragic aftereffects. “I’d always desperately wanted to have children,” she says. “After I married in 1949, we wanted to start a family. I kept miscarrying and had three tubal pregnancies. The doctors finally said I couldn’t carry a baby to term, that there was too much scar tissue. My marriage ended in divorce.

“I decided to come out of the closet because this is the time when all of us must stand up and be counted,” Bergen said. “Younger women may take their rights for granted. But rights can be taken away.”

Even if the experiences were not personal, each of the women lending her celebrity to the cause seemed to have an unhappy memory. “One friend in the 1950s had an abortion,” said Ellen Burstyn, 56. “She was in a hotel, alone; she called me and I went. And I brought a doctor. I am not pro-abortion. If I had a daughter, I would not counsel her to have an abortion. But it is for each individual to decide—not the government.”

“I haven’t done this since we marched up Fifth Avenue in the ’60s against the Vietnam War,” said L.A. Law’s Jill Eikenberry, 42, whose husband, Michael Tucker, also flew in for the march. “I was at Barnard, and I remember the horror stories. [Getting pregnant] was a fear that we equated to the guys’ fear of getting drafted, the fear for your own mortality.”

“When I was in school in the pre-legal abortion days,” said Anne Archer, 41, “I watched my friends go through it, the horrible dirty Mexican towns and the crackpot doctors in hotel rooms and the terrible drugs they tried.”

Men, too, shared recollections. “I remember the pre-Roev. Wade days,” said actor-director Leonard Nimoy, 58. “You had to know somebody who knew somebody who knew a phone number. A family member had an illegal abortion, and I had to stand by the phone and wait to pick her up. She was outside some motel in Hollywood, and she was still half anesthetized. It was a shocking, horrible way to have ‘surgery.’ My wife knew a neighbor girl who went to Mexico for an illegal abortion. She came home and died bleeding on the front lawn. We can’t go back to the days of oilcloth kitchen-table abortions.”

The celebrities were well aware that speaking out on such a controversial issue might draw fire from critics. “I am frightened of that,” admitted singer Melissa Manchester, “but I’m more frightened of a government that would take away my freedoms.”

“We’re giving a great deal of credence to a minority view,” said Bonnie Franklin. “The bear is not as big as we think it is. It’s not a grizzly.”

By contrast, Hill Street Blues star Veronica Hamel voiced a fierce antipathy toward the antiabortion forces. “The pro-lifers are terrorists,” she said. “It’s like McCarthyism again. It’s frightening for our country to be undermined by this antiabortion mentality. They’re the least of us.”

They were at least on this day in relatively short supply. A small group of pro-life protesters set up a mock cemetery on Capitol grounds with 4,400 white crosses to represent the estimated number of abortions that take place daily in the U.S. Perhaps a hundred more counter-demonstrators shadowed the march and waved photos of bloody fetuses. One man dressed in green surgical scrubs, in grim mockery of the physicians who perform abortions legally, held a sign reading ABORTIONIST: $150 and I’M AT YOUR CERVIX.

“We don’t have to go out and act like Bozo the Clown and throw dead fetuses at people to get attention,” responded Morgan Fairchild. “I don’t want to live in Iran. I mean, the Ayatollah thinks God is on his side, too.”

Not all the stars on hand were part of the official delegation. James Taylor, 41, mingled with the crowd as knots of celeb-giddy marchers pressed him for autographs. “I hope to hell people stop sleeping,” he said, “and realize how important an issue this is.” Actress Glenn Close, 42, also said she had come “as a private citizen.”

Private convictions brought them from all over the country, and Sunday’s march brought their cause to a stirring conclusion. After an afternoon of speechifying, and more than three hours after the first marchers set out from the Washington Monument grounds, demonstrators were still flooding onto the Capitol lawns.

Cybill Shepherd, the new traveling ambassador of Voters for Choice, stood nearby beneath a Japanese parasol and solemnly surveyed the throng. “This is the happiest day of my life,” she said quietly. “Except for the days my children were born.”

—Susan Schindehette, Lois Armstrong, Katy Kelly and Linda Kramer in Washington

You May Like