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ELLEN GOODMAN

Not just a march on Washington

AT TIMES, I've had a fantasy about my generation as the last brigade parading for reproductive rights under a banner of "Post-Menopausal Women for Choice." After all, those of us who remember when birth control was illegal and when 10,000 American women a year died from illegal abortions don't have to imagine a world without choices. We were there. And while we moved on to discussions about hormones and hot flashes, we remained the committed core of prochoice voters.

From time to time, we would sigh to each other about how Gen X and Gen Y took it all for granted. Then we would blush a bit because we actually wanted our daughters to take the freedom to make their own moral and medical decisions as a given, not a struggle. But at the same time, we worried. What if they couldn't imagine losing freedoms until those freedoms were gone?

Now it looks as if the Bush administration's policies have done what we couldn't do. They're mobilizing a new generation.

About 1,600 buses are rolling into Washington for today's "March for Women's Lives." The first such gathering in a dozen years is expected to bring more than a half-million women onto the Mall. More to the point, a third of the marchers are expected to be under 30. Indeed, in a wonderful moment of role reversal, Crystal Lander, the leader of the campus outreach and owner of a T-shirt that reads "This is What a Feminist Looks Like," will be bringing her mother to the elder's first march.

But Sunday is not just a march. It's pass-the-baton day. It's the day the next generation will be called upon to make a commitment and a connection between, as their mothers called it, the personal and the political. And of course, it's about whether young women will or won't be able to make decisions about sex and health and pregnancy.

Kate Michelman, the retiring head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, one of seven groups sponsoring this march, puts it this way: "We know that the prochoice movement needs to speak to and activate a generation that doesn't remember life before Roe and we need to do it before George Bush gives them a chance to experience it for the first time. I want to be the storyteller, not the one helping them through the horror of back-alley abortions."

But this is not their mothers' movement. The language of "rights" sounds stale to many, like a golden oldie, a blast from the past. Phrases like "take control of our bodies" do not roll off younger tongues.

As pollster Anna Greenberg reads the generational change, "When I think about people under 30, I think they're very individualistic. They feel very empowered."

Baby boomers talked about sex as liberation, but for the past 20 years, these women and men have had messages about sex and danger. The buzzword for them is "responsibility."

"Responsibility" cuts both ways in conversations and attitudes, especially about abortion. For some "responsibility" means that women have the obligation to avoid unwanted pregnancy. For others, it suggests that women need the access and information to make the right decisions.

The antiabortion movement has had success not only in focusing on the fetus, but in associating unplanned pregnancy with irresponsibility. For two decades, access to women's health has been chipped away, especially for poor women. But as long as the right to choose exists, this generation has had the luxury of ambivalence about individual choices.

But now we have peeping John Ashcroft, who wants to rifle through clinic papers. We have a national policy to teach abstinence as the only sex education. And across the globe, the administration's "gag rule" against clinics that would even mention abortion has closed down women's health and birth control centers in the name of democracy.

Meanwhile, there are pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for emergency contraceptives and legislators who think that's fine. And of course there is the specter of four more years and one or two Supreme Court justices.

So there is a march, not just a meet-up, to jog the imagination of those who cannot imagine going backward. To jump-start the next wave of activists and show that, as organizer Alice Cohan says, "You are not alone, no matter what the Congress may enact or the press may say."

This one will be judged not just by the numbers on the Mall and on the news but by the next day, the next decade, the next election cycle, the next leaders.

As "Post-Menopausal Women for Choice," we expected to hand down a set of intact rights. Now we are handing down our history and our experience. And our baton.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com. 

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