It was near the end of a Northampton rally in support of abortion rights on Tuesday that Shirley Jackson Whitaker took the stage. She spoke to more than 200 people who had gathered at Pulaski Park following the passage of restrictive abortion laws in states including Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, and Missouri.
Speaking about her school friend Beulah Mae, Whitaker told the story of learning that her friend got pregnant and had to leave school. Then, following a second pregnancy, her friend died while receiving an abortion.
“As I stood at her casket, I looked to my right and saw her little fellow seated, looking down twisting his fingers in a restless motion…” she told those gathered. “He would never know how smart and full of life his mother was for she had been taken away from him.”
Decrying what she described as an “all-out assault on women’s rights to control their bodies,” Whitaker said it was time for her to stand up and speak out.
“I believe that my brilliant, life-loving friend would be here today if the right information and options were made available to her,” she said. “So now I stand for Beulah Mae and for all of the Beulah Mae’s to come.”
People of all ages attended the rally, with several holding signs. A young girl held up a sign that read “Girls have as much rights as boys.” Other signs read “Women’s rights are human rights,” and “My Body, My Choice.”
Northampton state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa attended the rally and spoke about filing legislation in support of abortion rights. She said that progressive lawmakers are supporting the ROE Act, which would protect abortion access in Massachusetts regardless of what happens at the federal level, allow for late term abortions in the case of lethal fetal anomalies, and would eliminate the requirement of parental consent in the case of minors.
“Massachusetts is saying, ‘What we have is not enough,’” Sabadosa said at the rally.
Kate Glynn of the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts described the recent laws as “unconscionable” and attacks on women’s rights. She said that her organization, which provides financial assistance to women seeking abortions, has been stretched thin. Abortions generally cost between $500 and $700 dollars, she said, and many women cannot afford it.
“A right is not a right if you can’t afford it,” she said.
Avery Walton, of the Civil Liberties Public Policy organization, said that restriction to abortion is something that affects everyone, not just the women seeking abortions. He said that men had a role in keeping abortion safe and legal, too.
“We all have something to lose with these bans,” he said.
Spokespeople for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Rep. James McGovern, and state Sen. Jo Comerford all spoke in support of the rally and in opposition of the bans.
Shanique Spalding, a western Massachusetts organizer for Planned Parenthood, spoke in support of the ROE Act.
“It has been a stressful week to say the least,” Spalding said, referencing the many bans that had advanced over the past week. “It feels like everything is on fire.”
She also said that Massachusetts, despite being a progressive state, is more restrictive on abortion than some of its neighbors, a topic explored by the Advocate in 2017.
“States are looking to us to pass laws leading the way to set the example,” Spaulding said.
Georgie Brown, 18, of Granby, held a sign that read “Abortion is a personal decision, not a legal debate.” She said she learned about the rally and knew she had to attend.
“It’s really important to keep abortion legal,” she said. “For a country so focused on freedom, it doesn’t make sense that they would restrict this freedom.”
Brown described herself as afraid upon learning of the recently passed abortion laws in other states.
“Even though I live in Massachusetts and am from an upper middle class background, it is scary to think Roe could be overturned and other women not as privileged could lose this,” she said.
Carol and John Drake, 56 and 55 respectively, of Westhampton, attended the rally together.
“It’s great to see people out here,” said Carol Drake, who added that she wanted to see abortion legal, but rare.
“This is very motivating,” John Drake said. “I’m new to the area and it is good to hear what is going on locally.”
He said his daughter lives in Georgia and described a recently passed law in that state, which would restrict abortion rights to the first six weeks of pregnancy (before many people even know they are pregnant), as a “travesty.”
The concluding words of Whitaker’s speech summed up what many expressed at the rally: “To stand, I must. To stand, I will.”
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.