On a sunny January morning, two Oakland women took up banners and headed to San Francisco to participate in a demonstration. Both had ended a pregnancy and both have since found healing in activism. But a few blocks separated the two. One was part of the “14th Annual Walk for Life West Coast,” and the second was countering that walk at the “Rally for Reproductive Justice.”
At the intersection of 7th and Market streets, a modest crowd of 50 people answered the call of twenty organizations that work to advance women’s reproductive rights. Widely outnumbered by the thousands carrying pro-life merchandising, they burst into joy each time a car honked in support. The pro-choice demonstrators energetically sang slogans: “Our bodies, our choice” or “Hands off of my body.”
Among them was Frances Reade, an educational researcher who moved from Michigan to California in 2004. Her anger over President Donald’s Trump’s 2016 electoral victory prompted her to join the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America. Today she is the vice chair. “Most of our organising work is done in the Oakland streets, where we fight for Medicare for all,” said Reade.
Reade was there to defend the right to abortion, but she framed reproductive rights as part of a bigger picture. “We aren’t going to have justice until everybody has the resources to make whatever choices they want. If people get billed for an abortion, for miscarriage, for giving birth in a hospital or have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for infertility treatment, that’s not justice,” she said.
Like 6 percent of US women, Reade has struggled with infertility. “Because we don’t have universal healthcare, it can cost thousands of dollars to treat infertility,” she said. She said she underwent treatment for five years. In 2015, she said, she became pregnant, but things went wrong. The doctors told her that the fetus was growing in the wrong place, a condition called an ectopic pregnancy, in which the egg generally attaches in a fallopian tube rather than the uterus. “They told me we might have to do an abortion, because if it kept growing, it will rupture and I will bleed to death,” Reade said.
Experiencing a dangerous pregnancy prompted her to jump into activism. “I know what it feels like to have like a ten-cell thing living inside you. It is not a baby; it is not a person. In my case, are we saying that these ten cells should kill me because it is a person and I don’t mean anything? Who is the full human being here?” she asked. “I would argue that the actual adult women walking around in this world is the person we should consider the person.”
Infertility treatment “absolutely ruined” her life, Reade said. When she and her partner decided to abandon the treatment, she got involved with organising. “This is my grieving process. I am devoting my life to something that matters,” she said.
A five-minute walk separated Reade from another Oakland woman who asked to be identified just with her first name, Tracy. She was looking with excitement a couple of tiny earrings shaped like baby feet. “I only have a pair left—everybody liked them so much,” said the seller with a smile, as Tracy nodded.
Tracy was one of the thousands that had gathered in the Civic Center Plaza around a giant banner reading “Abortion hurts women.” Many demonstrators held already-made banners with slogans like: “I am pro-life” or “Let God plan parenthood.” Tracy, who is Catholic, had made her own complex banner about redemption. It read: “God is merciful if you feel sorrow.”
It was the third time that this 54-year-old had taken part in an anti-abortion march. But for 25 years, she marched on the other side. “I was on the revolutionary side and I fought very hard for the right to abortion,” she said, but added that her heart had now been “won over this side.”
She preferred to keep to herself her reason for pivoting, but said that she’d previously had abortions she now regrets. “I have had several abortions myself long ago,” she said. After a pause, she reframed it. “I have killed all my biological children,” she said, slowly dictating. “Exclamation point!” she added.
“I can regret it; I can be forgiven. However, I cannot bring those children back,” she continued. Tracy said she blamed herself for her lack of cognizance about how human beings are formed. She said she had a sense that “it is just a bunch of cells. Which is incorrect—they were my children!”
Tracy expressed her dismay about the “high non-marriage rate for people who are indulging on sexual relations outside marriage,” saying that people are treating sex not as “the human reproductive act,” as she believes it should be, but as a “human fun act or something that is for entertainment or sport or as a past-time!”
Tracy went back to her banner. She said she had found her “second chance” in a marriage with a man who has 7 children. “I am now a stepmother and a grand-stepmother, and it is a wonderful role,” she said. “If you face the music of what you did, there are beautiful chapters ahead.”
For Tracy, taking part in the pro-life protest movement is part of a process of healing. “I fell very healed overall, but I know there’s a lot of people [who are] wounded and need healing,” she said.
Tracy went back to the crowd, holding the banner that revealed her story. She has found healing in opposing abortion. Just a few blocks away, Reade was finding it in fighting for the right of women to choose.