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‘It’s serious.’ Thousands rally for reproductive rights across Tampa Bay

A restrictive Texas abortion ban spurred marches nationwide. Florida activists fear a similar ‘heartbeat’ law.
Over a thousand people gathered in support of women’s rights, specifically the right to abortion, on Saturday in St. Petersburg. This march was one of several events around Tampa Bay and the nation protesting for abortion rights with the Women's March group.
Over a thousand people gathered in support of women’s rights, specifically the right to abortion, on Saturday in St. Petersburg. This march was one of several events around Tampa Bay and the nation protesting for abortion rights with the Women's March group. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Oct. 3

Amanda Demilt and Alicia Panko stood at the park’s edge, watching the steady flow of marchers, taking in each sign.

“Mind Your Own Uterus,” one said. “Our bodies, our choice,” said another.

The two St. Petersburg women, both 31, waited for their chance to hop back into the crowd of thousands making their way from Vinoy Park to the end of the St. Petersburg Pier for Saturday’s “Bans Off Our Bodies” march.

The march was one of hundreds of rallies around the nation following Texas’s recent abortion law, the most restrictive in the country, which bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. The “heartbeat” law has triggered a similar legislative push in Florida and inspired a wave of rallies in support of maintaining abortion access as a right.

Panko had her first child at 14 years old. She understands the importance of choice.

“I’ve been in that position where I’ve had to make decisions like that,” Panko said. “To have that choice taken away from me is just wrong.”

A crowd of thousands surrounded the Vinoy Park stage at 4 p.m., riled up by speakers telling their own stories of abortion and stressing the threat to women’s rights. Women, men and children held handmade signs. Even a dog wore a sign on its back: “Pro-nap, pro-treat, pro-choice.”

Over a thousand people gathered in support of women’s rights, specifically the right to abortion, on Saturday in St. Petersburg. This march was one of several events around Tampa Bay and the nation protesting for abortion rights with the Women's March group.
Over a thousand people gathered in support of women’s rights, specifically the right to abortion, on Saturday in St. Petersburg. This march was one of several events around Tampa Bay and the nation protesting for abortion rights with the Women's March group. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

At around 5 p.m., bullhorns directed the mass of people toward the pier. The crowd was full of families and friends, and people held hands and commented on other’s signs. Many dressed all in pink. Though the topic was heavy, and the cause urgent, the large crowd remained light, with a bounce in its step.

Similar marches unfolded across the Tampa Bay area.

Around midday in downtown Tampa, organizer Kristen Arnaud shouted through a megaphone: “If this is what democracy looks like…”

“Then this is what hypocrisy looks like,” about 200 protesters responded.

The Our Bodies, Our Choice rally met up with another group of abortion access advocates to walk the Riverwalk path.

“With this new copycat bill in Manatee County, we started this to show support for those in Texas and for those in Florida who have to fight for the same rights — the freedom of bodily autonomy,” Arnaud told the Tampa Bay Times.

Vivian Mirk, 75, wore a shirt with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s likeness and carried a yardstick with figurines of the late Supreme Court justice. She came out to her hometown rally because she felt like she had to do something for women like her daughters and her granddaughters.

“I believe it’s their choice, not the government’s,” Mirk explained.

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She said it’s disheartening to see the Supreme Court with a 6-3 conservative majority. She misses Ginsburg but thanks her for the work she did.

Back across the bay, Amanda Woods, 32, called the attempts to weaken Roe v. Wade an outrage. Texas’ bill was a major push in going to the rally in St. Petersburg. She marched with Sarah Stone, 46, a fellow board member of a Clearwater-based women’s leadership development group called EmpowHERment.

Over a thousand people gathered in support of women’s rights, specifically the right to abortion, on Saturday in St. Petersburg. This march was one of several events around Tampa Bay and the nation protesting for abortion rights with the Women's March group.
Over a thousand people gathered in support of women’s rights, specifically the right to abortion, on Saturday in St. Petersburg. This march was one of several events around Tampa Bay and the nation protesting for abortion rights with the Women's March group. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“As a voter, I want to come and show that I will be vocal,” Woods said.

In both Tampa and St. Petersburg, organizers offered voter registration. Arnaud said she had hopes of drumming up voters to challenge Florida Republicans and prevent a ‘heartbeat’ bill.

“This isn’t going to be the last event,” Arnaud said.

At Vinoy Park, Melanie Hamburger, 57, registered as a Florida voter while draped in a red cloak. The outfit was inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale, a classic novel-turned-popular Hulu series set in a totalitarian society in which women have no reproductive rights.

Alex Woodward, 32, and Gia Gonzalez, 26, were also shrouded in red and their heads topped with white bonnets. Woodward and Gonzalez came together, but when Hamburger saw them for the first time she shouted, “My sisters!”

“It’s this serious,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not dramatic, it’s not theatrical, it’s serious.”

Gonzalez called the passing of Texas’ ‘heartbeat bill’ a regression. She worries for Florida’s future.

Another protest coalesced in Tarpon Springs, where between 500 to 750 protesters met outside of U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis’ office Saturday morning, according to organizer Beth Weinstein. A caravan of about 150 cars drove down U.S. Route 19 to protest outside Speaker of the Florida House Chris Sprowls’ office. Both Republicans have backed restrictions on abortion in Florida.

“We wanted to make our local elected officials aware there is a vocal majority who believe women’s rights to access health care is important and should be constitutionally protected,” said Weinstein, who is also communications director for the progressive group Indivisible Pasco.

The North Pinellas activists also visited the All Women’s Health Center of Clearwater next to Sprowls’ office, counterprotesting about 10 to 15 anti-abortion activists who were with 40 Days of Life. Weinstein said some of the clinic protesters called her group “sinners” and “killers,” but others prayed for them. She said a group has plans to visit the clinic each Saturday to offer solidarity to people going in for an abortion.

Some on Saturday also hoped to raise awareness of the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund, which helps those who cannot afford the cost of an abortion.

The group received over a hundred calls in the last month for help, said Kris Lawer, a volunteer board member with the fund. It saw demand skyrocket during the pandemic due to the economic instability and high job losses, Lawer explained.

Over a thousand people gathered in support of women’s rights, specifically the right to abortion, on Saturday in St. Petersburg. Here, hundreds of marchers take to the St. Petersburg Pier.
Over a thousand people gathered in support of women’s rights, specifically the right to abortion, on Saturday in St. Petersburg. Here, hundreds of marchers take to the St. Petersburg Pier. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

A few hours before sunset, the St. Petersburg march was met with honks from passing cars as rally-goers walked about a mile toward the pier. At one point, the crowd enveloped the entire waterfront. Marchers chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho. Abortions bans have got to go.”