WASHINGTON — Thousands of anti-abortion activists braved snow and cold Thursday to march on the 14th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal, while supporters of abortion rights declared that public opinion is on their side.
The two camps, in what has become an annual battle for attention from Congress and the public, remained as adamantly opposite as they have been since 1973, when the Supreme Court delivered its landmark decision known as Roe vs. Wade.
And, as in the past, President Reagan, through a telephone hookup from the White House, offered support to the abortion foes, who shivered at a noontime rally nearby on the snow-covered Ellipse.
"We shall overcome bitterness to reach a greater respect for human life," he said. "Together, we can overturn Roe vs. Wade and end this national tragedy."
Civil Rights Theme
In an interview, Nellie Gray, leader of the anti-abortion march, also took up a civil rights theme, likening herself to abolitionists and to those who spoke out against the Holocaust.
Gray said that abortion "is the same kind of issue as slavery and segregation. Innocent human beings are being killed. The battle will go on until it is resolved in favor of human beings."
Responding to Reagan on the telephone, Gray reminded the President that he had not acted on her request last year to appoint a special White House aide to consult with her on anti-abortion legislation. Also, she challenged Reagan to veto legislation appropriating federal funds for an estimated 10,000 abortions a year in the District of Columbia.
"Nellie, I'll get on it right away to see what can be done," the President replied.
Pro-Choice Groups Meet
During an earlier news conference at the National Press Club, representatives of five pro-choice groups noted that a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion has been rejected, that anti-abortion referendums were rejected in four states and that several senators who openly opposed abortion failed to win reelection.
"Over and over again, the voters have delivered a clear message," said Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League. "No to extremism, no to government interference in personal decisions, and yes to the right to an abortion for all women."
Chanting, placard-carrying activists on both sides of the abortion issue also were active in California.
About a dozen women marched outside of the Los Angeles office of State Senate leader David Roberti, a vigorous supporter of two pending measures that would restrict Medi-Cal abortion funding.
Roberti Issues Statement
"We are picketing the office of State Sen. David Roberti . . . to protest his efforts to prevent women from exercising their rights to choose abortion," said activist attorney Gloria Allred.
Roberti, who was in Sacramento, said in a prepared statement that he stands by his position to restrict public funding of abortions except in such extenuating circumstances as unwanted pregnancies caused by incest or rape.
In Newport Beach, about 200 members of the Orange County Pro-Life group carried red roses in a procession outside Hoag Memorial Hospital to protest abortions performed at the facility, said the group's spokeswoman Mary Curtius.
In a Santa Monica seminar, members of the California Abortion Rights Action League and the National Abortion Federation warned women to beware of "divisive propaganda" by those opposing abortion.
The anti-abortion activists in Washington trekked down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Supreme Court after Reagan's brief address. U.S. Park Police estimated the crowd at about 6,000, down from the 37,000 a year ago, perhaps in large part because of the weather. However, last year's figure had dropped drastically from 1985, when 71,000 abortion opponents marched.
At the court building, police standing in a line at the top of its steps told the marchers that federal law bans demonstrations on the grounds. But some of the marchers defied the police warnings and at least 20 were arrested.
Don't Regret Effort
Despite their diminished numbers, those who participated in the march and several other activities during the day and night said that the effort was worthwhile. Lillie Gaskins, an employee of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wearing a heavy coat and a cheery smile, said that she was spending part of her snow-imposed holiday at the rally because it was "a good cause."
Agnes Connell, a volunteer from Whiting, N.J., said: "The babies are suffering a great deal more than we are in the snow. We are willing to do this to impress our congressmen."
Nevertheless, the smaller numbers of anti-abortion protesters, along with several victories at the ballot box and in Congress, have heartened supporters of the right to abortions. They estimated that a march of their own drew 125,000 last March.
The annual clash over the issue signaled the beginning of the annual battle in Congress over legislation governing abortions.
'Not Going to Go Away'
This year, it is expected to center on two points: whether the Supreme Court decision failed to recognize the "humanity" of fetuses and whether to restore federal funding of abortions for poor women.