WASHINGTON — At least 300,000 people, chanting "Choice now" and sending a resounding message of alarm to Supreme Court justices and politicians, marched in support of legal abortion Sunday in a demonstration matching the largest ever to occur here.
The marchers, many wearing the traditional white of suffragists, said that they hope the high court will "heed our message" and not use a pending case to overturn the 1973 decision that made abortion legal.
Many participants hung coat hangers from their clothing or around their necks and carried signs saying: "Never Again." It was a reference to the often deadly self-abortion technique used by women in the United States before the procedure was legal.
"I think this is a historic turning point," feminist leader Betty Friedan declared. Organizers claimed that demonstrators from nearly every state and half a dozen foreign countries formed a crowd twice as big as the 300,000 police estimated.
Large contingents of college students, Hollywood stars, physicians and Justice Department lawyers upset with the Bush Administration's anti-abortion stance were among those participating in a parade that stretched about 1 1/2 miles from the Washington Monument to the Capitol.
Despite chilly winds and threatening skies, it was the largest demonstration since an estimated 300,000 people attended a civil rights rally in 1983 marking the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington. The original march in 1963 that included the "I Have a Dream" speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drew an estimated 250,000 people--as did a 1969 rally to protest the Vietnam War.
At a post-march rally Sunday at the Capitol, abortion rights leaders, politicians and celebrities expressed fear that the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling would be overturned.
The Supreme Court, with its new conservative majority, will hear oral arguments April 26 on a Missouri case, Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services. The justices have agreed to review a federal appellate ruling in that case, which struck down as unconstitutional a 1986 Missouri law banning any use of public facilities or employees for "performing or assisting" abortions.
The Missouri statute puts no restrictions on abortions in private clinics, where more than 90% of the state's abortions take place. However, women's rights advocates fear, and anti-abortion advocates hope, that a high court ruling upholding the law would invite other states to enact even more restrictive abortion laws.
Vow to Extend Fight
But organizers of the massive demonstration vowed to shake off the complacency that has marked their movement in recent years and carry the fight to the White House, Congress and state legislatures, if the high court rejects their position.
"In just a few months, the Supreme Court may turn back the clock by turning reproductive choice back to the states," Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, said. "We will not turn back to the time when women risked serious injury and even death in back alleys. . . . We will build a political army in precincts across America."
Actress Whoopi Goldberg, addressing the Supreme Court justices in her rally speech, warned: "If you overturn this decision, a cry of murder will rise up in this nation and tumble the capital."
Hope to Sway Court
Over the years, some Supreme Court justices have said that they are not influenced by political demonstrations, but other justices have noted that they follow the news and form opinions like anyone else. This has given rise to hopes on both sides of knotty issues such as abortion that the court's thinking can be swayed with organized public outcries.
"They're human, they're political animals, and I think we can make a difference," said actress Jane Fonda, who attended Sunday's rally with her 20-year-old daughter, Vanessa Vadim.
Similarly, Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) said: "You never know what may have an effect, but clearly the size of this march, we hope, has got to have some effect."
Anti-abortion groups, which drew more than 65,000 demonstrators for a January march here, turned out only several hundred people Sunday. They held signs and chanted from behind riot troops along the march route and later conducted a prayer vigil at a symbolic cemetery on the Washington Mall that represented abortion victims. Police reported no violent incidents.
"Both sides are gearing up for the next phase," said David Ordway, a University of Connecticut student who organized an anti-abortion sidewalk display by the Young Americans for Freedom. "It's just a matter of time before Roe vs. Wade is repealed. Then the battle will go into the states."
The huge throng streamed into Washington for the demonstration by bus, plane, car, train, bicycle and baby stroller.