WASHINGTON — Hundreds of thousands of abortion rights supporters rallied Sunday on the National Mall, railing against what they described as a dozen years of government backsliding on the issue of reproductive freedom for women in the United States and around the world.
The huge throng, with many clad in hot pink or purple and yellow T-shirts, marched along the city's broad avenues, passing its historic monuments, before cramming the Mall for a four-hour rally that featured politicians, Hollywood celebrities, leaders of the sponsoring organizations and icons of the feminist movement.
The rally, called the March for Women's Lives, was to serve as an election-year challenge to the policies of the Bush administration. But it also had another aim -- to reset the debate about abortion rights and health issues for women after a decade in which abortion foes have gained steady momentum in Washington and in legislatures around the country.
"Know your power and use it," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) encouraged the crowd. "It is your choice, not the politicians'."
The demonstrators -- from across the United States and 57 countries -- crossed lines of age, race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. The concerns they voiced extended beyond the issue of abortion to healthcare access, AIDS prevention, birth control and civil rights.
"It's unbelievable we even have to come here and do this," said Gabrielle Davis, 42, a law professor at the University of Toledo, who drove all day Saturday from Ohio with five other women, encountering cars full of people heading to the same destination. "I felt like the goal was accomplished, like the civil rights movement. But it wasn't."
The turnout was among the largest seen in a city with a fabled history for such gatherings.
Authorities no longer offer official crowd estimates, but various police sources informally estimated the throng at 500,000 to 800,000 in the milelong stretch of green space between the Capitol and the Washington Monument.
The last time marchers rallied for a similar cause, in 1992, police officials put the crowd size at about 500,000.
Along Constitution Avenue, abortion opponents lined the sidewalks, standing on chairs and shouting into hand-held megaphones as the marchers passed.
While the crowd was orderly -- "No. 1 rule: Don't engage," one woman reminded her companions -- there were occasional angry exchanges. Police in riot gear were stationed along the route, with steel barricades separating the hundreds of thousands of marchers from a sparse but determined line of abortion opponents.
"This is the biggest march in the long and glorious history of the women's movement," feminist writer Gloria Steinem, who founded Ms. Magazine in the early 1970s, told the marchers. "We are going to transform and take back this country one more time."
The event was billed as nonpolitical, but the anti-Bush sentiment was palpable.
Signs exhorting politicians to "Keep Your Laws Off My Body" and proclaiming "My Body, My Choice" bobbed along the parade route, which passed in view of the White House. President Bush was not there.
Rally speakers criticized Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft for seeking women's medical records in a suit over a law Bush signed last year banning a medical procedure that opponents call "partial-birth abortion."
Other speakers expressed concern about the long-term prospects for the Supreme Court's decision in Roe vs. Wade if Bush were reelected and if vacancies on the high court were to occur. That 1973 ruling established, under the constitutional right to privacy, a woman's ability to choose an abortion as long as the fetus could not live on its own.
Speakers from a number of foreign countries shared first-hand accounts of the effect of Bush administration policies limiting funding for international family planning clinics that provide abortion counseling.
Bush spent the weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the western Maryland mountains. His probable Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, spoke at a rally-related event Friday but did not attend Sunday, although his daughter Vanessa was present.
The event appeared to have its intended effect of mobilizing a new generation of women to the fight -- at least for this one day. Organizers had made a point of reaching out to younger women, concerned that the first generation of feminist warriors was aging and that a new leadership needed to prepare to accept the mantle.
Roughly a third of the participants were high school and college students from across the country.
Buses from Boston pulled in before sunrise, a couple of them filled with more than 100 students from Northeastern University. They were armed with pink pompons and placards assembled during a recent sign-making party. Sustained by trail mix and Luna bars, they said they were marching to preserve a right that had been law for longer than they had been alive.