Anti-abortion protesters descended on Washington from across the country on Friday for the annual March for Life, a ritual that this year took on a tone of hopeful celebration as they anticipated the Supreme Court overturning the decision that established a constitutional right to abortion half a century ago.
The marchers have arrived by the busload in Washington every January since 1974, the year after the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade established a nationwide right to abortion. The tension this year was higher for both sides in the abortion debate as they await the court’s ruling on a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks. The Roe decision forbade states to ban abortion before a fetus becomes viable, or roughly 22 weeks.
At oral arguments in December, the court’s six conservative justices signaled that they were inclined to uphold the Mississippi law. Several justices indicated they were willing to go further and overturn the Roe decision entirely.
“I feel like this year might be the year,” Laura Nunez, a 28-year-old account manager from Philadelphia, said as she gathered with the other marchers on the National Mall. “If that happens, it would be a great win for all of us.”
The crowd, bundled in thick coats and scarves in the freezing temperatures, began gathering a few hours before the rally began at noon.
“We are hoping and praying that this year, 2022, will bring a historic change for life,” Jeanne Mancini, the president of the March for Life Defense and Education Fund, which has organized the march since 1974, told the crowd.
The theme of this year’s march was “equality begins in the womb,” and speakers at the two-hour rally likened their cause to Black Lives Matter and the fight for gender equality. Ms. Mancini called the march “the largest human rights demonstration in the world,” and abortion “the ultimate form of discrimination.” She quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The Rev. Mike Schmitz, a Catholic priest from Duluth, Minn., who hosts a YouTube series and podcast about the Bible, sent the crowd on its march to lobby on Capitol Hill saying, “Every child matters, every woman matters, every person matters.” To cheers, he added, “You matter.”
Groups that support abortion rights, too, were anticipating that the 49th anniversary of the Roe decision on Saturday could also be the last. All week, they held events underscoring the ways the Roe decision has advanced the health and economic security of women and families, and warning of the risks if the court strikes it down.
On Thursday evening, the abortion rights group Catholics for Choice beamed messages in light on the side of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington, the largest Catholic church in North America, as anti-abortion marchers convened inside for an all-night vigil. The messages on the tower of the basilica noted that one in four women who get abortions are Catholic and that 68 percent of Catholics in a Pew poll support the Roe decision. “Pro-choice Catholics, you are not alone,” read one.
The opinions among Catholics reflect those among Americans more broadly: 59 percent in a Pew poll say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 39 percent say it should be illegal. Opinions have remained relatively stable since the Roe decision, but the partisan divide has become wider. More Democrats and fewer Republicans now say abortion should be legal.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, laws in 26 states would ban abortion immediately if the court overturns Roe, a swath that extends from Idaho and Arizona in the West to Ohio and Florida and includes 36 million women of reproductive age.
Other states have rushed to adopt laws that restrict abortion except in the earliest weeks of pregnancy — before many women realize they are pregnant.
The State of Abortion in the U.S.
The number of abortions in the United States has declined since Roe — with 862,000 performed in clinics in 2017, according to Guttmacher. But those declines are largely from a decline in pregnancies. Studies suggest that a reversal of the decision would mostly affect poor women, women of color, and those who are already mothers.
Ms. Mancini, the president of the March for Life, accused abortion rights groups of fearmongering about the risks if Roe falls. In interviews before the march she argued that overturning the decision would simply return the question of abortion rights to states, to decide according to the wishes of their citizens.
Abortion rights supporters argued that the consequences of overturning Roe would be severe and long lasting for women and children.
Diana Greene Foster, the author of the Turnaway Study, which followed about 1,000 women from across the United States over a five-year period — those who had abortions and those who were not able to get them — noted that the women who had to continue their pregnancies often had life-threatening complications and bad health for years. Five years out, women denied an abortion were four times as likely to live below the federal poverty line, and three times as likely to be unemployed. Ninety percent of those women chose to raise the child, she said, and are more likely to stay in contact with an abusive partner.
“People are making careful decisions when they decide to have an abortion,” said Dr. Foster, who is also a professor of obstetrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “They say that they can’t afford a child, and we see they become poorer. They say they need to take care of their existing kids, and their existing children fare worse.”
While the speakers at the rally were optimistic that the court would choose to overturn Roe by this summer, many marchers said they would continue attending future rallies to press for a complete ban across the country.
Doug Winne, 69, and Ruth Winne, 65, had driven two hours from Lancaster, Pa., to this year’s rally. They have attended the March for Life regularly for about 35 years, and Mr. Winne said he was encouraged by the number of younger people in attendance.
Gazing at the crowd around him, Mr. Winne said he was hopeful that younger people would continue to fight to end abortion. “We’re clearly on the older end,” Mr. Winne said. “That’s an encouragement that this isn’t just something that we, as people in their 60s, are concerned about.”