America’s deep political divisions play out on courthouse steps as justices hear abortion case
By Robert Hill
Hannah Wolfe, 24, brandished a rubber model that she said depicted a 16-week-old foetus. “It’s important for people to see the humanity of a child in the womb,” she said. “You can see the fingers, you can see the toes, you can detect a heartbeat at this stage.”
Wolfe was among the anti-abortion protesters who turned out in force at the supreme court on Wednesday with a sense that victory is finally within reach. In contrast to the sombre arguments being heard in the ornate, marble-clad court, in the streets below the air filled with a cacophony of speeches, shouts, chants and songs from activists on both sides.
Wolfe and fellow members of Students for Life of America held a banner that said, “Reverse Roe now,” urging the highest court’s conservative majority to defy public opinion polls by overturning Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that enshrined a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.
Abortion rights advocates holding cardboard cutouts of the supreme court justices demonstrate Wednesday in Washington DC.
Conservative US supreme court justices signal support for restricting abortion in pivotal case
“This is such a historic moment for the pro-life movement and the cause of a post-Roe America,” said Wolfe, who is from Arlington, Virginia. “The reality is that women do not need abortions. Our goal is that they should have the resources to be supported every step of the way.
“This is the most exciting opportunity we’ve had in my lifetime. It’s going to be the first nail in the coffin of Roe v Wade.”
As the justices heard a case that involves a Mississippi law that seeks to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, America’s deep political divisions could be seen playing out in noise and colour on the stage of the nearby plaza, watched by TV cameras and Capitol police.
Crowds had begun to gather before dawn. Reproductive rights defenders and abortion providers carried signs that said, “Abortion is healthcare,” “Protect abortion access,” “Vote out anti-choice politicians,” “Stop the bans,” “My body my choice” and “Hands off Roe!”
About six in 10 Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. But on this occasion, pro-choice protesters appeared to be outnumbered by the anti-abortion lobby, which has spent decades on legal strategising to build towards this moment. Their placards included: “The future is anti-abortion,” “Protect me: I’m 15 weeks old,” “Women deserve better than abortion,” “No state needs to wait: ban abortion now!”
They went on: “Abortion is violence,” “Stop calling violence feminism,” “Women’s rights begin in the womb,” “Love Life,” “Life is worth it,” “America, time for you to bless God,” “God hates hands that shed innocent blood.” Other signs read “Christ is Lord, not the courts, defy them,” “Queer atheist pro-life” and “Supreme court: overturn Roe v Wade!”
There were gruesome and graphic images that claimed to show aborted babies and to suggest that science is now on their side of the debate. One sign drew comparison with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Another used a slogan familiar from Donald Trump campaign rallies: “Don’t tread on me.” Another said simply: “Pray.”
About 20 students from the evangelical Liberty University gathered in a circle, holding hands and heads bowed in silent prayer. Elsewhere in the crowd, a band of Roe opponents played music and sang. Many people were born long after the 1973 ruling, one of the supreme court’s most longstanding precedents.
A demonstrator dressed as a handmaid from The Handmaid’s Tale stands in front of the supreme court with a police shield repurposed as a sign demanding the court uphold Roe v Wade.
Why the Mississippi abortion rights case is so important
Ethan Strohmetz, a 19-year-old student, said: “Hopefully Roe v Wade will be overturned. It legalised the killing of unborn human beings. I’m very confident the pro-life side is going to win this case. It’s not about women’s rights; it’s about human rights.”
Advocates for reproductive rights acknowledged the sizable and vocal show by their opponents. Tamara Marzouk, director of youth abortion access at Advocates for Youth, said: “No matter the turnout, we’re going to continue turning out to support abortion access. It’s disheartening but it doesn’t mean we lose hope.”
If Roe v Wade were to be overturned, 26 states are poised to restrict or ban abortion access, possibly forcing people to travel huge distances to more liberal states for the procedure. Young people would be disproportionately affected, Marzouk warned, since they often have less money, less ability to travel and less ability to take time off work.
“No matter what happens, young people are not going to let the right to abortion access disappear. Young people are sharing information with each other about self-managed abortion with medication. There is a common misconception it would be dangerous but it is extremely safe and effective up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.”
Some activists put Wednesday’s hearing in context by noting that conservative states have been chipping away at reproductive rights for years. Jeryl Hayes, movement building director of If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice, said: “We know people are already living in a post-Roe world in parts of our country.
Three stacked images of abortion protests from 1993, 1981 and this year.
A ‘fundamental’ right: a timeline of US abortion rights since Roe v Wade
“This has been a long time coming. We anticipated that a case like this would reach the supreme court but we know the restrictions have been building state by state.”
It was a difficult day for women such as Jan Greenberg, 74, a retired nurse who had an illegal abortion when she was 19. Such underground procedures were often risky. “It was very frightening but I made it,” she recalled, holding a “Jews for abortion justice” sign.
Roe v Wade, a ruling handed down almost 50 years ago, had felt like a turning point, Greenberg added.
“It made things so much easier. But having lived through that time to now, I’m not surprised. The right has been working on it ever since Roe v Wade. Who knows what will happen? It’s a little scary.”