In 1974, on the first anniversary of the Roe v Wade supreme court decision, abortion opponents gathered on the National Mall in Washington to “march for life”. They vowed to return each year until the ruling, which established the right to abortion, was no longer the law of the land.
On Friday, anti-abortion activists braved sub-zero temperatures and the coronavirus pandemic to assemble in Washington again, more hopeful than ever that this would be their last march to a court where the fate of Roe will soon be decided.
“We are hoping and praying that this year, 2022, will bring a historic change for life,” Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, told a crowd tens of thousands strong and waving signs that read “I am the post-Roe generation” and “The future is anti-abortion”.
Praising followers for standing against what she called the “single-most critical rights abuse of our time”, Mancini said they sent a clear message to the supreme court: “Roe is not settled law.”
Chris Smith, a Republican congressman from New Jersey, described the mood as one of “fresh hope and heightened expectations”. The court’s conservative supermajority appears open to reversing Roe, thereby overturning nearly 50 years of precedent since the 1973 decision.
Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who was one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in Congress before a primary defeat in 2020, said he was optimistic activists would meet next year in a “new era”, one without Roe.
At the White House, Joe Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, noted the anniversary of Roe v Wade and said “reproductive healthcare has been under extreme and relentless assault ever since, especially in recent months”.
She said the Biden administration was committed to working with Congress to pass a bill that protects the right to provide and access abortion care free from forced waiting periods, biased counseling and other restrictions.
“We’re deeply committed to making sure everyone has access to care and we will defend it with every tool we have,” Psaki said.
For decades, polling has found that a majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or some circumstances.
In a statement, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Mini Timmaraju, said: “The anti-choice movement knows they are on the wrong side of public sentiment, which is why this year’s March for Life theme relies on deliberate disinformation to maintain its power.
“They falsely claim to be supporters of ‘equality’ all while working ardently to block abortion access and end the legal right to abortion. Make no mistake – this movement’s end goals would only criminalize and endanger people based on pregnancy outcomes, furthering inequality.
“… A small but vocal minority is determined to undermine the will of the majority of people in this country who support reproductive freedom.”
Conservative states have recently made inroads. Last month, the supreme court heard oral arguments in a case involving a Mississippi law which bans abortion after 15 weeks and makes no exceptions for rape or incest. A ruling is expected by the end of June, months before the midterm elections.
If the court overturns Roe, more than half of US states are “certain or likely” to ban abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights group that tracks legislation regarding women’s reproductive health.
Conservative states are laying the groundwork for new restrictions as fights over issues like telemedicine and abortion pills gain momentum. Last year, according to Guttmacher, states enacted more than 100 new abortion restrictions, a record.
Mancini said: “If Roe falls, the battle lines will change. But make no mistake, the fight for life will need to continue in the states.”
Hours before marchers arrived on the National Mall, the supreme court declined to accelerate a legal challenge to a Texas law that has effectively banned abortions in the second-largest state.
Among the marchers, there were few references to that victory or to the Texas law, which is deeply unpopular, including among Republicans.
“I just pray every year that this is the last year we’re here,” said Janice LePage, who works for the youth ministry in the Archdiocese of St Louis. “I’m praying that the following year will be a march of celebration.”