Thousands of abortion opponents descended on Washington DC for the annual March for Life on Friday, the first time since achieving its foundational objective: persuading the supreme court to overturn Roe v Wade.
Each year around the anniversary of the landmark 1973 decision that once established a constitutional right to abortion, anti-abortion activists have come to the nation’s capital to march, plead and pray for a post-Roe America where abortion wasn’t just banned but was “unthinkable”.
Half a century after the first March for Life, the marchers once again gathered on the National Mall in Washington to celebrate the movement’s greatest victory. But they also came with a new commitment to fighting the battles now playing out in their states.
“While the march began as a response to Roe, we don’t end as a response to Roe being overturned,” Jeanne Mancini, the president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, told an energized crowd. “Why? Because we’re not yet done.”
Movement leaders urged Republicans to use their new House majority to pass federal restrictions on abortion, while they pressed for new bans and restraints at the state level. They warned activists against complacency, with one speaker acknowledging that the decision has ushered in “challenging times of unrest and new threats to human life” as a reinvigorated abortion rights movement pushes back.
“This is not the end of our journey,” Mississippi attorney general Lynn Fitch, whose office won the supreme court case – Dobbs v Mississippi – that overturned Roe, said from the stage before the march. “It is our charge today, in this new Dobbs era, to channel that same determination and hope and prayer that has led you to these streets for 50 years.”
From the White House, Joe Biden marked the occasion with a vow to protect abortion access and a proclamation recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision, which falls on Sunday 22 January.
“Never before has the Court taken away a right so fundamental to Americans,” Biden said in the statement. “In doing so, it put the health and lives of women across this Nation at risk.”
He called on Congress to codify abortion rights and pledged to continue to use his limited authority to take executive actions to protect access.
In the seven months since the supreme court dismantled Roe’s federal protections, abortion access in America has become a patchwork of state by state policies. More than a dozen states have enacted sweeping bans on abortion, while several more aim to take similar actions when state legislatures reconvene this year. Legal challenges are pending in several states.
Yet the anti-abortion movement also suffered a string of significant and unexpected defeats in the 2022 midterm elections. In several key states, Republican and independent voters helped defeat initiatives to limit abortion access while a number of Republican candidates who supported abortion bans without exceptions lost.
Their efforts to advance new measures at the state level have been met with fierce opposition from abortion rights advocates. Initiatives have sprung up to help women seeking abortions travel to states where it remains legal or to access abortion pills.
Even so, Friday’s crowd saw many declaring victory. Busloads of high school students and seasoned activists, bundled against the wind, cheered and held signs proclaiming: “I am the post-Roe generation.”
“We did it,” Rev Lalita Smith said, recalling her “exuberance” when the Dobbs decision was handed down. “But in doing so, we brought more battles to the forefront because now every state has a right to decide what their position is going to be.”
This year, the theme of the gathering was “Next Steps: Marching Forward into a Post-Roe America”. In recognition that the fight to end abortion in America has moved to Congress and all 50 state legislatures, the march charted a slightly different course. Instead of finishing at the foot of the supreme court, they ended at a spot located between the court building and the US Capitol.
“If anything, the pro-life movement is more important than ever before because now it’s up to the states,” said Katie, a 19-year-old college student from Massachusetts who preferred not to give her last name.
At the rally, the speakers presented a united front, committed to the march’s overarching vision to end abortion. But the post-Roe landscape has exposed fault lines in the movement as Republicans, elected officials and activists press forward with a host of different demands, tactics and approaches.
“What is the most ambitious we can be?” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America, a leading anti-abortion group, told reporters this week.
Dannenfelser said she would like to see Congress enact a “federal minimum standard” that would ban abortions after a certain point early in a pregnancy, though she was clear-eyed that the prospects of such action were dim as long as Democrats held the Senate and the White House.
House speaker Kevin McCarthy welcomed the marchers to Washington, pledging: “You now have a Congress that is standing up for life.”
Addressing the crowd, Steve Scalise, the House majority leader, touted a pair of anti-abortion measures that passed the chamber earlier this month, among the first actions taken by the new Republican majority. “That’s what difference elections make,” he declared.
Speaking after Scalise, Republican congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, co-chair of the congressional pro-life caucus, said the House would soon take up a third measure that would block federal funding for abortion, known as the Hyde Amendment.
On Thursday, the abortion rights group Catholics for Choice unfurled large banners from the rooftop of a Planned Parenthood in Washington, as anti-abortion activists demonstrated below. One read: “Most people of faith support legal abortion”. On Friday, abortion rights activists disrupted a prayer service organized by the March for Life.
“These extremists lied, cheated and stole seats on the supreme court in order to overturn Roe,” said Mini Timmaraju, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, via email. “It’s never been clearer that they are the minority: that’s why they had to cheat to win, and that’s why they were defeated handily in the midterm elections.”
Public opinion polls since the Dobbs ruling in June have repeatedly found that a majority of Americans support access to legal abortion. A Pew poll conducted in July found that nearly six in 10 Americans disagreed with the supreme court’s decision eliminating a constitutional right to abortion, while just four in 10 approved of it. Public support for abortion has largely remained unchanged, even as the partisan divide on the issue has deepened.
On Sunday reproductive rights activists will commemorate what has now become a bitter milestone, the 50th anniversary of the Roe decision, with rallies in state capitals around the country. The events are being held under the banner: “Bigger than Roe” and organizers say they hope to build on their successes in the 2022 midterms.
Vice-president Kamala Harris will mark the anniversary on Sunday with a speech in Florida, where she will rally reproductive rights supporters to fight state-level efforts to ban abortion while calling on Congress to enact federal protections.
In Florida, Democrats are bracing for new attempts to restrict abortion after governor Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, signed into law a bill banning the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Dannenfelser, the SBA president, said Florida was a model for what is possible across the country as a new generation of emboldened abortion opponents take charge.
“This year, we march with fresh resolve as a brand-new pro-life movement,” she said, adding: “We’re more expectant than ever that we will make new gains for women and children.”