Anti-abortion activists march in Washington, buoyed by waning US abortion access

Pro-life activists march during the 49th annual March for Life, on Jan 21, 2022, in Washington, DC. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Anti-abortion advocates gathered in Washington on Friday (Jan 21) for the annual "March for Life," their mood boosted by recent state abortion restrictions and the possibility that the US Supreme Court could soon upend the Roe versus Wade ruling that legalised abortion nationwide.

Despite freezing temperatures, tens of thousands of anti-abortion activists assembled on the National Mall, bearing signs that read "I am the post-Roe generation" and "The future is anti-abortion."

The event marks the 49th anniversary of Roe v Wade. But Friday's activists were optimistic that this would be the last march to occur before the overturn of the landmark 1973 ruling that established a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy before the fetus is viable, at around 24 weeks.

Rachel Young, 19, came from northeastern Ohio with her fellow students at Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Roman Catholic school that sent several busloads of students on the five-hour trip to Washington.

Young said it was her third time attending the March but that it was a uniquely exciting occasion because of how close the Supreme Court is to overturning Roe.

"I just can't even believe it," she said. "I am so thankful that God has brought us here. And that we are so, so close."

In December, the Supreme Court signalled its openness to overturning Roe during arguments for a case out of Mississippi.

The conservative justices, like Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh, indicated sympathy for Mississippi's 15-week abortion ban, which violates Roe's precedent.

If the conservative-leaning court rules in Mississippi's favour, it could overhaul abortion rights protected in the United States for nearly half a century. A ruling is expected by the end of June.

Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, the national anti-abortion group organising Friday's event, said activists are hopeful "this year will bring us much closer to building the culture of life we have all marched for since Roe v Wade was imposed on our nation nearly 50 years ago."

Abortion has long been a politically divisive issue in the United States, with abortion opponents concerned about preserving life from conception and abortion rights advocates standing for a woman's bodily autonomy.

In recent years, Republican-controlled states have advanced legislation and policies making it harder for women to get an abortion. The Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights organisation, found that 2021 saw the most restrictions of US abortion rights in decades, with 108 abortion restrictions enacted in 19 states as of Dec 31.

Liberate Abortion, a national coalition of more than 100 abortion rights advocacy groups, was not planning any in-person counterprotest at the March for Life because of the recent spike in Covid-19 cases, coalition campaign director Sharmin Hossain said. The coalition instead will hold a series of virtual events to mark the anniversary of Roe v Wade this week.

"I think it's ironic that they call themselves March for Life because they ideologically do not support people living their best lives, lives filled without shame and stigma," Hossain said, adding that mobilising large unmasked gatherings disregards public safety.

The anti-abortion movement also is celebrating a Texas law that banned abortion after six weeks and empowered private citizens to sue anyone who assists someone getting an abortion past that gestational limit. The Supreme Court has allowed that law, which took effect in September, to stand as it is challenged in lower courts.

Mark Lee Dickson, director of anti-abortion group Right to Life of East Texas, said he would attend the March for Life in Washington for the first time, inspired by the large crowds of anti-abortion protesters who gathered outside the Supreme Court for the oral arguments in the Mississippi case.

"There may not be another March for Life with Roe on the books, so I want to be a part of this," he said.

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