A previous version of this article misidentified a speaker at an abortion rights protest and the company she works for. Marsha Jones is executive director of the Afiya Center. This article has been corrected.
“No matter where you live, no matter where you are, this moment is dark — it is dark — but that’s why we’re here,” Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood, told the crowd at the “Rally for Abortion Justice.”
“It is our job to imagine the light, even when we can’t see it,” Johnson said. “It is our job to turn pain into purpose. It is our job to turn pain into power.”
By 1 p.m., the crowd had swelled to the thousands as people spilled into the streets on either side of Freedom Plaza, clustering in pockets in the shade, their eyes on the stage.
“Not only is abortion health care, but at my organization we also believe it’s self-care,” Marsha Jones, executive director of the Afiya Center, a Texas-based abortion rights organization, told the throng. “You can no longer tell us what to do with our bodies.”
At that, the protesters erupted in cheers, many hoisting homemade signs and chanting, “Abortion is health care!”
The day of demonstrations was the first that Women’s March has organized since former president Donald Trump left office in January. Trump’s 2016 election catalyzed the group’s first nationwide demonstration, which drew millions of protesters to D.C. and marches like it around the country, is widely considered the largest single day of activism in the country’s history, inspiring people to become first-time protesters, community leaders and politicians.
Attendance at subsequent marches has declined. But organizers are hoping to energize the movement around threats to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that protects a person’s right to an abortion. With a 6-3 conservative majority on the high court, many now fear that Roe could be in jeopardy.
In addition to the protest in Washington, organizers said they planned more than 600 demonstrations across the country, including one in New York, where thousands could be seen marching across the Brooklyn Bridge toward Foley Square.
In Chicago, where several thousand gathered downtown, Kathy Flora, 50, said the Texas ban compelled her to travel in from the suburbs to attend her first protest. “I just can’t believe it’s gotten to this point, to be honest,” she said. “I thought it was supposedly settled law.”
At a protest in Jackson, Miss., a group of women in their 60s questioned whether younger women would fully grasp the consequences of Roe being overturned. Lisa White, 65, who traveled 170 miles from her home in Bay St. Louis, Miss., said the way women’s rights are being “slashed across the board” evokes reminders of her youth when she said her aspirations of going to law school were dismissed by men who thought “women should be barefoot and pregnant.”
“I was not taken seriously,” said White, who attended law school in Connecticut. “I had to fight for everything I got.”
In San Francisco, the thousands of marchers along Market Street included Jessie Reynolds, 20, a student who said she only recently began following politics after becoming aware of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“That was my ‘coming to Jesus’ moment,” she said. Referring to the abortion rights movement, she said she hoped the march would “put the fire back in women. I wasn’t a part of this fight up until this year, and I’m hoping that a lot of other people have turned that switch on.”
As the day’s events began into downtown D.C., people streamed into Freedom Plaza from across the region and beyond, many of them mothers and daughters arriving together for what they said was their first protest.
“I’m hoping my kids won’t have to protest for their bodies,” said Katie Donovan, 18, who arrived from Maine wearing a red tank top that read, “Keep Your Laws Off My Body.” Her mother, Katrina Marianacci, 48, who stood nearby with her other daughter, the two of them also wearing the same tank top, said she wanted her girls to “see what happens when women come together to fight for their rights.”
The protest also attracted men, including David Barrows, 74, who held a sign that read, “If men could get pregnant, then abortion would be a sacrament.” He said he had no patience for men who believe it’s their right to tell women what to do with their bodies.
“Women should have the right to decide when to have a child,” said Barrows, a D.C. resident. “Having a child is a huge responsibility and nobody should be forced to have a child they can’t care for.”
The demonstration drew hundreds of antiabortion protesters as well, including a couple of dozen who sought to disrupt a morning faith service hosted by abortion activists at Freedom Plaza.
“Woe to you!” one man protesting abortion rights yelled. “The blood of innocent babies is on your hands!”
To drown him out, the crowd erupted in singing and clapping.
After the speeches at Freedom Plaza, thousands of protesters marched east along Pennsylvania Avenue, led by an all-female drum line and chanting, “My body! My choice!”
At the Supreme Court, they encountered another group of counterprotesters who greeted them with a banner that read “We are the pro-life generation.”
“Abortion harms women!” the counterprotesters chanted as a live band played Christian rock.
“We’re leading what should be the true message of a women’s march,” said Michele Hendrickson, 35, the director of strategic initiatives for Students for Life of America. “If we want to talk about women empowerment, then we shouldn’t be feeding women a lie that they need abortion to succeed.”
Alveda King, an evangelical minister and antiabortion activist who is the niece of Martin Luther King Jr., stood in front of the court and prayed. “We are crying out for the babies,” King said. “What you’ve done in Texas, do it across the country.”
As the march ended outside the court, protesters and counterprotesters exchanged chants — “Pro-life! Pro women!” one side shouted, “My body! My choice!” the other side replied — until U.S. Capitol Police officers separated them.
On Sept. 1, a Texas law went into effect prohibiting abortion once cardiac activity is detected, around six weeks into gestation, before most people know they are pregnant. Under the law, citizens can sue anyone that helps facilitate an illegal abortion in Texas, from the doctor who performs the procedure to an Uber driver who drives a patient to a clinic.
The Supreme Court on Dec. 1 is to consider the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of gestation, nearly 10 weeks before a fetus can survive outside the uterus. Roe v. Wade protects the right to an abortion before the point of fetal viability. If the law is allowed to stand, it will further empower other states to pass similar restrictions.
Recent polls show Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade by a roughly 2-1 margin. A large majority of Americans also support allowing a person to receive an abortion in the case of rape or threats to their health.
Abortion advocates were happy to see the words “abortion” included in the name of the March, said Aimee Arrambide, the executive director of Avow, an abortion rights group in Texas.
“There is stigma surrounding abortion, even from people who support abortion access,” she said.
The title of the march was a nod to the reproductive justice movement, founded by women of color, which advocates not just for abortion to be legal, but accessible to all.
Rachel O’Leary Carmona, executive director of Women’s March, described the movement as a coalition of more than 120 groups, including Planned Parenthood and Black Feminist Future, focused on ensuring that people are able to safely and legally access abortion and health care for their families.
“Roe is the floor, not the ceiling,” Carmona said. “Abortion rights, reproductive justice, is absolutely a part of voting rights and justice for immigrants, and racial justice because they can’t be extracted from themselves. The most impacted communities across all those groups are communities of color.”
Yet to some Black feminists, the rally seemed like a “White woman’s march,” as 24-year-old Devonn Thomas put it, saying there needed to be more focus on disparities that hurt minority women’s access to abortion.
Thomas said her mother always taught her the importance of the right to choose. But that choice, she said, has always been easier for wealthier White women while minority women have faced barriers.
“Abortion rights is still white power if it’s not given to Black people as well,” Thomas said.
Sarah Fowler, Erin Chan Ding, Kayla Ruble, Carly Stern, Ellie Silverman and Scott Clement contributed to this report.