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Protesters at Supreme Court square off over abortion

Stephen Parlato of Boulder, Colo., holds a sign supporting abortion rights as antiabortion activists stand behind him outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Soon after abortion rights groups gathered outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday, antiabortion activists began to surround them. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they formed a wall with five-foot banners featuring graphic photos of aborted fetuses.

“Murderers! Murderers!” yelled one antiabortion activist. “Jesus will smite you for your murderous ways.”

Abortion rights activists shouted back. “You don’t even know the word of God,” said Jerri Riley, 66, who drove to the protest from her home in Tulsa. “I’ve been a Christian my entire life.”

In Oklahoma, Riley said, legislators are trying to pass laws similar to the Texas ban on most abortions after six weeks. “They will go as far as Texas,” she said. She traveled to Washington on Wednesday, she said, because she didn’t want to stand by and watch.

The protesters were among hundreds of demonstrators who convened in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday as the justices heard arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on the constitutionality of a 15-week abortion ban in Mississippi — a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch has explicitly called on the court to use this case to overturn the 48-year-old precedent establishing a constitutional right to an abortion.

U.S. Capitol Police arrested 33 people for blocking traffic near First Street NE and Constitution Avenue. The arrests did not disrupt the rallies in front of the Supreme Court, police said.

Abortion rights proponents danced as Cardi B’s “WAP,” a 2020 hit celebrating female sexual pleasure, blasted from speakers before oral arguments began. An antiabortion protester screamed at them from a megaphone: “You wicked murderers!”

This dynamic, with abortion rights demonstrators holding their rally and a group of abortion opponents taunting them, continued throughout the day. The antiabortion crowd seemed to greatly outnumber abortion rights demonstrators outside the Supreme Court, as the opposing sides held dueling rallies, using microphones to talk over each other with simultaneous speeches.

“I am positively surprised. Honestly, I was expecting more on the pro-choice side,” said Savannah Benton, a student at Liberty University who opposes abortion.

Despite the lopsided showing on Wednesday, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Americans support the landmark abortion decision in Roe v. Wade by a 2-to-1 margin. By a similar margin, the public opposes the Texas law restricting abortion.

Abortion does not seem to be a consistent motivator for young people who are inclined to protest, said Dana R. Fisher, a University of Maryland sociology professor who studies protests and social movements. Those who have been marching in the thousands during the pandemic, she said, are advocating for racial justice, voting rights and climate protections.

“The young people who are marching now and are out in the streets, they are not considering reproductive rights to be a big voting issue for them,” Fisher said. “That’s thanks to all the women whose shoulders they’re standing on that made sure they had choices and options.”

To kick off the day of protests, a group of four abortion rights activists took Mifepristone, a pill that can be taken to end a pregnancy, at 7:45 a.m. in front of the Supreme Court.

None of the protesters were pregnant, said Amelia Bonow, co-founder of the abortion rights group Shout Your Abortion, who orchestrated the demonstration. (Taken correctly, Mifepristone is widely regarded as safe.)

As the Supreme Court became more conservative, Bonow lost faith in its ability to protect abortion rights, she said in an interview Tuesday. By taking abortion pills on its steps, she said, her group is “ushering in a new paradigm” where people can end their pregnancies with a pill delivered directly to their mailbox.

“We reject the idea that this court ever could have told us not to end our own pregnancies,” Bonow said. “We are going to help each other have safe abortions forever, whether abortion is legal or not.”

Bonow sees her group’s demonstration as an “urgent health PSA,” she said. Many people don’t know about organizations like Aid Access, a nonprofit founded by Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts, that sends Mifepristone, widely known as the “abortion pill,” around the world.

Abortion opponents began playing the oral arguments on large speakers outside the Supreme Court at 10 a.m. The Supreme Court’s live stream is a new feature introduced during the pandemic.

The state of Mississippi presented its arguments first, and the antiabortion crowd grew quiet as Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart started to speak.

On the abortion rights side, speakers continued to take the podium, shouting to drone out the solicitor general’s arguments.

“We protest being strong-armed,” said Mira Rivera, a rabbi, speaking into a microphone. Then she started chanting: “Justice! Justice!”

A group of women, mostly in their 60s, held signs supporting the right to an abortion high in the air, blocking the opposing posters. They stood firm in the face of objections from abortion opponents, saying they were here first, on the portion of First Street closest to Maryland Avenue.

Mary Lynn Damare, 67, an abortion rights supporter who flew to D.C. from her home in Southaven, Miss., tried to ignore the heckling, proudly holding a sign that read: “Mississippi women say: We won’t go back!”

“I’m here because so many women in the 60s and 70s fought just like we’re trying to fight, and we can’t let them down,” Damare said. “I’m tired of always having to fight for something that should be outright: control over our own body.”

Andrea Bridgeman, 64 of McLean, Va., stood next to her, holding a circular poster that read, “Stand up for choice.” She said she has had two abortions for health reasons and doesn’t believe politicians should be able to “insert themselves” between a person and a medical professional.

“What frightens me about the antiabortion crew,” she said, “is how much they care about children before they’re born and don’t seem to care a wit after they’re born.”

Within hours of arriving in the nation’s capital, two Mississippi College students were outside the Supreme Court. They wanted to stay there, overnight and in the cold, to secure a space for antiabortion advocates. They sat in three-hour shifts with their small group from 7 p.m. until the crowd arrived Wednesday morning, praying for this case to mark the end of Roe v. Wade.

“It’s been encouraging throughout the semester to see this case come up,” said Delia Tuttlebee, a 19-year-old freshman at Mississippi College, a private Baptist college in Clinton, Miss.

Students for Life, an antiabortion organization, paid for the students to fly here and rally Wednesday, they said. Soon, antiabortion activists standing next to them outside the court began chanting: “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Roe v. Wade has got to go!”

Benton, the Liberty University student, decided to come to the Supreme Court so she could be a “number” for the antiabortion movement. She doesn’t feel the need to hold a sign or shout a chant, she added — she is happy to be part of what she sees as a “silent majority.”

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.