The historic overturning of Roe v. Wade met with an outpouring of joy and rage on Friday, as street demonstrations that began outside the Supreme Court after the decades-old guarantee of abortion access was struck down spread through the nation’s capital and to cities across the United States.
The scene outside the court in the immediate wake of the Dobbs ruling captured Americans’ wildly divergent reactions to a watershed moment in one of the nation’s bitterest debates. Antiabortion activists brimmed with joy at a long-sought legal victory while supporters of abortion rights voiced fury and despair.
“They don’t understand the gravity of this decision,” Tanya Matthews, a 26-year-old from South Carolina who opposed the repeal of Roe, said as she watched antiabortion demonstrators dancing and cracking champagne outside the court on Friday morning. “Just because it’s not legal doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.”
Lauren Marlowe, 22, was as elated at the decision as Matthews was dismayed by it. Marlowe shrieked with delight and hugged her friends when the ruling was announced just after 10 a.m.
“I can’t believe it’s real,” she said. “ … We’re in a post-Roe America now.”
But as the day wore on, the crowd’s mood shifted as most antiabortion demonstrators left and more supporters of abortion rights began to pour into downtown Washington. On Friday about 1,000 people chanted and held signs outside the Supreme Court denouncing the decision. The protesters were joined at one point by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who vowed through a borrowed megaphone that the left would work to restore the rights revoked by the court.
About 1,000 additional protesters assembled for a march beginning half a mile from the Supreme Court at Union Station, and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) spoke at a Planned Parenthood office in the District to denounce the decision. On Friday night, a small band of demonstrators banged drums and chanted at the entrance to Justice Clarence Thomas’s Fairfax Station neighborhood, which was guarded by a pair of Fairfax County police cruisers.
Shortly after 7 p.m., the crowd from Union Station joined those already gathered at the Supreme Court.
“This is a horribly sad day,” said Brittany Riggle, a 35-year-old scientist who lives in Rockville, Md., and had marched from the train station. “But it is heartening to see all these people come out.”
In New York, thousands gathered in Washington Square and in Union Square. In Chicago, a Planned Parenthood official, speaking to hundreds of protesters at Federal Plaza, predicted that Illinois would soon see an influx of people from more conservative Midwestern states seeking abortions.
At Legislative Plaza in Nashville, Paula Foster, a 58-year-old social worker, voiced a widespread worry — that the Supreme Court, having removed the protections of Roe, will eventually revoke its protections for same-sex marriage.
“I’m legally married, and to a wonderful woman,” Foster said. “I’m afraid that I will no longer be able to have that protection.”
Foster also feared for her daughters, ages 11 and 13.
“I’m frightened for them and the world they’re going to grow up in,” she said.
In D.C., police said they had activated the full department — placing officers on standby in case of violence or vandalism — through the weekend. Dozens of police officers surveyed the scene as the peaceful but animated crowd gathered outside the court less than two hours after the decision was announced. Security fencing ringed the court, and officers with long guns watched the crowd from the roof. But by Friday night no arrests had been made, and dueling factions of impassioned demonstrators appeared to have largely avoided serious confrontations.
The only serious incident involved a demonstrator who climbed to the top of the 70-foot archway over the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, shutting down traffic starting late Friday morning. Police said the demonstrator displayed a flag or a banner reading: “Don’t tread on my uterus.” As of about 10 p.m., he was still refusing to come down.
Amanda Herring was in the early stages of labor when the Supreme Court announced its decision. The 32-year-old’s due date is Saturday, she said, and she had planned to spend Friday monitoring her contractions in her Northeast Washington home. But instead, she put on a shirt that stopped below her chest, scribbled “NOT YET A HUMAN” on her exposed belly and drove to the Supreme Court with her toddler and family.
“Everyone is talking about murder,” she said amid throngs of demonstrators, pointing to her stomach. “But this is not yet a human.”
Although Herring said she expected her display to draw disapproving comments, she added, “I feel a responsibility to my child and to my future child to be here.”
Herring said her contractions were 10 minutes apart and not too painful. She planned to continue protesting as long as she could.
Caroline Flermoen and Kate Spaulding, both 17, had just begun their walking tour of Capitol Hill on Friday morning when they heard chanting and the strains of music. They immediately knew what the noise meant.
The girls — from Grand Rapids, Mich., and Boston, respectively — are rising high school seniors and were in Washington for an educational summer program. Their guide had mentioned that a decision on Roe might come during their tour, but to hear it, the girls said, was surreal.
“Bye bye reproductive rights,” Caroline texted her mother at 10:14 a.m.
They joined a couple hundred people out in front of the Supreme Court. When someone offered them bright-green stickers reading “Overturn Roe? Hell no!” with an illustration of a crossed-out coat hanger, they accepted.
Kate put the sticker on her jean shorts. Caroline affixed it to her white T-shirt, obstructed by a red lanyard with her dorm key. As she looked out at the supporters cheering, her eyes filled with tears. She knew she would remember this day for the rest of her life, she said.
Stephanie Gross, a 21-year-old college senior dancing to rap music blasted from a stereo being pulled in a wagon, would also remember the day. She believed the court’s decision paved the way for a better future, she said. There were bubbles in the air, and spilled champagne coating her friends’ arms.
“When I have kids someday, I can say that I was there when it happened,” Gross said. “Can you believe it?”
As Shannon Mayes, 52, watched the crowds gathered in front of the Supreme Court, with their flags and hand-drawn posters and loud music, she couldn’t help but think that abortion was more nuanced than either faction let on.
Mayes, a substitute teacher from Akins, S.C., was raised Catholic, and understood that for many devout Christians, a heartbeat was a heartbeat, and a life was a life. But Mayes had a story that even many of her friends didn’t know, she said: how, in 1997, she and her husband had learned that only half of their son’s heart had developed. A doctor told them that if Mayes carried him to term, she would have to move to Boston for advanced medical care. He was expected to live only a few years, if he wasn’t stillborn.
She and her husband chose to terminate the pregnancy at 20 weeks. Mayes had gotten an epidural. She’d gone through labor. And then she’d held her son William — small and unmoving — in her arms, before she let him go.
Mayes went on to have two other children, she said. But the decision changed her life — and affected her feelings about Friday’s Supreme Court ruling.
“What I went through — it’s a gray area,” she said. “People have to understand that. And if they don’t, they aren’t very empathetic.”
After dark, a group of about 200 — some dressed in black and wearing helmets and goggles — roamed the streets of downtown Washington, chanting “Abort the court.” They were followed by police officers riding bicycles. At a Hyatt hotel, guests appeared in the windows to watch them pass.
The tightly packed crowd of thousands at the Supreme Court, meanwhile, had thinned to hundreds. Demonstrators sat on the curb. Police leaned on barricades. A couple stood with their arms wrapped around each other, listening to a speaker at a microphone.
“We will be back here tomorrow,” the woman at the mic said.
The remaining protesters shouted in response: "We will be back here tomorrow.”
Rachel Weiner, Emily Davies, Nicole Asbury, Peter Hermann and Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report from Washington. Jack Wright contributed from New York, Jennifer Chesak from Nashville and Kim Bellware from Chicago.