As oral arguments were heard inside the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, crowds of abortion rights supporters and opponents gathered beyond the building’s white pillars to bear witness to the most significant abortion case to reach the court in decades.
Some linked arms. Others chanted. Many held signs.
“Life counts,” read one. “Keep clinics open,” read another.
The divisions were also marked by colors. Supporters of abortion rights wore purple and opponents wore blue. Dueling podiums held speakers who vied at times to be heard over one another.
The crowds reflected what is at stake in the case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt , which challenges Texas’s stringent regulations on abortion clinics. State lawmakers argue that the restrictions, passed by the legislature in 2013, protect women’s health. Abortion providers say in reality that they cause clinics to close and make it unduly difficult for women to obtain legal abortions.
In the past five years, states have passed more than 250 restrictions on abortion.
“I’m a uterus,” Jessie Sebbo shouted as she stood in the crowd, wearing a pink silky costume. “And I’m here to say thank you!”
“They are here to fight for my right to do whatever I choose to do,” said Sebbo, 34, of Atlanta. “I’m a complicated organ. Sometimes things happen that I don’t want to happen.”
Sebbo said that her husband made her costume and that it’s anatomically correct down to purple gloves that represent fallopian tubes. But she modified it a bit to allow her to move more easily. “I want to give out plenty of hugs,” she said. “I’m hugging pro-lifers, too, because I think we need to share a little more love and understanding.”
As she walked through the crowd, people stopped her to take pictures. “Thank you for being here for me!” she shouted.
Amid the chants and speeches, one group stood quietly in the crowd, their mouths covered with strips of red duct tape with a single written word: Life. They were praying, not protesting, they said.
Matt Lockett, 45, said members of his group, Bound4Life, have stood outside the Supreme Court for more than 10 years. Sometimes it’s two people, sometimes 100.
“We’ve been especially praying over the Texas case for 2
Nearby, Dee Kalman held a black sign with white letters that read, “I regret my abortion.”
She had five abortions in the 1970s, she said. “I didn’t want them, but I was too young to figure that out,” said Kalman, 64, who lives in Northern Virginia.
Next to her, Nancy Tanner, 64, also carried a sign and a story. Her abortion was in 1984 at a D.C. Planned Parenthood facility. She said she is affiliated with the Silent No More awareness campaign, which has collected the stories of 17,000 women who have regrets, some who suffered infections and hysterectomies as a result of their abortions.
“I think common-sense minimum standards are really important,” Tanner said. “This is not about closing clinics at all.” She said it’s about making sure clinics are clean and have halls big enough to support a gurney should anything go wrong during a procedure.
Abortion providers say full implementation of the Texas law passed in 2013 would reduce the number of clinics in the state from 42 to 10.
“We can’t go back to the time when we didn’t have abortion access,” said Chi Nguyen, 25, of New York, holding up a corner of a quilt that took 10 people to carry.
On it were 300,000 stitches sewn by women from 34 states and six countries. The goal, said Nguyen, the artist behind it, is to fill it with 5.4 million stitches, one for each woman of reproductive age in Texas.
One of those women, Candice Russell, 32, who lives in Irving, said she has already felt the impact of the Texas regulations.
“I had to travel 1,000 miles to get an abortion,” she said.
When she became pregnant in 2014, she faced long wait times for an appointment at a Dallas clinic and a two-appointment requirement, and so she took out a payday loan to supplement her administrative assistant salary and flew to California to obtain an abortion. “At least I was able to do that,” Russell said. “I know that’s not the case for everybody.”
Marva Sadler, the director of clinical services for Whole Woman’s Health, said she was in Texas the day the law went into effect and saw clinics close overnight. She traveled from San Antonio on Tuesday night to speak at the rally.
“This is my life,” she said “There is no way I could not see this through. I’ve been through this entire fight, and I will see it through to the end.”
About 11 a.m., as arguments were nearing a close inside the building, a line of people still waited along the sidewalk to get inside. Some were tourists. Others were personally invested in the case. Two medical students wore hospital scrubs. All of them would get only three minutes inside. The line for those who got seats began days earlier.
Abortion rights supporters Kate Banfield and Heather Hardy spent Monday night in fold-out chairs in front of the court to secure their prime spots — Nos. 13 and 14.
“I feel really strongly we all need to be doing something to try and bring change, and you can’t bring change if you just sit at home,” said Banfield, 48, a mother of three who lives in San Francisco. She was one of the many women who chose to describe her abortion in the “friends of the court” briefs for the case.
“Coming felt like the right thing,” she said, “and now that I’m here, I know it’s the right thing.”
Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.