WASHINGTON—A raucous, diverse crowd of pro-lifers and abortion advocates gathered outside the U.S. Supreme Court to decry/celebrate the announcement of today’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade (1973) decision and gives states far wider latitude to restrict and ban abortion.
While the attention of the several thousand demonstrators was all directed at the Supreme Court, the range of views on abortion itself and what needs to happen next was an early window into the messy democratic politics that will be hashed out by activists, legislators, and ordinary citizens in the Post-Roe world.
The leaking of the draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito in May made today’s opinion less of a shock than it otherwise would have been. The official overturning of Roe nevertheless provoked some genuine shock and surprise from people who hadn’t planned on spending their day protesting in front of the Supreme Court.
“We had plans to do other things today, but after breakfast, the phone went ‘boop’ and now we’re here,” says Janet Berry, who was visiting D.C. with her husband from Minneapolis when they heard the decision come down.
Berry says she has been active in pro-abortion and other feminist causes for decades. She tells Reason that she was in a meeting of other activists plotting strategy on passing the Equal Rights Amendment when Roe v. Wade was first announced.
“I’m going back and forth between being so angry I can hardly control myself and so sad that we are going to have to go through this again,” she says. “It’s a core human right. It’s about bodily autonomy.”
Supporters of legalized abortion made up an overwhelming majority of people outside the Court today. They proved a largely receptive audience for impassioned speeches from Democratic politicians, including Sen. Maria Cantwell (D–Wash.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.).
A number of pro-abortion protestors, perhaps recognizing the new world where the issue will be decided by legislators, heckled Cantwell with shouts of “pass a law!” and “do your job!” That was followed by megaphone-enhanced shouts of “legalized abortion, nationwide, on-demand, right fucking now.”
The smaller number of people representing the other side of the issue outside the Supreme Court expressed the view that, even with Roe gone, the real work of convincing people of the pro-life case still needed to be done.
“We need some time, it’s all very raw, of course. We need to see where things are going to go on the state level,” says Tim Wezner, a Catholic priest from Detroit studying at Catholic University of America in D.C.
Wezner expressed both support for the decision and anxiety about potential violent reactions to it, referencing the anarchist group Jane’s Revenge’s call for a “night of rage” if Roe were overturned. “My thought here was to pray for everyone involved, for softening of hearts and understanding even as we disagree, as well as pray thanksgiving to God for allowing this to happen,” he says.
As of the early afternoon, the crowd outside the Supreme Court was energetic but peaceful.
Nevertheless, literal signs of the strain the Dobbs decision will surely put on the institutional legitimacy of the Supreme Court were on display. Protestors waived “abort SCOTUS” and “fuck SCOTUS, we’re doing it anyway” placards. At one moment, the crowd gave a collective “middle finger” to the Supreme Court building.
The anti-intuitionalism on display gave disquiet to some people in attendance.
“Some of the ideas I’ve seen from folks about ignoring the Court, that ain’t happening. Especially if you’re on the side of ‘we want government to do good things for society,'” Warren Rhea, an energy industry worker who moonlights as the popular Twitch streamer and neoliberal Twitter personality Bastiat, tells Reason.
At the same time, Rhea says that the relative tranquility of the crowd outside the Supreme Court was encouraging and compared favorably to the typical state of discourse at his natural home on Twitter.
“This whole thing has renewed my faith in the ability of people to spontaneously self-organize and peacefully express themselves. Everyone has been very polite as far as one can be at these things without sacrificing the passion of their messages,” he says.
That spontaneity produced no small amount of interesting messaging and activism outside the Courthouse, suggesting the abortion politics of the coming years will be colorful as well as passionate.
A short distance away from Wezner, the Catholic priest, were staffers with the group Catholics for Choice, who were handing out signs celebrating abortion.
“It is devastating for us that this was done in the name of our faith. We know that the majority of Catholics do not agree with this decision,” says Jamie Manson, the group’s president.
(Catholics for Choice has long been controversial. In 2016, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan put out a statement roundly condemning the group and calling its use of ‘Catholic’ in its title “deceptive” and “offensive.”)
They weren’t the only heretics in the crowd. There were also members of the left-wing group Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising sporting signs that supported universal health care from conception to the grave.
D.C.’s cadres of professional protesters were in attendance as well. The communist group RevCom—a common fixture at left-wing protests in the city—was out in force and proved remarkably successful at getting people to wear the green, pro-choice stickers.
Roe has been the law of the land for some 50 years now. The crowd outside the Supreme Court was predominately younger. Included in their number were people who are now just starting their careers in journalism, politics, and public policy. The diversity of views they expressed suggests abortion in a post-Roe world will continue to be hotly contested.
“I’m angry. I’m mad. It was a religious decision and a partisan decision,” said one high school student from Boston, who was in D.C. participating in a journalism program affiliated with The New York Times.
“Lives were saved today,” said an intern with the conservative Leadership Institute, who tells Reason she was coming out to celebrate the decision.
This article includes reporting from Eric Bazail-Eimil.