Dueling protests are a ritual in the nation's capital on the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Both sides said there was greater urgency this year with the GOP now controlling Congress and the White House.
Abortion opponents see their best chance in years to erode if not overturn Roe. "It just seems like it's more optimistic this year after the November elections,'' said Dennis Voglesong, 50, of Hagerstown, Md., who has attended the anti-abortion March for Life for five years. He and others bundled against the bitter cold said they see a surge against abortion rights among a new generation. "Every year it seems the youth gets to be a larger part of the movement," he said. Abortion rights advocates, meanwhile, pledged to hold the line as they gathered for a Wednesday evening rally at the Supreme Court.
"We will not be the generation that both won and lost reproductive rights in our lifetime," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, one of the groups that planned a competing rally later in the day.
The flashpoint comes as abortions become less common in the U.S.--particularly among teenagers--in part because of better contraception. The overall abortion rate fell from 1994 to 2000 - from 24 abortions for every 1,000 women of childbearing age to 21, according to the nonprofit Alan Guttmacher Institute.
As is traditional, President Bush broadcast a message to the anti-abortion rights rally, saying Americans "must protect the lives of innocent children waiting to be born." Bush, who was in St. Louis to give a speech on his tax-cut plan, noted that the gathering on the National Mall was near the memorial to Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. "The March for Life upholds the self-evident truth of that declaration--that all are created equal, and given the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,'' he said.
Bush and the new Republican-controlled Congress have fueled the debate with promises to curb access to some abortions. First on their agenda is a ban on late-term abortions. Congress passed such a ban in 1996 and 1997, but President Clinton vetoed it each time. Bush has said he would sign it into law.
The prospect of a resignation on the Supreme Court also has raised the stakes because it would allow Bush to appoint a justice who opposes abortion rights, thereby turning the court from a 5-4 majority in favor of abortion rights to 5-4 against them.
The debate rages in legislatures across the nation, as states fight over measures that would protect or erode abortion rights. In Utah, for example, a state lawmaker marked the 30th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision by introducing a bill to define at what stage of a pregnancy an abortion becomes ``infanticide'' and to set criminal penalties for such cases. Shivering against a wind that made the temperature feel like it had dropped into the teens, protesters highlighted powerful images.
The lunchtime March for Life was dominated by billboard-sized color photographs of aborted fetuses, and hundreds of crosses symbolizing their deaths. As onlookers gawked at the pictures - and some expressed revulsion - the man who posted them said he felt that images were the best way to spread the anti-abortion message. "For people to understand the horror of what abortion is, they have to see it," said C. Fletcher Armstrong of the Center for Bioethical Reform. "It's just like people have to go to the Holocaust Museum here to see what the Holocaust was all about."