Women wailed outside the Supreme Court while teenagers next to them started a dance party.
At the moment the growing crowd learned six justices had overturned Roe v. Wade, it was impossible to tell if the din echoing off the high court’s marble was cheers or screams. As it turns out, it was both. Both defenders of abortion rights and their detractors had found their way here at the moment the justices handed down their decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson’s Women Health, reversing 50 years of legal precedent that protected a woman’s right to choose. The former gathered to register rage, devastation, and fading resolve.The latter came to have a party — to celebrate the decades of right-wing groundwork that had culminated in this moment.
A young woman near the steps of the Supreme Court, wiping the tears out of her golden eyeshadow. Behind her, a group of teenagers bounced their “Protection At Conception” signs in the air as a Black Eyed Peas song blared from a speaker. “I’ve got a feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night,” they sang. Janet Berry, a 76-year-old woman from Minneapolis, gloomily recalled the time before Roe, when “girls in high school either went away to an ‘aunt’ or ended up dead” she explained. “That’s a shitty way to deal with a pregnancy.” She stood near a young man, wearing a T-shirt screen printed with the image of a fetus, who told me he’d popped a bottle of champagne outside the court at 10:10 AM — at the very moment the decision published.
It was jarring to see political enemies, so often ensconced in their own bubbles, standing side by side. Each side huddled into protective pockets that alternated alongside the metal barricades between them and the Supreme Court’s stairs. For every sign proclaiming “Equality Begins In The Womb,”, there was another demanding “Abortion On Demand & Without Apology.” Both sides howled about “forced murder” — the anti-abortion activists claimed this decision put an end to it, while the pro-choice protesters claimed this decision was just the beginning of it. Newcomers approaching the court scanned the crowd, careful to ensure they make their way to their kind. Dozens of Capitol Police officers wore their heaviest combat gear as they trekked toward the growing masses.
After they cast their first votes of the day, House Democrats gathered on the steps of the Capitol. They sang “God Bless America” — homage to the gun control bill they passed that morning — then solemnly marched across the grounds to the Supreme Court, registering their outrage with reporters along the way. Democrats rightfully earned majorities in both chambers of Congress and the White House in the last election, but majorities, they’ve quickly learned, are impotent against a high court stacked with Republican appointees. The House had passed a raft of legislation his House colleagues had passed to protect women’s reproductive health, all of which is doomed in a 50-50 Senate. So House Democrats did the only thing they could at that moment: They exercised their First Amendment right.
On their walk toward the Capitol, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told me the women in his office had been crying. He walked alongside Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who lowered and shook her head. “I’m depressed,” she told me. Dingell, a Catholic, said she personally could never bring herself to have an abortion. “But I also believe it’s the right of a woman to make her own personal decisions,” she explained, near tears. “I just can’t believe this is happening. It’s surreal.”
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) rejected the notion that Democrats are powerless right now. He referred to the abortion rights legislation he and his colleagues have passed that could be law if only the Senate abolished the filibuster. And if that doesn’t happen — it won’t — “we have to be sure that we grow our numbers sufficiently both in the House and Senate so we don’t need Republicans,” he said. For advocates of abortion rights — and the millions of women who just lost them — that will be cold comfort, given how much has to go right this November for that to become a reality.
What separated the factions outside the court most of all was a sense of progress and time. AJ Hurley, an anti-abortion rights activist, told me “the work has just begun,” citing what activists like him would take on to reverse existing abortion protections in states and cities.
Berry, the woman from Minneapolis, couldn’t agree less: “For us to turn around and go back to what life was like when I was in my twenties…This is the most backwards thing.”
As the hours passed after the decision’s arrival, the anti-abortion celebrants had dissipated and were replaced by a pro-abortion rights contingent, even larger and louder than their morning counterparts. Those assembled included a pediatrician from Michigan, who wondered what the ruling meant for the adolescent patients in a state with a pre-Roe abortion ban still on its books. A mother and father, in town for a wedding from the Midwest, took their two elementary age boys to help them understand the rights their generation would be denied. A woman carrying a sign — “Birth control failed, but I had a choice,” it said, written in thick black marker — teared up when asked what her message was about.
The ghost of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal justice replaced by one of the most conservative in the court’s history, hung over everything, idolized on T-shirts and tote bags and, most of all, the signs. “I’m sorry, RBG, I’ll keep fighting,” someone scribbled onto a cardboard box top thrust in the air. The protesters directed their ire toward the right-wing justices whose appointment had stripped millions of women of their rights. “Fuck Brett Kavanaugh!” the crowd chanted over and over again, waving several “Abort Alito” signs in the court’s direction.
One middle-aged woman in a bucket hat handed out small slips of paper printed with instructions on where to allocate donations or sign up to be a clinic escort in the places where abortions are still legal. “I started protesting when I was 12,” she said about the practical calls to action. “I realized it doesn’t do a whole lot.”