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On the Steps of the Supreme Court, Tears and Glee, Bitterness and Smiles
Postcard from Washington

On the Steps of the Supreme Court, Tears and Glee, Bitterness and Smiles

(Victoria Knight/KHN)

WASHINGTON — On Tuesday morning, emotions were raw on the sidewalks and street separating the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court building — a microcosm of the reactions rippling across the country after Politico published a news bombshell Monday night.

The story detailed a leak of a majority draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito that suggested the high court was poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the court case that guarantees the constitutional right to abortion.

Not even 12 hours later, the fervor on both sides of the issue was evident as people descended on the plaza in front of the Supreme Court building. There was a mix of tears and glee, bitterness and smiles. And clear signs that neither side saw this development as the last skirmish in a long battle.

Anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights activists — some veterans of earlier protests, some lawmakers, some tourists, and some local residents — gathered in front of the court building. The night before, police had put up barricades to prevent demonstrators from getting too close.

Among the abortion opponents, the activists were excited and celebrating, yet the message stayed very controlled. When KHN reporters approached asking for interviews, they were referred to the group’s leaders or designated spokespeople.

“Obviously, we’re waiting to celebrate until it’s official,” but the leaked draft opinion reflects what her group has been hoping for, said Tina Whittington, executive vice president of Students for Life of America, a group that opposes abortion. “We’ve been working almost 50 years to have this set straight.”

Members of the organization were nearby, chatting to one another. At one point, they gathered in a prayer circle.

Noah Slayter, a 19-year-old student at Catholic University of America and a Students for Life ambassador, said he started getting a bunch of texts the night before that alerted him to the unprecedented leak. He predicted that if the court does strike down Roe, the decision would help candidates opposed to abortion in November’s midterm elections.

“When we have victories, people are galvanized to go out and vote and keep succeeding and keep winning,” said Slayter. “So I think it could be a good thing.”

Among the demonstrators who support abortion rights, emotions ranged from frustration and fear to disbelief and a determination to fight back.

“I told myself to hope that it was fake,” said Erica Palladino, a 28-year-old who works in the maternal health field and lives in Washington, D.C. She was compelled to walk by the Supreme Court after her morning Orangetheory class. “I went to bed just saying, ‘OK, like, you’ll wake up and everything will be OK, we’re not going to go back 50 years.’ And, instead, I woke up and realized it was true.”

Maine resident Sue Fitzgerald, 81, happened to be sightseeing with a friend in Washington when the news dropped Monday.

“We met for breakfast this morning, and both of us agreed that we had to be here because this is too important to miss,” said Fitzgerald. She said she is a lifelong supporter of women’s reproductive rights, having protested in front of the Supreme Court building in the 1980s. “I am so upset and concerned by the way this country is heading, and I’m afraid gay rights is going to be next,” Fitzgerald said.

Groups of schoolchildren walked from the Capitol to the Supreme Court to observe, and the crowd grew bigger as the morning closed in on lunchtime.

Meanwhile, the halls of Congress were abuzz as lawmakers were swarmed by reporters asking for their reactions to the leaked opinion.

Republicans mostly focused their hand-wringing on how the draft opinion came to light, saying the leak could influence the justices and amplify attacks on the court’s credibility, rather than on the implications of the draft ruling itself.

“Let’s focus on what happened, which is putting the justices in jeopardy with public opinion when they are an independent judicial institution, and what this does to the institution,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). “It’s absolutely wrong.”

Democrats jumped immediately to what such a ruling would mean for access to abortions. They also urged voters to elect more candidates who support abortion rights.

“Women have been telling the nation for the last 10 years that these ultra-conservative justices’ and President Trump’s ambition was always to undermine reproductive freedom,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). “And so we are now going to fight to make sure we elect candidates across the country who believe in women’s civil liberties and civil rights and believe women deserve bodily autonomy.”

Democratic senators gave public speeches on the Capitol steps, where they said voters need to ensure that a majority of senators support abortions rights. They also called on the Senate to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that has been passed by the House and includes protections for abortion rights.

Yet frustration was palpable among the abortion rights supporters. After Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) finished saying Democrats needed to send President Joe Biden legislation that would protect abortion, a demonstrator shouted, “Do something!”

Some of the senators walked across the street to the Supreme Court, where reproductive rights groups held a rally on a temporary stage, spontaneously joining speakers such as Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson to talk to the crowd.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told the growing crowd of abortion rights supporters that reproductive freedom and women’s rights would be on the ballot in November. In response, a voice from the crowd shouted, “We already voted — do something” and “Primary Sinema,” referring to moderate Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Sinema is on record supporting abortion rights. But she doesn’t support eliminating the filibuster in the Senate, a step that many progressives have argued should be taken so Democrats can pass national abortion legislation with a simple majority.

At times during the early afternoon, the anti-abortion crowd seemed to dwindle, with only a few people continuing to hold signs and argue with abortion rights supporters. But, suddenly, the members of Students for Life of America reappeared — as if with a second wind — and started singing.

One of the group’s leaders played his guitar and led a chant as other members waved signs and danced: “We’re gonna dance on the grave of Roe v. Wade. We’re gonna dance on the grave of Roe v. Wade.”

By evening, the number of abortion rights supporters had swelled, filling the entire Supreme Court plaza, as well as the street running in front of it, and overflowing onto parts of the Capitol lawn.

As speakers cycled through, protesters raised signs and clothes hangers, representing self-administered and back-alley abortions. Chants of “abortion is health care” and “pro-life is a lie, you don’t care if women die” sporadically rang out.

Demonstrators continued to show up over the next hour, with no sign of flagging. It was a historic day in Washington, and everyone wanted to be there to witness it.