NEW YORK -- About 1,200 opponents of abortion formed a vast, sparse human cross on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in midtown Manhattan yesterday, but their quiet protest was overwhelmed by 4,000 militant abortion-rights demonstrators who marched down their ranks and engulfed them in a roar of chants, shouts and anger.
"New York is pro-choice! New York is pro-choice!" the marchers chanted again and again, waving a profusion of signs as they moved down Fifth Avenue in a throng five blocks long and rounded the corner of 34th Street to confront the main body of abortion opponents in the shadow of the Empire State Building.
Amid shrieks of derision and occasional obscenities from the TC marchers, who had come from a rally at Columbus Circle, the abortion opponents stood in silent rows on a sidewalk behind protective lines of police officers and blue barricades and held aloft identical signs proclaiming: "Abortion Kills Children."
The confrontation -- a blast of noise and fury on one side and a wall of stoical rectitude on the other -- gave 450 police officers a harrowing hour at mid-afternoon.
There were some bitter exchanges between foes and a few scuffles between abortion-rights demonstrators and officers trying to keep them in line.
No injuries were reported and the large-scale violence that authorities and Mayor David N. Dinkins had feared, given the volatility and size of the two groups, did not materialize.
The police said three people were taken into custody -- dragged away, witnesses said -- and given summonses for disorderly conduct.
When it was over, both sides claimed victories -- the abortion-rights group pointing to its superior numbers and the anti-abortion group pointing to what it called the moral superiority of its quiet, dignified stance.
Earlier, the abortion-rights demonstrators gathered at Columbus Circle and, with chants, songs, banners and speeches, ridiculed the human cross being formed in midtown and denounced the anti-abortion movement.
"We think this so-called chain of life is a chain of fools," Dana Luciano of Women's Health Action and Mobilization told the crowd.
While a recording of Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" played, signs bobbed on poles: "I would die to defend my Mom's right to an abortion," and "Keep Your Beliefs Out of My Briefs."
Barbara Ehrenreich, an author and columnist, spoke as if to the anti-abortion demonstrators, who had not yet begun to gather 25 blocks to the south. "Wake up!" she cried. "You're not in Kansas now. We don't want your cross in our city. This is also a city of the Star of David and the Crescent of Islam, and we like it that way."
Later, as the police blocked off traffic, the abortion-rights protesters moved down Fifth Avenue, chanting slogans as they passed the lines of anti-abortion demonstrators. At one point, a shouting match developed.
"Dead babies! Dead babies!" screamed an anti-abortion protester.
"Dead women! Dead women!" chanted the marchers.
While there have been large protests for and against abortion in towns and cities across the nation -- most notably, a six-week siege of abortion clinics in Wichita, Kan., that saw 2,600 arrests in July and August -- yesterday's confrontation was New York City's largest in an emotional struggle that has swept the country in recent years.
For the anti-abortion groups, the turnout fell short of expectations, while the size of the abortion-rights gathering was larger than expected.
John Short, speaking for the anti-abortion groups, had said Friday that 6,000 to 10,000 people from 100 organizations would form a chain four miles long on Fifth Avenue and over a mile on 34th Street.
Forming their cross, the anti-abortion protesters stood at intervals, sometimes with gaps of eight feet, sometimes with gaps of entire blocks between them.
The anti-abortion demonstrators were to be in place by 2 p.m., each holding identical "Abortion Kills Children" signs, for 90 minutes of prayer, songs and silent vigil. But by 3 p.m., their ranks were still thin, and the largest contingent, from Long Island, seemed to be outnumbered by police officers.
Tourists, shoppers and other passers-by seemed bemused mostly, with a few applauding and others shaking their heads. Police braced for the arrival of the abortion-rights marchers and a confrontation outside the Manhattan Right to Life Committee office at 19 West 34th Street.