WASHINGTON -- The raw, wrenching politics of abortion spewed onto the streets of the nation's capital yesterday as opposing activists marked the 19th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision.
Heartened by a belief that victory is near, ranks of singing, sign-bearing abortion foes -- estimated by police at 70,000 strong -- marched on Capitol Hill and urged the court to reverse its 1973 ruling legalizing abortion.
Standing behind police barricades, hundreds of abortion-rights advocates waved placards and chanted at the marchers from the curbs. Meanwhile, their leaders assembled a commission of experts to consider the consequences if the Supreme Court were to rule that the Constitution does not guarantee women the right to end an unwanted pregnancy.
The abortion issue -- possibly the most bitterly divisive for Americans since the Vietnam War -- heated up even more Tuesday, when the court announced that it would review a Pennsylvania law restricting abortion rights. Both sides believe that the justices will use the case to undermine -- if not overturn -- Roe vs. Wade.
"This is a particularly important year for you to come to Washington," Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., told the marchers. "Because -- let us pray -- the Supreme Court of the United States may at long last reverse this year that scourge of 1973."
With abortion abruptly elevated as a political issue in the presidential campaign, President Bush addressed the anti-abortion marchers through a loudspeaker hooked up to the White House.
"I am out there with you in spirit," he told the crowd assembled on the grassy mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument.
"I want to reaffirm my dedication and commitment to the simple recognition that all life is a precious gift, that each human being has intrinsic dignity and worth," Mr. Bush said.
The political line is drawn clearly on abortion. The five major Democratic presidential candidates -- Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey, Paul E. Tsongas and Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. -- are all declared to favor abortion rights, and they were to speak last night at a National Abortion Rights Action League fund-raising dinner.
The "pro-life" march has become a Washington ritual in the 19 winters since the Roe vs. Wade decision was handed down. Busloads of anti-abortion activists come from the North, South and Midwest.
"I came because I'm against abortion," declared Allen Childs, 21, a laid-off draftsman from Elberton, Ga.
On this clear, cold day, they cheered each anti-abortion speaker and waved a plethora of placards. "Choice -- Live Baby or Dead Baby," said one. "Murder is Not a Right," said another. A bundled baby slept in a carriage bearing the message: "A Person is a Person No Matter How Small."
About two miles from the march, another 150 anti-abortion protesters were arrested while blocking abortion clinics, bringing the two-day total close to 550.
No arrests or violence were reported along the route to Capitol Hill, where outnumbered abortion-rights activists dubbed the "Ad Hoc Committee to Rain on Their Parade" exchanged shouts with the anti-abortion marchers.
"Pro-life. That's a lie. You don't care if women die," they chanted. "We will not go back."
They, too, came well-armed with slogans and signs. "Making Abortion Illegal Is Murder," said a sign. "The Majority of Women Want Choice," said another.
Earlier in the day, the National Abortion Rights Action League announced the formation of a National Commission on America Without Roe, made up of experts in the fields of law, medicine, education, religion, government and economics.
"It is time for the pro-choice majority to prepare for the inevitable loss of our right to choose [abortion] and to begin developing strategies to restore and ultimately secure this fundamental right," said NARAL's executive director, Kate Michelman.