WASHINGTON -- Film stars, politicians and civil rights activists led an estimated half-million abortion-rights demonstrators through a sunny but blustery Washington yesterday in a massive rally that organizers hoped would propel the issue to the forefront of presidential and congressional campaigns.
"We're going to turn out of office people who don't support us," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, which arranged the demonstration.
Twenty and 30 abreast, the column of fluttering banners and demonstrators took more than two hours to pass the White House on its wayto the grassy mall at the foot of Capitol Hill, where speeches, songs and political rhetoric boomed through the afternoon.
The crowd gathered at the Ellipse from mid-morning and began marching shortly after noon toward the mall.
NOW said the event was the biggest abortion-rights rally ever held. U.S. Park Police estimated the size of the crowd at 500,000 -- substantially larger than the record 300,000 in November 1989, the last abortion-rights march on the capital.
A much smaller crowd of anti-abortion activists held a counter-rally on the west lawn of the Capitol, not far from the mall. But there were apparently no confrontations.
Both sides in the abortion issue see this year as a possible turning point for legalized abortion in the U.S. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments April 22 on a Pennsylvania case that imposes restrictions on abortions.
People on both sides of the issue believe the court will use that case to undermine or even overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that made abortion legal.
Because of this likelihood and other court decisions that have weakened Roe, abortion-rights activists have decided to look beyond the Supreme Court and are campaigning for the entrenchment of abortion rights in legislation at national and state levels.
The march and rally brought together people of all colors, creeds and gender; although white women were the overwhelming majority -- older ones in coats with matching hats bumping shoulders with their juniors in black leather jackets and hoop nose rings.
Punk rockers with mirror shades and roller blades, single and tandem bicyclists, and owners with their pets decked out in T-shirts, bandannas and suspenders were among the throng that streamed down Washington's broad avenues.
Some of the banners bore slogans of wry humor, like "Keep your Laws out of my Drawers," and the wistful, "Menopausal Women Nostalgic for Choice."
About a dozen anti-abortion protesters, some made up in death masks and carrying bloodied dolls to symbolize fetuses, stood on a curb, drawing scornful reproach from the marchers.
Among the youngest activists was 9-year-old Elizabeth Westin of Chevy Chase, who carried one side of a large banner inscribed: "Children for Choice." She said she supported abortion rights because "giving up babies is not good."
Presidential contenders Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown made unexpectedly low-key appearances.
Neither candidate was permitted to speak at the rally, although Mr. Brown did briefly address bystanders behind the main podium before the march started.
"I'm here expressing my solidarity with the women on this march," Mr. Brown said. "Our whole cause is democracy, the economy, the right of people to decide their own destiny, and nothing is more fundamental to that freedom than a woman controlling her own body and her own destiny."
Mr. Clinton also joined the march, walking with supporters who chanted, "Pro-choice, pro-Clinton."
NOW's strategy has put several members of Congress in the uncomfortable position of having to take a stand on one of the most controversial issues in U.S. politics.
Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski was one of several politicians at the event. "We want to make sure that our right to choose remains in the families and out of politics," she said.
Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice-presidential candidate and a Senate hopeful from New York, said: "We're damn mad. For the record, this is a pro-choice nation."
Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker from "L.A. Law," Blythe Danner from "Prince of Tides," Dana Delany of "China Beach," and feminist author-activist Gloria Steinem were among the celebrities present.
"We hope to send a strong message to Congress and to the Supreme Court that women should decide whether or not to have children and that a government should not be in a position to intrude upon a woman's womb," said actress Jane Fonda.
Many of the marchers were from out of town, having spent the night or at least the early hours of the morning crammed into buses for the trip to Washington.
For 38-year-old Deborah Davis of Towson, the march was a chance to renew a sense of belonging that she said she first experienced at an abortion-rights demonstration in 1986.
"I always look for sisterhood and empowerment. This is where you find it," said Ms. Davis, who spent several weeks organizing buses for the Baltimore chapter of NOW but who had to be pushed in a wheelchair for the 1 1/2 -mile march because she had earlier sprained her ankle.
As they passed the White House, some demonstrators tossed onto the lawn tennis balls bearing the message "Are you ready to be a mother?" President Bush was at the presidential retreat in Camp David.