A rally of a half-million people is the sort of demonstration of public opinion in action that legislators and presidents -- if not judges and justices -- have to heed. That is true even if, as was true Sunday in Washington, the people attending the rally are not a slice of American life statistically speaking, since rallies tend to attract those most committed to a cause.
In this case, the cause is the right to an abortion. The March for Women's Lives was organized by the National Organization for Women and several other groups. Its goals were to demonstrate the strength of the pro-choice movement and to energize and enlarge the movement. We suspect those goals were met.
The Washington Post interviewed some 900 of those attending the rally. At least 95 percent favored a woman' right to an abortion in all circumstances. Pollsters have consistently found that except in the case of rape or incest or a threat to the health RTC of the mother, public opinion is much less monolithic in support of abortions. Most Americans oppose abortions for reasons of convenience or economics, for example.
But even in those situations, public opinion is solidly on the side of choice. The Sun polled 1,210 state residents last February. That random sample represented true public opinion better than did the 500,000 attending the Washington rally. By 57-31 percent, those polled said they favored a woman's right to have an abortion up to the point of viability of the fetus -- and even after that in certain cases.
Another good indication that Sunday's huge rally was on the side of the majority of the public is that last year the Maryland General Assembly passed by solid majorities (60-plus percent of the members of the state Senate and of the House of Delegates) a bill that would in effect codify Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision asserting that women have a basic, if unenumerated, constitutional right to an abortion.
Still another indication that the public wants Roe left intact is a recent Gallup Poll that shows Americans want the decision left intact by 64-30 percent.
The Supreme Court will hear a case this month that could lead to overturning or severely restricting Roe. Justices may or may not pay attention to 500,000 people marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. (In our view they shouldn't.) But elected officials do (and should). Bill Clinton, Edmund G. Brown Jr. and Paul Tsongas showed up in Washington Sunday. Choice may be primarily a Democratic issue. Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 12 to 1 at the rally, and a whopping 79 percent of all marchers said they were liberals. But President Bush ought to take note of the energy and enthusiasm of that crowd -- and of the fact that fully one-fifth were moderates and conservatives and over one-fourth were independents.