WASHINGTON - Hundreds of thousands of abortion rights supporters marched through downtown yesterday then filled the National Mall in a daylong rally intended to draw attention to what they describe as a Bush administration assault on reproductive freedoms.
The marchers - forming a sea of bright pink T-shirts, pompoms and political signs - poured through the nation's capital to raise awareness of what they see as an erosion of abortion rights by way of legal challenges and legislative defeats.
"Most Americans do not realize that the chipping away has been systematic and it has been wide-scale," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I think a lot of the American public is lulled into a false sense of complacency. Young women and young men cannot imagine a time when the right to choice would not exist in America. They do not recognize how tenuous a right that is."
In a presidential election year in which the economy, national security and the war in Iraq are expected to dominate the campaign, activists on both sides are struggling to move abortion issues that have been playing out behind the scenes in the nation's courts and legislatures into the political spotlight.
Last month, supporters of abortion rights launched court challenges to the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, which President Bush signed into law last fall. The trials - under way in federal courts in New York, San Francisco and Lincoln, Neb. - set the stage for the issue to move to the Supreme Court.
The trials began days after the Senate approved the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which enables prosecutors to bring murder charges if a fetus "at any stage of development" is killed during the commission of 68 federal crimes.
Supporters call the bill a sensible crime-fighting measure. Abortion rights advocates fear that it could lead to restrictions by affording a fetus greater legal status, effectively defining life as beginning at conception.
Turning the tide
Abortion opponents, including those who lined the march route yesterday to chant prayers and hold large photographs of aborted fetuses, said they are encouraged by those kinds of incremental victories.
"I think what you see here is that the pro-choice crowd is concerned about Roe vs. Wade being overturned," said Dave Daubenmire, 51, of Hebron, Ohio, referring to the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. "That's how we lost it - one step at a time - so that's how we win the battle."
Daubenmire, a high school football coach sued by the ACLU in 1999 for leading the team in prayer before each game, said it is too soon to know how the culture war will end.
"You don't always know the score," said Daubenmire, who quit coaching in 2000 and later founded Minutemen United, a Christian activist group. "We're in the middle of the game right now, so I don't know what the outcome will be."
`A giant wake-up call
At yesterday's demonstration, called March for Women's Lives, protesters from across the country and from a variety of civil rights and women's groups rallied to regain some of the ground that they say has been lost in the abortion rights movement.
"It's ridiculous that we even have to come down here," said Amy Foell, 31, a middle school teacher from Baltimore, as she marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. "But I came down here because it's important."
Jamie E. Fontaine, who lives in Baltimore County's Rodgers Forge neighborhood, called the march a chance to refocus voters' attention on issues surrounding abortion rights.
"I'm 28 years old, and I think the women of my generation have never known a time when our right to make decisions about our own bodies has ever been challenged so significantly," said Fontaine, who works as campaign manager for Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, and serves as a board member of the state chapter of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "This is happening all over the place, and I think women are finally starting to realize [that] maybe this isn't something we're guaranteed."
Yesterday's march was the first major abortion rights demonstration since 1992, the year the Supreme Court, by a narrow 5-4 majority, held that a woman's right to abortion should be largely free from state regulation.
The event 12 years ago drew about 500,000 people, according to the National Park Service, which no longer provides crowd estimates. Organizers of yesterday's event said they had doubled that figure, with demonstrators packing the National Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument.
"This march is a giant wake-up call," Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, told the crowd. "We won't go back to 1968, when women couldn't buy birth control. We won't go back to 1972, when women were dying from illegal abortions. We're marching for our rights before it's too late."