The day after Roe v. Wade was struck down, hundreds of people rallied in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington. A small number of anti-abortion protesters were there to celebrate, but mostly the crowd was protesting the choice, by the Supreme Court, to summarily strip Americans of reproductive rights.
One of the speakers, her voice amplified over the heads of onlookers, expressed her frustration with Congress, saying there was little reason to hope that elected Democrats would do anything to help protect reproductive rights. So she had come with a different message.
“Repeat after me,” she said into a microphone. “Misoprostol.”
The crowd yelled the medication name back at her.
“We sometimes call it mEYE-so, or miso, like the soup,” she added. “It’s safer than Tylenol.”
Step by step, she told the crowd exactly how to end a pregnancy with medication, explaining how many pills a person needing an abortion should take, how to let the medication dissolve in your cheeks slowly, and what to expect after that. The crowd roared its approval.
Over the course of the afternoon, in 90-degree heat, protesters who were for the most part young and female trickled in and out of a barricaded area across the street from the Supreme Court building. They wore stickers that called for abortion on demand and held signs saying “abort SCOTUS.” Some women in white had painted red streaks down their thighs. They were packed in tight, listening to a rotating list of speakers who sobbed as they spoke of their fears, of their own abortion stories.
The anger was clearly visible from every sign and chant—“Fuck the church, fuck the state. Women will decide their fate”—but the mood at the protest seemed more defiant than anguished. People delighted in clever signs or vented their outrage with each other about the ruling. At one point, a cheer went up for the abortion providers among the crowd. One woman I spoke with guessed that the positivity had something to do with the “welcoming nature” of the people present, of the relief of finding yourself surrounded by others willing to share in grief. I witnessed one tearful woman thank a supportive man for being there and ask to give him a hug.
That is not to say there weren’t mournful moments. A woman from San Antonio stood in front of the assembled protesters and described being raped during college, a story she said she had never told before. The pregnancy had ended her dreams of a career as a scientist. She broke down, sobbing, and people in the crowd screamed, “‘We love you, we stand with you.”
Anger was most often directed at the conservative justices—Kavanaugh, in particular, seemed to attract ire—but President Joe Biden and the Democrats in Congress also received some boos. “Democrats never voted to codify Roe into law,” one speaker yelled. “Fuck them.” The crowd cheered.
“Part of this was facilitated by the Democrats,” another speaker said. “‘Safe, legal, and rare.’ Fuck that shit. On demand, without apology.” People cheered.
“Where is Joe Biden, by the way?” she continued. “We can’t depend on anyone in this building”—she pointed to the Supreme Court—“or that building”—she pointed to the U.S. Capitol—“to protect our rights.”
It was a note that was somewhat at odds with pleas from other speakers to get out and vote in the next elections. The tension—between releasing anger and looking for hope, between facing the hard reality of the situation and warding off defeatism—was palpable. One minute, there was a practical call for organizing at the local level. The next, a speaker led the crowd in a primal scream.
Among the protesters themselves, there was a general feeling that something had to be done, but few seemed sure they knew what that was. (Some of the solutions speakers proposed included packing the court; voting in Congressional elections; voting in local elections; demanding Biden use executive orders to have the Centers for Disease Control provide abortion drugs; and marching in the streets.)
“More, anything,” said one protester, named Megan, when asked what she thought Democrats should do. “Something is better than nothing, which is what they’re doing right now. Pessimistically, I don’t know. But at this point, giving up hope and optimism seems more dangerous than anything.”
She wasn’t alone in her misgivings.
“We do, unfortunately, have some very inept Democrats in Congress right now,” said a protester named Dana Bubka. “I feel like what we can do is limited because of them. So I implore voters to get out in November and hopefully allow other Democrats in Congress to overcome their votes in the Senate and stop their ability to prevent us from passing laws that would strengthen abortion rights in the country.”
Another protester summed up many others’ sentiments: “We know they’re not done,” said Melissa Jensen. “Clarence Thomas said they’re going to come for contraceptive rights. They’re going to come for marital rights. I’m a gay woman. The thought that I could lose my right to get married again in my lifetime is really heartbreaking. On top of being a woman who’s lost rights today. So let’s get to work. If we have control of multiple branches of the government right now, let’s pass some fucking laws.”