What Happened When Thousands of Activists Descended on the Supreme Court

DSC06123cButtressed against the cold wind by purple knit caps and emboldened by enthusiasm, thousands of people gathered on a 20-foot stretch of sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court Wednesday morning to shout their support for the lawyers arguing the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case. Their chants could be heard three blocks from the court.

The Whole Woman’s Health case tests how far state legislators can go to shut down abortion clinics without running afoul of the court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade and its 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. At issue are two provisions of Texas’ HB2, a 2013 omnibus anti-abortion bill: a requirement that clinics meet the building standards of ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs) and that doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

The Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) first filed suit two years ago. A federal district court found the ASC and admitting-privileges requirements to be an undue burden on women seeking abortions, and contrary to Roe and Casey; on appeal, however, a federal court reversed that decision. Because the appeals court upheld the restrictions, a 4-4 decision—due to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia—by the Supreme Court will leave that decision intact, meaning HB2’s restrictions will take effect in Texas and likely close all but 10 clinics in the state. It will take five justices to find that HB2 is an undue burden on a woman’s right to have an abortion to strike down the laws.

Outside the court, buses—including five from New York that left at 4:00 a.m.—delivered hundreds of abortion-rights advocates from all over the east coast by 8:00 a.m. Many more people came from the D.C. area for at least part of the four-hour demonstration. About 50 anti-abortion activists formed a small enclave, identifiable by their blue balloons and blue signs reading “Protect Women Protect Life.”


CRR was one of many groups that mobilized its members and provided buses. NARAL, Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Federation, STOP Patriarchy, NOW, the ACLU, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the Feminist Majority Foundation and others all pitched in.

There were dozens of speakers, ranging from members of Congress to abortion providers to women who have had abortions. And though it was difficult to hear their speeches, that didn’t stop anyone from roaring and chanting.

Sometime after 11:00 a.m., the plaintiffs and their lawyers exited the court and descended the many steps to hold a press conference. The crowd of demonstrators lined the space below with their signs pointing toward the courthouse. Their message of was clear: HEAR US ROAR.

For more on the impact of HB2, pick up the next issue of Ms., on newsstands March 29. Or click here to subscribe!

Photos courtesy of the author.



Jo Freeman is a longtime feminist activist.  She has published 11 books, including three on women and politics.