Pro-choice activists take to the streets as Supreme Court hears major abortion case

Pro-choice activists gathered on Federal Plaza the day a gridlocked Supreme Court heard a major case on abortion, which threatens to shut down all but 10 abortion clinics in Texas.

By Enrica Nicoli Aldini

After the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia and the ensuing warfare in the Senate over his successor, an understaffed Supreme Court met Wednesday to hear a challenge to a Texas law that would shut down all but 10 abortion clinics in the state, with likely reverberations at the national level.

To speak up for abortion rights, activists with Feminist Uprising to Resist Inequality and Exploitation, a local group also called FURIE, demonstrated on the Federal Plaza Wednesday at a moment when access to legal and safe abortions is threatened. A likely 4-4 Supreme Court gridlock on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt would in fact automatically reaffirm the lower court’s decision, substantially upholding the restrictions on abortion clinics in Texas.

As demonstrators walked in a circle on the plaza, waving pro-choice banners and signs and chanting “Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide” and “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries,” Lisa Richards shared her concerns that if the Supreme Court gets stuck at a deadlock on Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, states will be free to legislate over abortion. In the more conservative states, it might become increasingly hard, if not impossible, for women to get an abortion.

FURIE demonstrators picketed for abortion rights on the Federal Plaza (Enrica Nicoli Aldini/MEDILL)

Alyson Kennedy, a speaker at the demonstration who is running for president of the United States with the Socialist Workers Party, called the law in Texas “reactionary” and advocated for the Supreme Court to overturn it. “Today, people are marching all over the country,” she said. “We have to keep this up. The right for a woman to choose abortion is her decision. It’s a fundamental right of women to decide when they want to have children. It relates to her being able to control her own life,” she added.

Kennedy lamented that since the Supreme Court reached the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973, anti-abortion lawmakers have repeatedly tried to chip away at women’s rights to abortion.

For Ellie Molise, a junior at Loyola University, who took over the microphone after Kennedy, the intrusion of lawmakers in women’s reproductive rights is a byproduct of a cultural environment that represses the conversation on women’s health and sex lives. Lawmakers, she said, are disguising their policies as ways to protect and advance women’s health, while in truth, they are only placing restrictions on safe access to abortion.

“People who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy have been forced into ignorance,” Molise said, to the crowd’s enthusiastic cheers. “It’s time for us to demand more. I want to live in a country that prioritizes health care over politics, and where abortion is discussed specifically as a way to exercise control over your own body.”

Steven Schwinn, associate professor of Law at the John Marshall Law School, whose work focuses on constitutional law and the Supreme Court, said the absence of Justice Scalia as the court hears the case “changes everything,” and a 4-4 deadlock is likely to be the outcome of the hearing, reaffirming the status quo and the restrictions on abortion clinics.

“I suspect they will just put the decision off until they get a ninth justice,” Schwinn said. He added that Anthony Kennedy was the justice to look for in the decision. With a largely muddled history on abortion rights cases, Justice Kennedy holds the crucial vote on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. However, Schwinn said he expected him to join the conservative wing of the court.

“For somebody like Kennedy, it’s going to be a hard case,” Schwinn said. “It’s possible that he could join the progressive majority, but it’s also equally possible that he won’t. The case is likely to result in a 4-4 split with Kennedy joining the conservative majority, and the court as a whole will see it in the interest of the American people to hold the decision off until there is a ninth justice.”

Schwinn added that because the Supreme Court has not ruled on abortion in about a decade “they are going to want to resolve the issue definitively” at some point.

As the nation awaits the outcome of the hearing, demonstrators with FURIE who came out on Federal Plaza on Wednesday said they wanted to send the message that the majority of Americans believe that abortions should be safe and legal.

“I think it’s important, ever since Roe v. Wade was decided in the 70s, to show support for abortion and reproductive rights in the streets, to show that we are the majority,” said Bria Berger, a FURIE organizer. “Our strength is in our numbers.”

Enrica Nicoli Aldini/MEDILL

All demonstrators shared the belief that the real fight for choice takes place in the streets, and not in court rooms.

“Abortion is a human right,” demonstrator Eloise Sewell said. “The fight started in the streets, and it’s going to end in the street.”

Photo at top: Pro-choice activists gathered on Federal Plaza the day a gridlocked Supreme Court heard a major case on abortion, which threatens to shut down all but 10 abortion clinics in Texas. (Enrica Nicoli Aldini/MEDILL)