Samantha Eberhart, a 19-year-old student at New York University, had just finished a Spanish exam on Friday morning when her smartphone relayed the news: America’s highest court had struck down a woman’s constitutionally-protected right to an abortion.
“I just kind of went to the bathroom and cried,” Eberhart said.
Eventually she made her way to Washington Square Park, where she found a handful of other young women carrying hastily-made signs, including ones that read: “Abort the Court” and “If I wanted the government in my womb I’d f*** a senator!” Hours later, they would be joined by thousands of people.
Friday’s Supreme Court ruling on the most contentious issue in American society had been telegraphed more than a month earlier when a draft was leaked. Still, the court’s decision to overturn Roe vs Wade after 49 years prompted searing reactions across the country.
They ranged from Eberhart’s rage and fear at a stark new reality to the joy and exultation of Olivia McCrackin, a 22-year-old international relations student from Denver, for a day that once seemed unimaginable.
Protesters gathered in Washington Square Park in New York City on Friday evening © Myles McCormick/Financial Times
“I think it’s amazing,” said McCrackin, who was outside the Supreme Court in Washington as part of a group called Students for Life. “It’s absolutely time that Roe came down. I absolutely stand for life and think abortion is a horrific crime.”
So did Randall Terry, the founder of anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, who was shouting “It’s murder!” at passers-by on Friday. “I’ve been fighting for four decades to end this,” he told the Financial Times, referring to legal abortion. “And I feel relief, I feel hope. It’s a great victory and win. Next up is making it a crime in all 50 states to kill babies.”
The Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez passed by and Terry shouted: “Torture her!”
As riot police stood by, small groups of protesters from both sides of the argument broke into heated debate. “It’s not a human, it’s a zygote!” a man with grey hair pulled back into a ponytail shouted. “Do you even know what a zygote is?” a woman replied.
College friends Jane Bredahl, Anjali Chatterjee, Mia Chelemen, Hannah Ginsky and Morgan Tienken at the Washington Square Park protest © Myles McCormick/Financial Times
Kathy Gomez, a 60-year-old teacher from Texas, also outside the court, appeared to represent the closest thing to middle ground. While she personally opposed abortion, Gomez believed it should still be a woman’s right. “It’s for women to make this decision. Am I going to push abortion? No. But I think it’s a right to choose,” she said.
Across the country on Friday, politicians, religious leaders and business groups issued statements, either celebrating or denouncing the decision. Banks including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase assured employees they would support their efforts to access abortions. Rallies took place in dozens of cities, while a member of the NYPD estimated the total number of demonstrators in lower Manhattan on Friday evening to be between 30,000 and 50,000.
For New Yorkers, the ruling came as many were still reeling from a separate Supreme Court decision a day earlier invalidating a century-old state law limiting the right to carry firearms.
“Yesterday, they brutally attacked us with the gun law. And now this,” said Nicole, a retiree who had taken a train to Union Square from her apartment in Upper Manhattan as soon as she heard the news on television. She was carrying a pro-choice sign that had a coat-hanger affixed to it — a reference to the days when abortion was illegal.
She faulted the country’s pro-choice majority for failing to appreciate sooner the ruthlessness that enabled conservative opponents of abortion to claim a supermajority on the Supreme Court — including by refusing to even hold a hearing on former president Barack Obama’s nominee to the court, Merrick Garland. “That’s when people should have stood up,” Nicole said.
As she spoke, two burly young men wearing Yankees baseball jerseys streamed past. One raised a fist and shouted: “God won!”
Adrienne Robbins, 42, turned up in the late afternoon, and was carrying a sign that read: “We’re going backwards America.” She worried about women in other parts of the country.
Andee Gerhardt, left, and Adrienne Robbins protesting in Union Square, New York City, on Friday © Colby Smith/Financial Times
“We’re blessed to be in a blue state and protected, but I’m more concerned about our sisters in other states who aren’t as lucky. That’s why I’m out here today. I’m really marching for them,” Robbins said.
In San Francisco Kelsey Reed, 23, among those outside City Hall, said she was frustrated at what she felt was ineffectual Democratic leadership nationally. “We just need to focus on actually getting political power that can create change,” she said. “Expand the Court, get rid of the filibuster, pass some laws.”
Patty Fitzsimmons, 71, said she was among those who marched in support of Roe in the 1970s, and was aghast at the need to do it again. “I am very concerned that our country has gone to a really negative, ugly place,” she said. “So I’m here to say, I’m not part of the ugly.”
Meanwhile, there were fears that other hard-won rights were now at risk — a sentiment that was particularly poignant at a time when the city prepares for this weekend’s Pride parade to celebrate gay rights.
This was far from speculative, since Justice Clarence Thomas had argued as much in a concurring opinion that said the same argument that overturned Roe vs Wade should also challenge rights to same-sex marriage and contraception.
“They’re going to go after us and our marriage after this,” said Sandy, 77, who was standing beside her wife, Judy, in New York’s Union Square.
The retired schoolteachers will have been together 42 years in November. They married in July 2011 on the first day same-sex unions became legal in the state — a freedom, they said, that they had never anticipated.
“The thought of going backward is awful,” Sandy said. “It gives you a pit in your stomach.”
For many, there was little reason to be optimistic about the future. “It feels a bit like playing the violin on the deck of the Titanic,” said Zoe, a 31-year-old fashion designer from Boston who was protesting in Washington Square Park. “It feels like screaming into the void. It’s just very bleak.”
Additional reporting by Sara Germano, Myles McCormick, Ortenca Aliaj and Dave Lee