Frustrated by recent news that the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, tens of thousands of people throughout Southern California marched, spoke, sang and protested Saturday as part of a national bid to convince lawmakers to keep abortion legal.
“They are telling you this is about children. That’s not true,” said California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, to a crowd of several thousand who came to Centennial Park in Santa Ana on Saturday.
“This is about power.”
Similar ideas echoed at events in Los Angeles, Riverside and Claremont, among other spots, and in cities across the country.
In an era of seemingly non-stop culture battles, abortion — and the right to have one — is shaping up to be the biggest fight of all.
Some of the Southern California rallies had been planned for months by groups such as Planned Parenthood and the Women’s March Foundation, who hoped to build political momentum in advance of a potential Supreme Court ruling to overturn or severely limit Roe v. Wade.
But when a draft opinion leaked May 2 that suggested a majority on the court is indeed prepared to repeal Roe, organizers said interest in their cause skyrocketed. Soon, additional “Bans Off Our Bodies” events were organized in places like Temecula and Burbank, and in hundreds of other spots across the country.
For many speakers, and their audience, the discussion on Saturday centered on the idea that a change in Roe could signal a shift in the role government plays in the lives of Americans.
While a repeal of Roe initially would leave abortion law up to each state — and California lawmakers are working to expand the state’s already broad access to abortion — many local women said they were protesting because, in their view, a decision to give birth is a matter of self-determination. That right, many said, should not be limited by geography.
“It’s not about abortion, it’s about choice,” said Suzanna Borgese, a 73-year-old woman from Anaheim.
Borgese added that she was surprised to find herself at an abortion rights rally on Saturday because she’d marched for the same cause before Roe v. Wade was ruled 49 years ago.
In Los Angeles, volunteers and marchers began gathering before 9 a.m. in Pershing Square, where they soon started a roughly one-mile march east to a rally and speeches at L.A. City Hall.
Though the mix of marchers and rally attendees made it difficult to gauge the size of the crowd, organizers said more than 50,000 people signed up to attend. By 10 a.m., at City Hall, the crowd was standing room only.
The speakers in Los Angeles included a mix of politicians, Mayor Eric Garcetti; U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and area House members Reps. Karen Bass and Maxine Waters, and activists, including national Planned Parenthood president Alexis McGill Johnson, and actors Ricki Lake, Lisa Ann Walter and Christine Lahti.
“We are here in California to show that… we are not going to back down,” Waters said. “We are not afraid.”
Many in the crowd — some carrying signs with messages like “Overturn Roe Hell No” and “Forced Pregnancy No Way” — cheered.
“We can’t go backward,” said Rachel Ortiz of North Hollywood. “This is important for me, my daughter, and my mother.”
The crowd was loud but, mostly peaceful, also cheering for messages like this from Garcetti: “L.A. is for women. And we are a sanctuary.”
Still, while the rallies in Southern California didn’t draw notable police intervention, the day wasn’t without conflict.
In Santa Ana, about a dozen anti-abortion activists stood at the back of the rally, holding crosses and signs with pictures of fetuses and yelling “shame” at the crowd. As they chanted, a larger group of abortion right supporters yelled over them, holding up their own signs to block those messages.
The conflict — and temperatures — grew heated at times. Security was called at least once after an anti-abortion activist said he was pushed.
But not every protester, or counter-protester, was angry.
Max Graves, 19, of Whittier stood to the side of the Santa Ana event, wearing a t-shirt that read “Abolish abortion North Carolina.” He said he tried to talk with reproductive rights supporters, sharing that he believes his Christian faith doesn’t allow for any exceptions to abortion bans. He said some activists spoke with him at length, while others shouted.
“People behave wrong on both sides,” Graves said, noting that fellow anti-abortion activists sometimes reject him because he’s not aggressive enough.
“There’s a lot of yelling going on and not a lot of thinking going on.”
At a rally in Claremont, at least one protester expressed frustration that the culture battle over abortion — the yelling referenced by Graves and others — hasn’t changed much in the past 60-plus years.
Ontario resident Helen Rafferty said she’s been protesting pro-choice rights since the 1970s and turned out again on Saturday to repeat what she’s been supporting all along — “a woman’s right to choose what they do with her body.”
On the other end of the age spectrum was a 4-year-old girl, Emerson. Her mother, Stephanie Collins, said she brought her daughter to the Claremont rally so she will know “she has a voice.”
Whether Emerson winds up at a similar rally when she’s an adult remains an open question.
Rally organizers said Saturday they hope the public effort will be the first step in a longer protest.
“We’re not backing down,” said Nichole Ramirez with Planned Parenthood of Orange & San Bernardino Counties, which organized the Santa Ana rally.
“Generations before us have been fighting for the right to safe, legal abortions, and they’re rightfully upset that they have to do this again. So, we feel like it’s our turn now to fight.