Outside the Supreme Court on the day Roe v Wade is overturned, a blue-haired protester is shouting through a megaphone, “I’m atheist and I’m pro-life!” Dressed in a crop top, a bright blue kerchief and a bucket hat decorated with a badge that reads “They/them”, Anastasia Rogers isn’t your average anti-abortion protester.
“For me, it’s just a human rights issue,” says Rogers, who identifies as non-binary. “Like for me, I’m also plant-based. I have a vegan diet, I advocate for animals, and I just feel like every single being has a right to life, no matter how small they are. And if I think it’s wrong to eat eggs because they kill baby chicks... then why would I not think that it’s wrong to kill a baby human?”
Rogers describes themselves as a 29-year-old, San Francisco-based “member of the LGBT community”. Resting from the hot Washington sun under the shade of a tree outside the Supreme Court, they describe how they were on vacation in Florida when they heard the news about Roe v Wade.
“I actually bought a last-minute flight [to DC] as soon as the decision happened,” they say, adding that they wanted “just to come with my friends, celebrate and support”.
“I think a lot of people think pro-lifers are all far-right, conservative old white guys. And, I mean, I have blue hair, I’m pansexual, I’m intersex, I’m non-binary. I have a lot of very left-leaning beliefs and I feel like I’m pro-life for all of life. I feel like in any situation, my views are that everyone should have the right to live, and to pretty much do whatever they want as long as they’re not harming someone else.”
Rogers is far from the only left-leaning protester out to celebrate the ruling that will now take away American women’s constitutional right to abortion care. Jostling alongside the evangelical Christians and the far-right agitators – such as well-known conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl, who spends his time here shouting at protesting women that they should “go home, back to the kitchen” – is a group of young women from Democrats for Life of America, an anti-abortion group for Democratic voters, whose placards (reading “Pro-life for the whole of life”) are decorated with rainbow flags.
One woman has decorated her denim jacket with a number of buttons and patches, including one that reads “Close Gitmo” next to another that reads “Black Lives Matter from conception to natural death”.
Yet some of the anti-abortion activists sheltering under the tree by the Supreme Court find themselves in friendly conversation with the other side. One man puts down his placard reading “End forced birth” to have a quiet debate with a softly spoken young woman clutching a sign that reads: “A third of my generation has been murdered by abortion.” She stands holding the sign impassively, while Rogers yells through her megaphone over the chants of “My body, my choice!” emanating from the much larger pro-choice demonstration.
Nineteen-year-old Phoenix Chad Lietch has travelled with a friend from Maryland, though he originally hails from Missouri. He has turned up without a sign or any decorative clothing, and is talking to pro-lifers and debating them on the issues. “I used to be pro-life,” he says, adding that reading about the issue on the internet and speaking to female friends has changed his mind.
“It’s such a heavy choice that you have to make to do something like that,” he says. “So a lot of the abortions that I’ve seen have been from either rape or incest, stuff like that, where it’s just – you can’t, or it’s life-threatening.” He adds that he still doesn’t know how he feels about abortion as a personal choice.
Lietch’s home state of Missouri instituted a trigger law that immediately banned abortion upon the overturn of Roe v Wade. He says he saw, on “everybody’s Snapchat stories and social media”, that his old friends from Missouri were scared: “Their rights are being taken away.” Lietch, who recently graduated from high school and joined the military, says he was moved to take action after realising how devastating the verdict could be for the women he knew.
Early the next morning, a man holding a yellow sign that reads “Jesus saves” stands on the periphery of the Saturday protests. Sam Bethea lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, but has a reputation in Washington DC: he often turns up to protests with his yellow sign, loudly preaching the gospel. He’s had a couple of viral moments, such as the one in 2020 when he inadvertently caused a darkly comedic moment by shouting “Jesus saves!” at Chuck Schumer.
Bethea tells me that he wasn’t raised Christian but found religion after a troubled youth “going in and out of jail”. He spent years working as a manager at Walmart, before meeting a “68-year-old white man who looked like Mr Magoo”, who turned out to be a pastor. “He asked me, ‘If you were to take your last breath, and God says, why should I let you into my kingdom? What would you tell him?’” he says. “I was like a deer in headlights. I was like, ‘Whoa, I have never even thought about answering that question.’”
That was a “lightbulb moment” for Bethea, who says he quit his job and later found work as a prison chaplain. Now, he spends his retirement travelling round the east coast with his yellow sign. Although he is a pleasant conversationalist, his views are hardline: when I ask him whether a woman should die rather than get an abortion, he responds, “Yes. Because that’s a baby. And that’s what women are supposed to do.”
Later in the day, I find Bethea entering a scrum of pro-choice protesters and yelling “Jesus saves!” in their faces. They surround him quickly, chanting “My body, my choice,” while he bellows back, “I love your soul!” It is a surreal scene.
Many of the anti-abortion activists who have travelled to DC appear to have done so to socialise. Rogers says it is an opportunity to meet up with their “online friends”; Bethea describes a lonely existence in Charlotte without a family.
Elsewhere, a middle-aged woman pushing her elderly mother in a wheelchair explains that her mother began working in family planning on the day Roe v Wade passed into law. Fifty years later, they have come to Washington DC to make their displeasure known. A woman and her profoundly disabled daughter, who struggles to stand without experiencing pain, walk through the crowd in the heat, clutching a handmade sign that simply says “Angry”.
And a couple in intricate outfits – the woman in a T-shirt declaring “Pussy power” and a rainbow tutu, with a sign that reads “Vulva la resistance”, and the man with a placard stating “I’m with her/them”, wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words “My girl could deadlift you” – describe how they got up at 5am to take the first train in from their small county in Virginia.
Though agitators like Wohl, and many Republicans, have spoken of violence at such demonstrations, there is no evidence of direct aggression outside the Supreme Court in the immediate wake of Roe’s overturn. There is undoubtedly heated dialogue, and a lot of emotion. And there are certainly varied reasons for people’s presence.
However, everyone – whether anti-abortion or pro-choice – seems to be able to agree on one thing: this is only the beginning.