Thousands of women gathered at Washington, D.C.’s Freedom Plaza on Saturday to take part in the Women’s March, an event planned in the wake of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to take her place on the country’s high court.
Parts of the day put on display a friction that has existed since the first Women’s March in 2017: that between abortion rights advocates and antiabortion activists.
While the Women’s March was getting underway, a group of antiabortion activists gathered at the Supreme Court for the smaller, competing “I’m With Her” rally held in support of Barrett’s nomination.
As the marches commenced on opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, two activists — one in support of abortion rights and one antiabortion — geared up for a day of protest.
Shalima Beesasar Mohan: Mohan, a 24-year-old doctor from South Africa, says she believes in a woman’s right to choose and is adamantly for abortion rights. In the United States as an au pair, she kicked off her day of activism at the Women’s March at Freedom Plaza.
Mary Kate Knorr: Knorr is a 28-year-old that holds a leadership position in Students for Life, an organization dedicated to mobilizing students in their fight to abolish abortion. From Chicago, Knorr flew to D.C. in early October to support Students for Life in their antiabortion activism as well as rally for Barrett’s nomination.
Before joining their rally at the Supreme Court, Knorr and a few other members of Students for Life headed to the Women’s March rally at Freedom Plaza.
“We got up this morning, gathered our stuff and popped over to the plaza just to check it out,” Knorr said. “We headed back over to [the Supreme Court] once we decided we had a plan in place.”
Mohan was still on her way to the march — she’d been getting immunization shots that morning ahead of her Doctors Without Borders trip to Syria that would leave the following Wednesday.
Women’s March organizers and activists broadcast their message from the event’s stage, encouraging those present to vote in the 2020 election. Chants of “vote him out” rippled through the attendees, many of whom had spread out onto Pennsylvania Avenue to maintain social distancing guidelines.
One activist recounted the story of her own abortion, stressing the need for accessible abortion as a form of women’s health care in the United States.
Knorr and her group of Students for Life activists had seen enough, they said, and they headed back to the Supreme Court for the beginning of their “I’m With Her” rally in support of Barrett’s nomination.
Mohan arrived at the Women’s March with a friend just in time for the march to begin; she joined the throng of people chanting and marching toward the Supreme Court.
“It’s so important for us as young women to know our worth,” Mohan said, holding her homemade sign above her head as she walked down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. “As a woman, I think that I should have the opportunity to know that I have a choice, at the end of the day, to have an abortion.”
Mohan enjoys expressing herself at protests after growing up in South Africa, where she says social issues were often touchy subjects and not something to be discussed casually. She says she finds strength and inspiration from her sister, a single mom of two kids living in South Africa. They struggled to understand where they stood growing up as Asian women in a country where Apartheid and its abolition placed a hyper-focus on the status of Black and White people.
“It’s very important to me that we make ourselves known for issues like this, especially as Asian women,” Mohan said.
As abortion rights advocates marched, Knorr and her group of antiabortion activists rejoined Barrett supporters at the Supreme Court. They listened to speakers from the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative nonprofit organization in support of Barrett’s nomination.
The first protesters from the Women’s March rounded the corner to the Supreme Court, where they were met by antiabortion activists holding signs depicting ultrasound images with the words “She could be Rosa” and “She could be Hillary,” suggesting that aborted fetuses could have easily been well-known women.
“We knew they were going to be coming,” Knorr said. “So right as they turned the corner, we jumped out in front of them as they came toward the Supreme Court. It was such an awesome moment for us.”
As more Women’s March protesters filled the street in front of the Supreme Court, tensions flared. Each side came equipped with megaphones, and opposing chants filled the air: “Abortion is health care” competed with “abortion takes a human life,” and protesters closed in on each other until they were screaming face-to-face.
Mohan, toward the back of the Women’s March, arrived at the Supreme Court and joined in on the chants with other abortion rights advocates.
“I felt powerful,” she said later. “I felt like I had a voice.”
Knorr patrolled the front line of the action on her side, grabbing a megaphone when she saw her group of activists facing off against a much larger group of the opposition.
“Abortion takes a human life,” she shouted, voice cracking in the amplified speaker.
The abortion rights activists continued to file into the street in front of the Supreme Court, each side standing face-to-face. The crowd stayed relatively peaceful throughout, at most exchanging fiery words.
“If we want to advocate for human rights, we can’t pick and choose which human beings we’re going to advocate for,” Knorr said, catching her breath for a moment as the action began to die down. “It’s not popular to be pro-life, but we are convinced that this is a human person inside of a woman’s body. And we know that Amy Coney Barrett recognizes the same reality.”
Knorr says she is a feminist, and that it’s difficult to see other feminist women fighting against a Supreme Court nomination that would bring another female justice onto the bench.
“When it's not a woman that they agree with, they don't want her in that position. So it's not really about women at that point,” Knorr said.
As Knorr stepped back again, taking stock of her group of student activists, Mohan and her friend moved away from the cacophony to regroup and discuss what they had just experienced.
“I felt really empowered to give my opinion,” Mohan said. “At the same time, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But coming from the medical industry, I think every woman has a right to an abortion. There are so many reasons, like life-altering deformities to a baby and also considering [whether] your baby will have a sustainable and happy life.”
Mohan is a general practitioner at the moment but says she wants to train to become a prenatal surgeon who operates to treat birth defects on a fetus before birth.
Activity began to wind down at the Supreme Court. Knorr prepared to head to the airport — she had a flight to Chicago to catch at 6 p.m.
Mohan, on the other hand, left with her friend to grab a late lunch. Invigorated by the march, she felt ready to begin preparing for her Doctors Without Borders trip to Syria.
“I’m excited to broaden my horizons after today,” she said. “There’s a lot to be done.”