Supporters of Abortion Rights, at Nationwide Marches, Try to Regain Momentum

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Last fall, Hannah Dasgupta spent her days focused on politics, channeling her fear and anger over President Donald J. Trump into activism. Worried about the future of abortion rights, among other issues, during the Trump administration, she joined a group of suburban Ohio women who were working to elect Democrats.

A year later, Ms. Dasgupta, 37, still cares just as deeply about those issues. But she did not attend a nationwide women’s march for abortion rights on Saturday. In fact, she hadn’t even heard about it.

“I don’t watch the news every single night anymore — I’m just not nearly as concerned,” said Ms. Dasgupta, a personal trainer and school aide, who was devoting her attention to local issues like her school board. “When Biden finally got sworn in, I was like, ‘I’m out for a little while.’”

Ms. Dasgupta’s inattention underscores one of the biggest challenges facing the Democratic Party as it turns toward the midterm elections. At a moment when abortion rights face their most significant challenge in nearly half a century, a portion of the Democratic grass roots wants to take, in Ms. Dasgupta’s words, “a long breather.”

The march on Saturday, sponsored by a coalition of nearly 200 civil rights, abortion rights and liberal organizations, offered an early test of Democratic enthusiasm in the post-Trump era, particularly for the legions of newly politically engaged women who helped the party win control of Congress and the White House.

In 2017, the first Women’s March drew an estimated four million protesters into streets across the country to voice their outrage at the inauguration of Mr. Trump. Many listed abortion rights as a motivating issue, according to surveys of participants. Since then, the annual events have drawn smaller crowds, and the organizers have found themselves dogged by controversies and internal strife.

Organizers of the abortion rights march said that while this year’s larger events attracted tens of thousands, rather than the millions who protested during the Trump administration, the geographic scope of the gatherings — more than 650 marches in 50 states — demonstrated the breadth of their movement. They cast the marches as the earliest stages of a renewed fight, one intended to remind voters that the change in the White House did not stop efforts to restrict abortion rights and access.

In the first six months of the Biden administration, more abortion restrictions were enacted by state legislatures than in any previous year, according to an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

“No matter where you live, no matter where you are, this fight is at your doorstep right now,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president and chief executive of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “The moment is dark.”

Still, the march in downtown Washington struck an almost celebratory tone, as protesters stretching a city block cheered, chanted and waved their homemade signs as they marched to the steps of the Supreme Court. In Austin, Texas, thousands of participants packed elbow to elbow across the sweeping lawn in front of the State Capitol. Smaller marches spread throughout the country, with protesters organizing events from Great Falls, Mont., to the retirement community of The Villages in Sumter County, Fla., where attendees decorated their golf carts with pink signs.

“We’re the largest and longest-running protest movement in the country,” said Rachel O’Leary Carmona, executive director of the Women’s March, which organized the events. “For some reason, folks are willing to discount the actions of 250,000 women because it’s less than the highest ever.”

In Austin, Leslie Ellis said the severity of Texas’ new abortion law had prompted her to participate in her first abortion rally.

“It’s crazy that women are having to fight for their reproductive rights,” said Ms. Ellis, a dog groomer from New Braunfels. “It’s a constitutional right to have body autonomy.”

Those who did not attend cited varied reasons: the coronavirus pandemic; a sense of political fatigue after a divisive election; other issues that seemed more pressing than abortion, such as racial justice or transgender rights.

“There would have been a time when a march like this would have been a three-generational event,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who advises the White House and the Democratic Party. “Now, the 8-year-old girl isn’t vaccinated, and you’re scared that Mom could get sick. People are just exhausted, and they’re deliberately checking out.”

Even as Democrats see the struggle over abortion rights as a winning political fight, party strategists worry that a decline in enthusiasm could be another harbinger of what’s expected to be a difficult midterm election next year for their party.

Already, Democrats find themselves struggling to respond to a series of public health, economic and foreign policy crises. As party factions bicker and Mr. Biden’s approval ratings sink, his domestic agenda remains mired in a legislative standoff in Congress. Other issues that would motivate the Democratic base, including legislation that could enact abortion rights into federal law, face an uphill climb to passage given the party’s razor-thin congressional margins.

In interviews and polling, voters who believe abortion should remain legal say they worry about the future of abortion rights and say that restrictions, such as a new law in Texas that effectively bans abortions after about six weeks, make them more likely to vote in the midterm elections.

But they are also skeptical that the constitutional right to an abortion will be completely overturned and view managing the pandemic as far more urgent. And some of those who became activists during the Trump administration now prefer to focus on state and local politics, where they see more opportunities to enact change. Other solutions to protect abortion rights proposed by liberal groups — including an expansion of the Supreme Court — remain divisive among independent voters.

Judy Hines, a retired gym teacher in a conservative rural county in western Pennsylvania who is active in Democratic politics, has not been to a march in more than a year and a half, and since she has a family member with health issues, she did not attend on Saturday either.

“I’m hoping that the fight is still in people, but it’s not,” she said. “We see our Supreme Court. We know how they’re going to vote.”

Abortion rights advocates warn that this is no time for complacency. The Supreme Court is preparing to take up an abortion case — the first to be argued before the court with all three of Mr. Trump’s conservative appointees — that has the potential to remove federal protection for abortion altogether.

“We have almost 50 years of legal abortion,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the chief executive at Whole Woman’s Health, which operates four clinics in Texas. “People don’t believe it could roll back.”

Some advocates believe voters will become more engaged as bills similar to the Texas law are passed by other Republican-controlled state legislatures. Aimee Arrambide, the executive director of Avow Texas, an abortion rights organization in Austin, struggled to generate attention when the Texas law was first introduced. Since the bill became law last month, her organization has collected $120,000 in donations, an amount that would normally take six months to raise.

“It’s a little frustrating, because we’ve been kind of sounding the alarm for years, and nobody was really paying attention,” she said. “People are realizing that the threat is real.”

For decades, opponents of abortion rights have attracted large crowds to the National Mall in Washington for the March for Life, an event that features high-profile conservative politicians and religious leaders. On Monday, thousands gathered outside the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg urging the passage of anti-abortion legislation.

The liberal movement that exploded into the streets in 2017 was led and fueled by women, many of them college-educated and often middle-aged. They gathered for huge marches and almost weekly protests, huddling to discuss door-knocking strategies in exurban Paneras and founding new Democratic groups in tiny, historically conservative towns. Many of the marchers came to these events with their own parcel of pressing issues, but surveys showed the issue that the persistent protesters most had in common was abortion rights, said Dana R. Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland who has conducted surveys among activist groups and at large marches.

Those motivations began to change in the past two years. As the threat of Covid-19 kept many of the older activists home, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police in May 2020 ignited an even larger wave of demonstrations nationwide, which were fueled by younger crowds motivated by a different set of issues.

In surveys conducted at marches following the killing of Mr. Floyd, as well as among organizers of last year’s Earth Day demonstration, the percentages of people citing abortion rights as a key motivator for activism were much lower, Ms. Fisher said.

Liz Fields, 45, said she had attended the march in Washington to express her frustration with a Supreme Court she believes is robbing women of their rights. Her husband, who joined her for protests on other issues over the summer, stayed home.

“I don’t want to say he doesn’t believe in this, but abortion is just such a fraught issue,” she said.

David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin.

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