Last fall, Hannah Dasgupta spent her days focusing on politics, channeling her fear and anger at President Donald J. Trump into activism. Concerned about the future of abortion rights, among other things, during the Trump administration, she joined a group of women in suburban Ohio who were working to elect Democrats.
A year later, 37-year-old Ms. Dasgupta is still as concerned about these issues. But she did not attend a national women’s march for the right to abortion on Saturday. In fact, she hadn’t even heard of it.
“I don’t watch the news every night anymore – I’m just not so worried,” said Ms. Dasgupta, personal trainer and school aide, who devoted her attention to local issues like her school board. “When Biden finally took the oath, I thought, ‘I’m out for a little while. “”
Ms Dasgupta’s inattention highlights one of the biggest challenges facing the Democratic Party as the midterm elections approach. At a time when abortion rights face their biggest challenge in nearly half a century, part of the Democratic base wants to take, in Ms. Dasgupta’s words, “a long breath”.
Saturday’s march, sponsored by a coalition of nearly 200 civil rights, abortion rights, and liberal organizations, offered a first test of Democratic enthusiasm in the post-Trump era, in especially for the legions of newly politically engaged women who have helped the party take control. of Congress and the White House.
In 2017, the first Women’s March drew around four million protesters to the streets of the country to express their outrage at Mr. Trump’s inauguration. Many people cited the right to abortion as a motivating issue, according to participant surveys. Since then, the annual events have drawn smaller crowds and organizers have found themselves embroiled in controversy and internal strife.
The organizers of the march for the right to abortion said that while this year’s big events drew tens of thousands of people, rather than the millions who demonstrated under the Trump administration, the geographic spread rallies – over 650 marches in 50 states – demonstrated the scale of their movement. . They presented the marches as the first steps in a renewed fight, one intended to remind voters that change in the White House has not stopped efforts to restrict abortion rights and access. .
In the first six months of the Biden administration, more abortion restrictions were passed 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, wherever you are, this fight is at your doorstep right now,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “The moment is dark.”
Still, the march through downtown Washington had an almost festive tone, as protesters sprawling across a block cheered, chanted and waved their handcrafted placards as they marched toward the steps of the court. supreme. In Austin, Texas, thousands of participants gathered shoulder to shoulder on the expansive lawn in front of the State Capitol. Smaller marches spread across the country, with protesters hosting events from Great Falls, MT, to The Villages retirement community in Sumter County, Fla., Where participants decorated their carts. golf course with pink signs.
“We are the largest and oldest protest movement in the country,” said Rachel O’Leary Carmona, executive director of the Women’s March, which organized the events. “For some reason people are willing to ignore the actions of 250,000 women because it is less than the highest ever.”
In Austin, Leslie Ellis said the severity of Texas’ new abortion law prompted her to attend her first abortion rally.
“It’s crazy that women have to fight for their reproductive rights,” said Ms. Ellis, a dog groomer from New Braunfels. “It is a constitutional right to have the autonomy of the organization. “
Those who did not attend cited a variety of reasons: the coronavirus pandemic; a feeling of political fatigue after a conflicted election; other issues that seemed more urgent 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-generation event,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who advises the White House and the Democratic Party. “Now the 8-year-old is not vaccinated and you are afraid mom will get sick. People are just exhausted and they are deliberately checking.
Even though Democrats see the fight for abortion rights as a winning political fight, party strategists fear that a decline in enthusiasm could be another harbinger of what should be a mid-year election. – tough tenure next year for their party.
Already, Democrats are struggling to respond to a series of public health, economic and foreign policy crises. As party factions bicker and Mr. Biden’s approval ratings drop, his national platform remains mired in a legislative deadlock in Congress. Other issues that would motivate the Democratic base, including legislation that could enact abortion rights into federal law, face a difficult climb towards the pass given the party’s very slim congressional margins.
In interviews and polls, voters who think abortion should stay legal say they worry about the future of abortion rights and say restrictions, like 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 abortion will be completely overthrown and see the management of the pandemic as much more urgent. And some of those who have become activists under the Trump administration now prefer to focus on national 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 – continue to divide independent voters.
Judy Hines, a retired gym teacher in a conservative rural western Pennsylvania county who is active in Democratic politics, has not been on a march for over a year and a half, and since then ‘she has a family member with health issues, she did. not on Saturdays either.
“I hope the fight is still in the people, but it’s not,” she said. “We see our Supreme Court. We know how they are going to vote.
Abortion rights advocates warn that now is not the time for complacency. The Supreme Court prepares to take up an abortion case – the first to be argued in court with the three Tories appointed by Mr. Trump – which has the potential to remove federal abortion protection altogether .
“We have almost 50 years of legal abortion,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates four clinics in Texas. “People don’t believe it could turn back the clock.”
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, executive director of Avow Texas, an abortion rights organization in Austin, struggled to gain attention when the Texas law was first introduced. Since the bill became law last month, his organization has raised $ 120,000 in donations, an amount that would normally take six months to collect.
“It’s a little frustrating because we’ve been sounding the alarm bells for years and nobody was really paying attention,” she said. “People are realizing that the threat is real. “
For decades, abortion rights opponents have drawn large crowds to the National Mall in Washington for the March for Life, an event featuring prominent conservative politicians and religious leaders. On Monday, thousands of people gathered outside the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg to demand the passage of anti-abortion legislation.
The liberal movement that exploded into the streets in 2017 was led and fueled by women, many of whom were college educated and often middle-aged. They gathered for huge marches and almost weekly protests, gathered to discuss door-to-door strategies in exurban Paneras and founding new Democratic groups in tiny historically conservative towns. Many protesters have come to these events with their own set of pressing concerns, but surveys have shown that the problem the persistent protesters have most in common is the right to abortion, said Dana R. Fisher, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland which has conducted surveys among activist groups and during large marches.
These motivations have started to change over the past two years. As the Covid-19 threat kept many older activists at home, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in May 2020 sparked an even larger wave of nationwide protests, fueled by crowds younger motivated by a different set of issues.
In investigations carried out during the marches after Mr. Floyd’s murder, as well as among the organizers of last year’s Earth Day protest, the percentages of people citing the right to abortion as a motivator key to activism were much lower, Ms. Fisher said.
Liz Field, 45, said she attended the march in Washington to express her frustration at a Supreme Court which she says denies women their rights. Her husband, who joined her in protesting on other issues over the summer, stayed at home.
“I don’t mean to say he doesn’t believe it, but abortion is such a delicate issue,” she said.
David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin.