Zubik v. Burwell SCOTUS Case: A Personal Recap

By Emily Stephens
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On March 23, I attended my fourth rally over the past two years at the Supreme Court for reproductive justice. I’m in awe of the years of activism that the most dedicated members of the movement have put in – I remember vividly watching at the peaceful protest against the March for Life as an older woman in a red-streaked white jumpsuit was carried away by several police officers, screaming “When abortions are illegal, women die!” And even though I’m young, I already know that attending rallies and protests of this kind are imperative to furthering the feminist movement.

Rallies all begin the same: anti-abortion and pro-choice protesters line up back to back – and sometimes face to face, when pairs break off from their respective sides to attempt to engage in a heated back-and-forth – and have their own chants. Both groups shoot disgusted looks and mumble comments to their compatriots when the other’s chanting is particularly raucous. News anchors vie to position themselves squarely in the middle and lead off their stories with introductions like, “I’m standing here at the Supreme Court in the middle of two protests with very different ideas, and as you can see, they’re attempting to make sure their voices are heard today…”

Rallying with passionate reproductive justice advocates at SCOTUS on March 23. (Photo by Kelli Musick)
Rallying with passionate reproductive justice advocates at SCOTUS on March 23. (Photo by Kelli Musick)

Coinciding with the oral arguments of the Zubik v. Burwell case, the purpose of this rally was to demonstrate our opposition to the plaintiffs. Essentially, if upheld, the Zubik ruling would build on the Hobby Lobby decision last year and make it even easier for religious nonprofits to deny their employees birth control as part of their insurance. Luckily, Justice Kennedy is expected to side with the liberal justices, and the plaintiffs will lose. Despite this likely conclusion, advocates for reproductive justice and counter-protesters showed up in equal measure, all replete with signs and speakers galore. Among the crowd of veteran protesters and energetic newcomers, there was something new: a disconcertingly large population of nuns.

It’s an electric atmosphere, and it’s exciting. Even if at first you feel awkward holding your sign above your head, or you have to strain to listen to the new chant being introduced in order to replicate it, soon enough the vibrant energy pulsating through the air courses through you and you yell as loudly as everybody else. And yet, it can feel as if as soon as the words leave your mouth, they disappear, swallowed by the roar of your crowd and – at this rally – the somewhat tepid rendition of “God Bless America.” (Really, what exactly was the point?) The marble pillars of the Supreme Court and the marble exterior of the Capitol building across the street create a giant echo chamber: it’s quite likely not a single person who can hear you is going to change their minds. Most already agree with you; the rest – well, anybody who carries around graphic and doctored images of bloody fetuses isn’t likely to be persuaded by a super cute sign reading #HandsOffMyBC.

Of course, the purpose of the rally lies not in who can you hear in the moment, but who will hear you – and see you, and hear about you – in the days that follow. There’s a reason why the empty eye of the camera lens pointing in your direction sends everyone scrambling to make sure a polished, clever, and – most importantly – pro-choice sign is front and center. Images matter. Media matters. We are the majority, and we must ensure opponents know this. While the nuns petitioning the Supreme Court might choose to ignore objective realities, people outside the movement who read the Huffington Post or follow George Takei on Twitter can be open to reason. If seeing a catchy sign as the headlining photo of an article on our rally makes them click on it, read about the issue, and further educate themselves, then that’s a desirable outcome.

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Protesters faced the Court when the plaintiffs and defendants walked down the steps. (Photo by Kelli Musick)

We all practice activism in many ways. Volunteering, educating, donating, and voting encompass just a few important methods of activism. And while we need to do all of this and more, we need to attend rallies – even if the chants seem repetitive and the opposition gets under our skin. Attending rallies is critical, and I feel extraordinarily privileged to live in a city where I can hop onto a city bus and go to the Supreme Court for an afternoon to make sure, in the words of that reporter, that my voice is being heard.

By Emily Stephens

Hey everyone! I'm Emily and I'm a current junior at Georgetown University, studying Science, Technology, and International Affairs. I hail from Spokane, Washington and I like to bake bread.

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