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Florida’s anti-abortion movement won big last year. What do they want now?

Hundreds of anti-abortion protesters took to the streets of St. Petersburg Saturday morning.
Anti-abortion protesters march up 1st Avenue North on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. Even in a post-Roe world, hundreds came to protest around the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.
Anti-abortion protesters march up 1st Avenue North on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. Even in a post-Roe world, hundreds came to protest around the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. [ KIRBY WILSON | Times ]
Published Jan. 21|Updated Jan. 23

ST. PETERSBURG — Protesters have been staging “March for Life” demonstrations against legal abortion since the first anniversary of Roe v. Wade — the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized the practice across the United States.

But this year is different. As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of Roe on Sunday, anti-abortion activists live in a world where, from a Constitutional law perspective, they have won. A conservative-dominated Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June.

Saturday showed that the activists don’t plan to stop marching any time soon. More than 200 gathered in Pioneer Park for a demonstration through downtown to St. Pete City Hall. The goal? More visibility for the anti-abortion movement. A reminder to lawmakers to keep restricting the procedure. A message that abortion opponents haven’t stopped paying attention.

Pinellas Park Pastor John Brent Stancil, standing at City Hall, likened legal abortion to a wall that has had pieces removed. The time has come for the entire wall to go, he said. It’s up to elected officials like Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to remove it.

“President Reagan stood outside the Brandenburg Gate and told Mr. Gorbachev, ‘tear down this wall.’ So today, we say, ‘Mr. DeSantis, tear down this last piece, and let us have a place where life is protected,’” Stancil said.

The anti-abortion agenda seems poised for more post-Roe victories. Florida Republicans, defying more than three decades of state legal precedent, passed a bill banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy in 2022. In a troubling sign for abortion rights supporters, a conservative-dominated court system has left that law in place. Its fate will ultimately be decided by the state supreme court, four justices of which were appointed by DeSantis, an avowed opponent of abortion rights.

Related: These Florida parents chose abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Here's why.

Theresa Kimball of Tampa, who held a “Stop Abortion Now” sign during the march, said the positive momentum hasn’t changed much about the annual “March for Life” events. But one difference between the Roe-era marches and this post-Roe gathering may be that activists are extra motivated to show up to local events, as opposed to the march in Washington, D.C., Kimball said. (That march was held Friday.)

Meanwhile, abortion rights activists, who once marched to protect their constitutional rights, are now in the streets pushing to get them back. They argue that abortion decisions should be left up to individuals, and that restrictions cause pregnant people to seek unsafe alternatives. Abortion rights activists planned their own series of demonstrations Sunday to commemorate Roe’s 50th anniversary, including a gathering at the Joe Chillura Courthouse Square in Tampa.

The Biden administration has been messaging aggressively around the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, too. Vice President Kamala Harris is set to make a speech Sunday in Tallahassee. In a statement to reporters Thursday, administration officials said they would look to protect women’s health by safeguarding abortion access through executive order, and by lobbying Congress to pass a law protecting abortion rights.

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But on Saturday in St. Petersburg, the White House’s talk seemed far away. For more than two hours, the crowd of anti-abortion activists chatted, prayed and sang. They took pictures together, said the Lord’s Prayer, recited the Hail Mary. They heard from a Catholic bishop and a sidewalk minister who stands outside clinics trying to convince people seeking abortion to reconsider.

The topic was heavy, but the mood was light.

Sharon Hiepe, a retiree from North Redington Beach, said for Christians, being positive just sort of comes with the territory.

“If it hasn’t happened yet, we’re confident that it’s going to,” Hiepe said. “In God’s time.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted John Brent Stancil. He said: “President Reagan stood outside the Brandenburg Gate and told Mr. Gorbachev, ‘tear down this wall.’ So today, we say, ‘Mr. DeSantis, tear down this last piece, and let us have a place where life is protected.’”