Hundreds of thousands of pro-abortion rights demonstrators held a spirited rally in Washington Sunday. A smaller crowd of counter demonstrators was also present.

Despite chilly, blustery weather and the threat of rain, defenders of abortion rights packed the mall between the Washington Monument and Capitol Hill. They chanted pro-choice slogans, waved placards, and listened to speeches by scores of celebrities and dignitaries - among them, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi. "We are here to say that a woman's right to make her own reproductive decisions is not only pro-choice, it is pro-children. It is pro-family, it is pro-constitution, it is pro-freedom," she said.

Standing in the crowd, college student Natasha Dastur nodded her head in agreement. "There is no reason why other people should be deciding what we need to do with our own bodies," she said.

That sentiment was not limited to women. Bill Allen traveled to Washington from Connecticut.

"I feel it is basically a form of slavery if people are forced to bear a fetus to term. I know it is a difficult decision, something that should be decided between a woman and her doctor, and no one should interfere with that choice," he said.

Abortion has been legal across the United States since a landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision, known as "Roe versus Wade". But abortion rights activists note that, late last year, President Bush, a strong opponent of abortion in most circumstances, signed a law banning certain types of late term, or so-called "partial birth" abortions.

A few blocks away, several hundred anti-abortion activists led a counter-demonstration. One man waved graphic pictures of aborted fetuses as he spoke with the aid of a loudspeaker. You want to talk about weapons of mass destruction? Look at these pictures of the dead pre-born babies. The death toll is 4,400 a day [in the United States]," he said.

Randall Terry heads the pro-life group "Operation Rescue" that urges women with unwanted pregnancies to give the babies up for adoption, rather than choosing abortion. We believe that they are spewing lies, that this is a death march. Their march is in support of killing innocent human life. What is their message? 'We want the right to kill our offspring at any point.' And that is unjust and oppressive. We are here to witness for life and for truth and for justice and for dignity for women, instead of abortion," he said.

Both sides in the abortion debate are well-aware that 2004 is an election year in the United States. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a defender of abortion rights, did not attend Sunday's rally. But many pro-choice activists sported buttons and t-shirts bearing his name. They note that several Supreme Court justices are nearing retirement age, and that the next president could be in a position to nominate candidates to fill vacancies on the court, which could have an impact on the outcome of any future legal challenges to abortion rights.