WASHINGTON — Both camps in the abortion debate took to the streets in Washington on Monday, 39 years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion, pushing the hot-button issue up the election-year agenda.

They staged rival demonstrations, with several hundred opponents of abortion gathering in a light drizzle in the National Mall, and a smaller number of pro-abortion activists rallying outside the Supreme Court on the anniversary of its landmark ruling, known as Roe versus Wade.

"Killing is never right," said Kassey Maldag, a student from Michigan, who was among the protesters that included students from Catholic schools. "It is a human person, even in a womb. To perform an abortion is to kill."

Organizing the anti-abortion protest was March for Life, founded in 1974 "to draw attention to the untenable legacy of Roe versus Wade and to persuade our leaders to eradicate it from America's future."

Prior to the march from the Mall to the Supreme Court, the demonstrators met with John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, who said a "bipartisan majority is "standing up for life and working to restore the damage of Roe versus Wade."

"We are heeding the voice of the people, who overwhelmingly oppose taxpayer funding of abortion," he added. Many conservatives regard federal funding for family planning programs as incentives for abortion.

On the other side of the debate, about 60 demonstrators, mostly women belonging to pro-choice or feminist associations, gathered at the Supreme Court in the morning to "keep abortion legal."

"This (past) year has been the worst year legislatively for the right to abortion and birth control," Debra Sweet of The World Can't Wait, a liberal activist group.

In that period, she said, 92 pieces of legislation to restrict abortion had been passed, on top of other laws at the state and federal level making it harder to access birth control.

With Democrats mostly pro-choice and Republicans mostly pro-life, the abortion issue is coming to the fore in this election year.

"I remain committed to protecting a woman's right to choose and this fundamental constitutional right," President Barack Obama, a Democrat facing a tough fight for re-election this November, said in a statement Sunday.

Abortion is bitterly debated every presidential election year, with conservative Republicans eager to repeal Roe versus Wade and liberal Democrats insisting abortion is a fundamental right to be protected at all costs.

"National Right to Life has, as its top priority this year, the goal of electing a pro-life president," said its president Carol Tobias, who was cheered that all the Republican presidential hopefuls -- including frontrunners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich -- have come out against abortion.

"The choice before us for this election is very clear," she said.

Another pro-life group, Personhood USA, is planning two events during the upcoming Republican primary election in Florida, after hosting a debate on abortion before the South Carolina primary that Romney opted not to attend.

Last month, women's health advocates said they would sue the US government for allegedly violating the constitutional rights of young teenage girls by denying them over-the-counter access to emergency contraception.