Editor's Note: This story was updated after it was posted.
A smaller-than-usual March for Life crowd came to Washington on Jan. 22 — but it was a cheerful, dogged and determined group. Despite the forecast, thousands of students, families and activists made the trip individually, “Braving the Blizzard for Babies,” in the phrase of one handwritten sign.
“We were extremely pleased with what appeared to be tens of thousands of Americans who came together to celebrate life today despite the weather conditions,” said Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, on Jan. 22, in a press statement. “Today we proved our commitment to this cause, and protecting all life, especially for the unborn.”
The forecast led many bus companies to cancel rides to the march, due to concerns about navigating return journeys through thousands of miles of unplowed road in the wake of Winter Storm Jonas. Due to the cancellations, groups like those from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Dayton held rallies on their campuses. Other groups, hailing from as far away as North Dakota and Arizona, still managed to attend the march — even though many, like those from Steubenville, Ohio, Omaha, Neb., and Buffalo, N.Y., had to leave earlier than planned but then were snowbound en route home, making the best of the time with fellowship and a roadside Mass. Still other groups, like the contingent from the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., found themselves stranded in D.C. for indefinite lengths of time.
Rallying for Life
Snowflakes began falling during the two-mile walk from the Washington Monument rally site, where the marchers where inspired by speakers from Super Bowl champion Matt Birk to Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina.
“I’ve never heard a woman give birth to a baby and say, ‘I wish I had an abortion.’ I’ve never heard a woman say, ‘I wish I had fewer kids.’ And I’ve never heard a worker at a life clinic say that they wished they worked in an abortion clinic,” Birk told the gathered pro-lifers ahead of the snow. “We are unapologetically pro-life! That’s why we march,” he added, referencing the popular social-media hashtag for the march and related events: #whywemarch. The Catholic former football player drove home the point with: “The world needs more love.”
Fiorina, the only presidential candidate to attend the rally, pointed to her own beliefs in her speech.
“Ours is a fight for the character of our nation: for the value of life itself. It is a fight we must win to take our country back,” she said.
“I know what each of you knows: Every person has God-given gifts. All of us actually have far more potential than we realize. Science is on our side. Public opinion is on our side. We are winning this fight, ladies and gentlemen. We are winning this fight — but it is a fight. … And you can count on what I’ll do as president. I will defund Planned Parenthood. I will support the pregnancy centers around the country that are actually serving the families in their communities. Together, we will restore the character of this nation.”
Sue Ellen Browder, author of Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement, also spoke, telling the women in the crowd: “You represent the authentic women’s movement of the 21st century.”
Witness in the Snow
By the time the crowd reached the Supreme Court, the marchers were decked with a thin layer of snow — on their shoulders, backpacks, hoods and hair — though the ground remained clear. Some stayed to listen to “Silent No More” testimonies — from women who regret their abortions — while others dashed for their buses.
Most of the marchers shrugged at the weather. One couple in the crowd joked, “This isn’t a snowstorm; it’s a flurry.”
Joe Stakem, from Alexandria, Va., attended with his 10-year-old nephew. “We try to come every year.”
Brother Justin, from St. Louis Priory School in St. Louis, said that his group “was so enthusiastic that we came out, and we began marching around the Capitol in the morning; we covered the whole thing. We were some of the first [pro-life] protesters there praying. … We knew that we were going to get snowed in, but we came through it anyway. We’re hoping to go sledding on Capitol Hill on Saturday.”
While many marchers are Catholics like Brother Justin, recent years have brought diverse groups to the march. The theme for this year, “Pro-Life and Pro-Woman Go Hand in Hand,” emphasizes the trans-ideological nature of the pro-life appeal. It also signals pro-lifers’ desire to help both women suffering after abortion and those who have decided to keep their children.
As Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, told Catholic News Agency, “In order to end abortion in our country, it’s not going to be done with just rhetoric — it’s going to be done with actions. … It’s the pro-life movement that’s saying, ‘We can help you through this.’”
Luke Fielack, with New York City-based Pro Bikers for Life, explained that his group’s mission involves caring for individuals and families who choose life. “We help the men and women, the moms and dads, who say, ‘Yes’ to life to get the things they need, so they can bring their child into the world.”
Belying the idea that pro-life advocacy is part of a “war on women,” observation among the crowd and via EWTN’s live coverage showed that the majority of the marchers are young women themselves. In recent years, the attendance of many self-identified feminists and non-religious groups has demonstrated that pro-life issues resonate across political divides.
According to March for Life President Jeanne Mancini, being pro-life is “a human-rights issue.”
This year Secular Pro-Life marched near the front, their banners emphasizing the scientific grounding of their position: “A human being, this I know / For the embryology textbook tells me so.”
The march also abounded with non-Catholic religious groups. Some, like the small but distinctive Orthodox Church in America, are march stalwarts. But new Protestant groups attended as well. This year saw the first annual Evangelicals for Life event, hosted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Focus on the Family.
Lutherans for Life was also present at the march. Staff member Laura Davis explained, “These are not just social issues, political issues — they are spiritual issues.” Her group “work[s] with all kinds of different Lutheran bodies,” focusing on education in churches and schools and (in the words of their mission statement), “Equipping Lutherans to Be Gospel-Motivated Voices for Life.”
Other Protestants attended the march individually. Denise Emmick, a member of Covenant Fellowship Baptist Church in Stuart, Fla., came with several family members, including her daughter, who lives in Washington.
“I’m here because God is pro-life,” said Emmick. “It’s not just a Catholic issue; it’s a human issue.”
While some regulars were absent due to the weather, newcomers also joined the march. Newly married Pauline and Vince McKeown of Alexandria, Va., attended for the first time with their baby girl.
“We thought it would be cool,” said Pauline. Looking at her daughter, she added: “I want her to grow up with that value [of being pro-life]. I think it’s one of those things that one has to do — so that, from the start, she was coming to the march.”
Marsha Grimes was also at the march for the first time, coming from Massachusetts with four of her 12 children. Like many marchers, Grimes was unfazed by the weather. “What’s a few snowflakes among friends?”
Describing herself as a “prayer warrior” of many years, Grimes expressed excitement at finally being able to come in person, now that her youngest was 7 years old. “I’m glad to be here, and yet I hope to be here on the year that this is our victory march.”
That hope was on the lips of many marchers. With the presidential election around the corner, some pro-lifers express cautious optimism for next January. Some hope, too, that the Supreme Court’s decision to hear Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, a case that challenges a Texas law requiring abortion facilities to meet specified safety standards, could signal willingness to reconsider applications of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In Casey, the Supreme Court said states cannot place undue burdens on the constitutional right to abortion before fetal viability.
Many pro-lifers see the Planned Parenthood videos released by David Daleiden and the Center for Medical Progress as having re-energized the abortion debate. “This feminist opposes discrimination by dismemberment,” said one woman’s sign; another read: “Call me an extremist, but I think dismemberment is wrong.”
Joe Stakem said that the videos’ contents confirmed his concerns about abortion facilities. But, gesturing to a small group of pro-abortion protesters, he added that there are clearly many for whom the videos contain much-needed information. “Those videos really reinvigorated [the debate], in many ways.”
Brother Justin said he was surprised by just how much detail about Planned Parenthood’s actions the videos contained. “It was amazing how much incriminating evidence there was in them. It was not overhyped at all. … People were complaining, ‘Well, they’re just showing the short little clips from it’; and then they said, ‘Well, we put up the whole video — watch the whole video.’ And so many people that went on to watch the whole video say it’s worse: If you watch the whole thing, it’s actually worse.”
The marchers’ comments came ahead of Monday’s news that Daleiden and a colleague were indicted by a Houston grand jury for their actions in their undercover investigation.
Despite the renewed consciousness of their cause’s gravity, most marchers remained upbeat. Smiling nuns waved and jived; bagpipers skirled American patriotic tunes.
As students chanted, “We are the pro-life generation,” a woman began an impromptu sidewalk jig. On one corner, signs warned of graphic images ahead; but the majority of the slogans were positive, quoting everyone from Thoreau and Tolkien to Yoda, Dr. Who and Dr. Seuss: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
Luke Fielack, like most, put a cheerful face on both the meteorological and political situation.
“We’ve been here in worse. This is not a problem for pro-lifers. We trust in God — everything will happen the way he wants it to happen. This battle’s not gonna end until abortion ends.”
Sophia Mason Feingold filed this story from Washington.
Register staff contributed to this report.