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BY RICH DALY, REGISTER CORRESPONDENT
WASHINGTON — Debi Keatts knows the idea that President Obama could change his views on abortion and become a defender of the lives of the unborn may appear impossible. But she also knows that God has answered even more long-shot prayers.
“I always have hope,” Keatts told the Register during the first-time prayer vigil across from the White House on the eve of the annual Jan. 22 March for Life.
Keatts joined several hundred other pro-life activists who gathered on a below-freezing evening in Lafayette Park across from the White House to pray, sing and beseech the commander in chief to defend the most vulnerable lives in the nation.
“You are the living memorial to the ongoing holocaust and murder that has beset this nation,” Michael Voris, a founder of RealCatholicTV.com, told attendees.
Nellie Gray, president of the March for Life Education & Defense Fund, said the group has added the vigil to its annual pro-life march to try to draw this president’s attention to the impacts of abortion.
The march itself was one of the best-attended in many years. The Register’s film critic and blogger Steven D. Greydanus said that “numerous police officers on the ground” told him that attendance was significantly higher than last year’s record-breaking level, which many agree was roughly 300,000.
“One officer seemed a bit worn out by the sheer size of the crowd and the length of the time it took the whole march to get up Constitution Avenue,” Greydanus wrote on his Register blog. “All I know is it took me from 2:00 to 4:45 to get from the rally site to the Supreme Court building — a distance of about a half-dozen blocks.”
The night before, Nellie Gray and other speakers were critical of Obama’s call for “common ground” on abortion, even as he has instituted stridently pro-abortion policies that include lifting a ban on federal funding for overseas abortions as one of his first actions in office.
Gray was one of several speakers who called for pro-life activists to ensure that Obama becomes “the most prayed for president in history.”
Ryan Scott Bomberger told attendees that their prayers are needed to especially save black people, who are aborted at the highest rate in the nation.
“I am half white and half black, just like President Obama, and abortion is wiping out black people,” Bomberger said.
He is one of several speakers who urged pro-life activists to combine their prayers with actions to change the hearts and minds of the American public. Bomberger’s efforts include a Georgia billboard campaign to educate the public about the severe impact of abortion on black people in the state.
Other efforts highlighted at the rally include an ongoing push to elect pro-life officeholders. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., told attendees that the pro-life position is becoming stronger in both parties because supporters of life have become more active in the electoral process.
“Pro-life candidates will run stronger and stronger as time goes on,” Franks said.
Until Congress and state legislatures become more pro-life, he said, attendees should continue praying to change the heart of “the most radically pro-abortion president in the history of the United States.”
Meanwhile, another vigil was taking place across town: the annual Vigil Mass for Life in the Basilica of National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It was the first time for Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas, to preside at the Mass as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
In his homily, Cardinal DiNardo welcomed the thousands of Catholics from across the country who made the trip to Washington for the annual vigil and march marking the 37th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.
The cardinal said he was particularly grateful for the presence of thousands of young people, whom he called “a sure mark of infectious joy, the sign of life.”
He recalled the martyrdom of a youthful St. Agnes — Jan. 21, the day of the vigil Mass, is the feast day of the Roman saint — saying her witness to faith as a child can be an inspiration for all Catholics in the continuing campaign to protect life.
“St. Agnes was so small that the chains intended to bind her hands and wrists slid off,” he said. “Unfortunately, in our culture we have grown into the chains that bind us and hold us fast in a grip of deadly attitudes about human life, about the human person, especially in the moments of his or her beautiful but fragile beginnings and in those vulnerable times of old age and illness.”
The cardinal offered his views on the current health-care reform legislation before Congress. He said the House and Senate versions of reform fail to uphold the dignity of people and freedom of conscience.
He said that while the House version of the bill reaffirmed the long-standing policy against using federal funds for health plans covering elective abortions, the Senate stripped that provision from its bill.
“That (Senate) bill is also less successful in making health care affordable for all who are poor or vulnerable, especially immigrants,” he said. “Neither bill has sufficient conscience protections at this point.”
“Our response must be clear and articulate to Congress on the essential criteria for genuine health-care reform. Abortion is not health care. Health care is about saving and preserving lives, not destroying lives. As our president before Congress recently said, everyone should be cared for, and no one should be deliberately killed,” he said.
Cardinal DiNardo urged the thousands in the basilica to embrace life willingly and earnestly, as did the saints who span the centuries.
He said the actions to influence lawmakers on abortion — lobbying, public marches, writing letters — are important. But so, he said, is prayer and embracing Jesus on the cross.
Rallying the Marchers
Despite overcast skies, the mood at the Jan. 22 annual March for Life in Washington was decidedly upbeat as speaker after speaker urged the crowd to keep up their efforts in the pro-life arena.
Several speakers told the tens of thousands on the National Mall — bundled in winter gear and holding aloft placards with pro-life messages or banners identifying where they were from — that they were now in the majority and would continue to make inroads in society and in government policies.
Although the rally’s opening prayer asked God to grant the march participants “the courage to be a voice for the voiceless,” this group hardly seemed to be lacking bravery. They showed stamina by simply showing up in vast numbers — many as repeat marchers — despite calls for sleet and freezing rain, which never materialized.
A glance at the banners across the Mall showed that the participants included people from Texas, Michigan, Ohio and Massachusetts. The relatively subdued crowd cheered enthusiastically when speakers stressed that abortion should never have been part of health-care reform legislation before Congress or when speakers criticized President Barack Obama’s support for legal abortion.
Nellie Gray, president of the March for Life Education & Defense Fund — the group that organizes the march — told participants that their presence at the 37th annual march represented a “whole new surge” for the pro-life movement to not only continue to educate government officials about the immorality of abortion but to also show a united front.
Those involved in the fight against abortion, she said, are not just working to change laws but are also giving support for pregnant women and women who have had abortions.
Several speakers highlighted the pro-life movement’s outreach efforts and urged participants to support pro-life doctors and pharmacists and to let members of their community know about the available pregnancy centers or post-abortion counseling programs.
With the U.S. Capitol in the background, 23 Catholic bishops and 21 members of Congress joined pro-life leaders on the rally’s stage.
Among the bishops were Cardinals DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Justin Rigali of Philadelphia. Several of the lawmakers were Catholic, including: U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who is co-chairman of the House Pro-Life Caucus, and Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, R-La.
Cao led the group in a pro-life cheer, and then urged them to “speak loudly for leaders to understand we are pro-life.”
He encouraged the participants to keep up their efforts, stressing that the “fight will be long and hard” and that young people, who made up a large percentage of march attendees, would need to see the efforts through.
Brownback told the crowd that “for the first time you live in a majority pro-life country,” referring to recently released Gallup Poll results showing 51% of American to be pro-life on the abortion issue and 42% of Americans as pro-choice.
“You have done it — persuading others — keep it up,” he said.
After the rally, participants walked to the Supreme Court. Many planned also to meet with their representatives to lobby for anti-abortion measures.
Two women from Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Turnersville, N.J., said they had never attended the march before because they weren’t quick enough to get seats on the parish-sponsored buses.
They were pleased simply to see the turnout. Theresa Ramsey, taking pictures of the crowd, said she was surprised to see people “coming from all directions.” She also was confident that the sheer number of people had to make an impact, either in Washington or in their local efforts.
“Let’s hope people are listening,” she said as her friend nodded in agreement.
CNS contributed to this report. Rich Daly writes from Washington.