WASHINGTON—If there is one event symbolic of the pro-life movement, it's the March for Life. This annual pilgrimage to the nation's capital calls attention to abortion, which has now claimed more than 37 million unborn children in the United States since 1973.
For a quarter century, throngs of men, women, and children have shown political leaders a unique example of peaceful protest. But, few of its early organizers realized the role this expression of conscience would have in the battle against abortion.
The history of the March can be traced to October 1973, when 30 activists attended a meeting in Washington, D.C., to plan an event at the U.S. Capitol. The goal was to decry the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion.
This landmark ruling was handed down Jan. 22, 1973, and the small group wanted to ensure that its first anniversary would not go unnoticed in the nation. They met at the home of Nellie Gray, who wasn't even a member of the planning committee.
Organizers came from several states, but an important component was from New York. Among those were the late Jack Short, Bill Devlin, and John Mawn. They and other New Yorkers had sharpened their pro-life skills by protesting against New York's abortion law, championed by then Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
The first March was held three months later, on Jan. 22. It was an unseasonable day with a temperature of 70 degrees. About 20,000 people created a “circle of life” around the Capitol.
“The whole idea was for us, as Americans, to recognize our right of assembly and to present our petitions to Congress,” Gray said. “We called it the March for Life, and the name stuck.”
In addition to the March, the group held a rally in which pro-life legislation, including a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, was promoted. Prayer was offered by four clergymen, and petitions were given to Congress.
Gray added, “We really thought our message had been heard. We were going to disband, but then we realized that maybe Congress hadn't heard. But, still, none of us thought of 26 marches — maybe one or two.” None could have envisioned that 200,000 people would participate in 1998.
The March for Life was incorporated and a statement of Life Principles was adopted. These nine principles recognized the sanctity of all human life and the responsibility of society to protect it. Abortion was categorically opposed and a Human Life Amendment was endorsed.
The organization noted that “the Life Principles provide guidance and purpose for the task of the grassroots pro-life volunteers in their efforts through an effective education and lobbying program.”
An implementing statement accompanied the Life Principles. This statement specified seven “considerations,” including the concept that life begins at fertilization.
‘It's very encouraging for me to see people pulling in from all over the country at great sacrifice,” he said. “It shows the determination we have. And I've been especially impressed by the number of young people the last few years.’
Gray, an attorney who had worked for the federal government, became president of the March for Life. Volunteers from around the country began to plan year-round for the Jan. 22 event, which attracted 50,000 people in 1975 and 65,000 in 1976.
In the beginning, the program was located on the west steps of the Capitol and the ring of people encircling that building became a tradition. But, Gray said, “we realized we had to bring attention to all government officialdom.”
Starting during the Carter administration, the march as it is known today took shape. Pro-lifers walked for about one mile from near the White House to the Capitol and then on to the Supreme Court Building. By 1986, 100,000 activists were attending.
In 1983, in recognition of the pro-life efforts of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the first Rose Dinner was held. Helms was specifically honored for challenging the Hatch Amendment. Although billed as pro-life legislation, the amendment would have permitted states to accept or reject abortion.
The tribute to Helms was so well received that an annual tradition of the Red Rose dinner on the evening of the March continued; the 17th will be held this month. In 1997, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and his wife, Marie, were honored with the Life Award.
A short convention consisting of pro-life speakers at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill Hotel was added in the 1990s. Last year, among the speakers was Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the former abortionist who is now a pro-life advocate and a convert to Catholicism.
The March for Life has now become an institution. It has literally spawned a new generation of pro-life leaders. Father Frank Pavone, the international director of the Priests for Life, told the Register, “It was by attending the March for Life as a high school senior that I was propelled into the pro-life movement.”
Rev. Benjamin Sheldon, a Presbyterian minister now living in Pennsylvania, has been attending the march since 1980. He first participated as president of Presbyterians Pro-Life and now is executive director of the interfaith National Pro-Life Religious Council.
“The March provides a rallying point for people who otherwise get tired or weary of the fight,” Rev. Sheldon said. “It brings many, many groups together, and is another example of where Catholics and Protestants are united in upholding this cause.
“I'm committed to the pro-life effort for two reasons. First, it's a Christian cause. Second, it's a cause that all humanity can and should take up. It isn't limited to Christians.”
A prime example of the minister's last comment is Rabbi Yehuda Levin of Brooklyn, New York. He has attended 19 marches as a representative of the Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada as well as the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He jokes that he went from being a “svelte” young man to a “not-so-svelte” 44-year-old father of nine in the course of his participation in the marches.
The rabbi has become a fixture at the marches for his blowing of the shophar, or ram's horn. For more than a decade he has used this horn, symbolic of Jewish tradition, to “remind people that they are called upon to sacrifice their all for the glory of God.”
While emphasizing the importance of the biblical teachings on life, the rabbi also strongly believes in the importance of all religious leaders in supporting the March and other pro-life activities: “Religious leaders need to draw a line in the sand and say you can't come to church on Sunday if on the other days of the week you an antithetical to religion.” He said he believes the Catholic Bishops have helped draw that line with the recent adoption of their document, “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics.”
‘The March provides a rallying point for people who otherwise get tired or weary of the fight … It brings many, many groups together, and is another example of where Catholics and Protestants are united in upholding this cause.
Catholic leaders have long been prominent in the March for Life. John Cardinal O'Connor of New York, Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston, and Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia are only a few of the prominent prelates who have participated in recent years.
Nellie Gray, a devout Catholic herself, also points to the Catholic organizations which have added so much to the March's history. The Knights of Columbus have been marshals since the beginning. The Catholic Daughters of the Americas and the Ancient Order of Hibernians are among the many others.
Many pro-life congressmen also attend the March and address the crowd. Among the stalwarts over the years have been Helms, Smith, former Rep. Robert Dornan of California, and Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland.
Others include Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, Mike Forbes of New York, Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, Steve Largent of Oklahoma, Ron Lewis and Jim Bunning of Kentucky, and Steve Chabot of Ohio; all are Republicans.
Many of these leaders and thousands of ordinary people come by plane, car, and bus to Washington year after year. Pro-life leader Joseph Scheidler calls it “an annual family reunion.”
“It's very encouraging for me to see people pulling in from all over the country at great sacrifice,” he said. “It shows the determination we have. And I've been especially impressed by the number of young people the last few years.”
Over these years, important converts have been embraced. In addition to Nathanson, last year the Rose Dinner heard from two other former abortion advocates: Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe” in Roe v. Wade) and Sandra Cano (“Mary Doe” in Doe v. Bolton, another landmark Supreme Court case).
McCorvey has become a pro-life warrior and Catholic. She told the 1998 March crowd that she was sorry for signing the affidavit to become part of the Roe v. Wade legacy.
Now, she says, “I love the pro-life movement so much — everyone really has welcomed me.” And, of the March for Life, she adds, “It's an electric charge for anyone whose faith is down about abortion being legal. It gives you a shot in the arm. It gives you hope.”
Those interested in the 26th annual March for Life, to be held Friday, Jan. 22, 1999, can contact (202) 543-3377.
Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.