Drums rolled, flags waved excitedly and, after days of rain, the sun shone bright as thousands of marchers from all around the world set off through the streets of Rome for the fourth annual March for Life on Sunday, May 4. Beginning in Piazza Repubblica at 8am, the marchers ended in St. Peter’s Square for Pope Francis’ weekly Angelus and blessing.
The March for Life in Rome began a mere three years ago, and, already, the event’s founder and director, Virginia Coda Nunziante, has witnessed a series of favorable changes in Italian society.
Nunziante addressed the gathering at the piazza about the increasing number of Italian doctors who are refusing to perform abortions. "There is a statistic in Italy that says there are more doctors using the right of objection not to do abortions. They have the right to say No because it is against what they think; it is an objection of conscience," she said. "The second thing is within schools and parishes. More people are asking us to come and speak because many young people do not know what abortion is. They think it is something very normal and are not used to thinking it is wrong."
Joseph Meaney, director of coordination for the international pro-life organization Human Life International, said the March for Life in Rome is one aspect of a wider pro-life movement in Italy.
"The Italian pro-life movement really started very strongly in the crisis-pregnancy area, and the muovimento per la vita (pro-life movement) has had a huge impact in almost every major city in Italy," Meaney said.
"But the political level and the marching level have kind of lagged a little bit behind," he said, "and so I think they’re kind of taking a page from the U.S. and saying it’s important to get together as a people of life — to get all together and go out on the streets."
"The Italians have had a pro-life movement for years, decades," he said, "but they’ve never really had a lot of marches, and so they put this together … [with] all different kinds of Italian groups, widening out to European, and now even further."
The pro-life movement seems to have awakened of late, not only in Italy, but also elsewhere in Western Europe.
Pro-life activists in Spain, for instance, are currently battling for a bill to pass in parliament that would greatly restrict their current abortion law, passed by the country’s former socialist government in 2010. If successful, the law — which now permits abortion on demand up to 12 weeks, like Italy, and later in pregnancies where there is a threat to the mother’s health or fetal deformity — will be restricted only to special cases, such as rape.
Although Spanish pro-life leaders are pushing for a no-exceptions law, "it’s the first law in the right direction for many laws in Europe," said Nicolas de Cardenas, representing Right to Life, a Spanish pro-life movement.
Other European countries are also taking similar steps, according to Terrence McKeegan, legal adviser for the Holy See to the United Nations. "Countries like Hungary are passing constitutional referendums that provide for life," he said. "Other countries, as well, are tightening their abortion laws. Another one is Russia. ... Norway is now considering restricting its abortion law."
Marchers from Poland, who just celebrated the canonization of St. John Paul II April 27, said that although their country is one of the most pro-life cultures in Europe, abortion is still nonetheless "a legalized crime" and must be fought.
The march in Rome confirmed European pro-life movements are not only gaining momentum, but also combining forces and collaborating.
In fact, the day prior to the March for Life, LifeSiteNews hosted a pro-life conference for leaders in the movement worldwide. Representatives from 36 pro-life groups from the United States, France, Spain, New Zealand, Croatia and the U.K. participated.
Though European abortion laws are generally more restrictive already than in the United States, the pro-life battle will forge on.
"European countries have never been as liberal as our [U.S.] laws, but it’s still legal. Up to the first trimester is the case with most of Europe. It’s still tons of abortion. It’s still horrible," said James Nolan, president of Crossroads, a pro-life organization based in the U.S. that has extended internationally.
Pro-lifers stress that the right to life extends to all human life, even those brought about through unfortunate or horrific circumstances. Hence, this year’s theme for the March, "For Life, Without Compromise." In other words, "life is a non-negotiable value," explained Nunziante.
Rebecca Kiessling, director of the pro-life organization Save the 1, said Nunziante asked her and a colleague to speak at the march because they were both conceived in rape.
Kiessling said her mother tried to abort her twice. But due to Michigan state laws restricting abortion before Roe v. Wade, Kiessling was protected. "My mother did not choose life for me, but pro-life leaders and advocates saved me," she stated.
Kiessling added, "Making the rape exception is like saying I deserve the death penalty for the crimes of my father. … Rapists don’t even get the death penalty."
Kiessling’s testimony contributed to Texas Gov. Rick Perry changing his position on the rape exception for abortion. Kiessling recounted, "He [Perry] said he had never considered the issue from my perspective. He is the governor of Texas; you think he has never heard the arguments? It goes to show what putting a face, a story, to the issue can do, which pierces the heart in a way arguments cannot."
Kiessling hopes that testimony such as hers will put a face to the issue for legislators worldwide. "I am here to make sure that all the international pro-life leaders know that about us and that they know we are available."
When asked why the March for Life began at Piazza Repubblica this year, as opposed to the Colosseum, its previous starting point, Nunziante addressed the difficulties organizers faced.
"In the previous years, we had a mayor who was supporting us," Nunziante said. "Now, the new mayor [Ignazio Marino] is very much against us. He is very pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia, pro-same-sex ‘marriage.’ Without his support, we are not allowed to start at the Colosseum."
However, despite abortion legislation remaining in place and politicians remaining hostile, pro-life leaders are confident the tide is turning, witnessing fruits at the grassroots level. "Laws matter, but the attitudes and beliefs of the culture matter more. The laws follow the culture, not the other way around," Nolan said.
People are no longer afraid to speak out, Nunziante expressed, and women suffering from abortions are finding healing through groups such as Silent No More, Save the 1 and many others.
"I support life because I have two daughters, and they are the most beautiful thing I have," said Benedetta, a young Roman mother volunteering at the march. "I have a friend who aborted, and I know it is something inside which she has regretted. Each child is a gift, even coming from unexpected or negative circumstances. It is always something that enriches your life."
Kiessling’s mother, who conceived her in the most tragic circumstances, would undoubtedly agree. "She says, ‘I am a blessing to her. I honor her, and I bring her healing,’" Kiessling said.
As the march concluded in St. Peter’s Square, participants received Pope Francis’ blessing, words of thanks for their endeavors acknowledging their "international and ecumenical character" and his encouragement to continue into the future.
"Many congratulations," the Holy Father told them affirmingly. "Go, and go forward — and work on this."
CNA contributed to this report.
writes from Rome.