WASHINGTON — As Nellie Gray puts the finishing touches on plans for this year’s March for Life, the founder of the nation’s premiere right-to-life event is thinking of an anniversary: This will be the 39th March for Life, but the day it is being held marks the first day of the 40th year of legal abortion in the United States.

The Supreme Court issued Roe v. Wade, the ruling that legalized abortion, on Jan. 22, 1973. The actual anniversary of the ruling falls on a Sunday, when Washington officials are less likely to be on hand to witness or participate in the March for Life, so the march will take place the following day, a Monday, Jan. 23.

“We must use this time together for this march to set foundations with Washington officialdom and the pro-life movement for truly overturning Roe v. Wade as we move into the 40th year,” said Gray, who compared the past four decades to Christ’s 40 days and nights in the desert. Other pro-lifers compare the time span to the 40 years the Israelites spent traveling from captivity in Egypt to Canaan.

Gray said her message this year is “Stay on message” and “No exceptions,” describing these themes as a rejection of an incremental approach to ending abortion.

Many pro-lifers, however, embrace incremental changes as acceptable and are willing to support legislation that reduces the number of abortions without abolishing it.

The 40-year mark is not the only date that pro-life marchers will be thinking about this year. Pro-lifers interviewed for this article said they will also be thinking about the 2012 presidential election.

“There will be two themes this year,” said Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, who will be marching as usual this year. “One is to pull and tug and elect a president who is responsive to the pro-life movement and who will put in place judges who will recognize the rights of the unborn.”

The second theme, Scheidler said, is supporting the movement at the grassroots level, which includes sidewalk counseling at abortion facilities. Scheidler also predicted that many speakers at the march will talk about working to defund Planned Parenthood in 2012, as they did last year.

“The unity we see at the march is very important to these efforts,” Scheidler said.

The Hill newspaper recently reported that Planned Parenthood’s annual report for 2009-2010 showed more than $1 billion in assets. An analysis of Planned Parenthood’s finances by the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group, indicated that almost half (46%) of the organization’s income comes from taxpayers in the form of grants, contracts and Medicaid payments.

Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said that “the election will be a frequently mentioned theme at the rally and other events.”

“I think it will take on a specific character and that is because of the new health-care law [the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known informally as Obamacare] that funds abortions. We are very active in opposing that legislation, not because we don’t want health care for all, but because of its abortion provisions.”

Father Pavone has “tentative plans” to attend the March for Life, but in an interview he referred to his personal situation as “fluid.” Last fall, his bishop, Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, Texas, recalled the priest to his diocese and has not allowed him since then to travel outside the boundaries of that diocese. Bishop Zurek said that he sought “clarification and answers to concerns about the administration” of Priests for Life “and other related entities of which Father Pavone has a leadership role.” Father Pavone has appealed to the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome to resolve the dispute.

The priest said that since his plans for the Washington event are longstanding, he hopes the bishop will not object.

“If for some reason he says I absolutely can’t attend, then we would have to deal with that,” he said.

Onsite Voter Registration

The keynote speaker at the March for Life’s Rose Dinner, held the evening of the march, is Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is widely identified with the fight against the health-care law. Cuccinelli, who has said he would like to run for governor of Virginia in 2013, was one of the first attorneys general in the nation to file a suit challenging the constitutionality of the law.

Nellie Gray said that he was not tapped to deliver the address because of his opposition to the health-care law, but because several of her board members from Virginia were impressed with Cuccinelli’s overall record on abortion.

One of the new features of this year’s March for Life will be a move by Students for Life to register pro-lifers, especially the younger ones, to vote in the 2012 elections.

“This will be the first time at the March for Life that somebody has been registering people to vote,” said Kristan Hawkins, executive director of Students for Life. SFL will also emphasize the importance of registering to vote for pro-life candidates while marching.

“We will be walking with and handing out 10,000 placards that read ‘I am the pro-life generation,’ and we are going to hand out 20,000 postcards with pledges to vote pro-life first.”

“For us, every election is important,” Hawkins continued. “But 2012 is crucial.”

The Obama administration is the most pro-abortion administration in history, she noted.

“If we are going to overturn Roe v. Wade, we can’t do it unless we get the votes on the Supreme Court,” Hawkins said. “If we have four more years of Obama, he will appoint justices who support abortion.”

But Hawkins, 26, is optimistic that she and her peers will see Roe overturned. The theme of Students for Life’s Jan. 22 national conference, co-sponsored with the Alliance Defense Fund, at the North Bethesda Marriott in suburban Maryland, is “Envision … a World Without Abortion.” Two thousand young people have registered to attend the conference.

One panel at the Students for Life event will address “What Happens When Roe v. Wade Is Overturned” and will feature David Bereit of 40 Days for Life and Dr. John Bruchalski of the Tepeyac Family Center in Fairfax, Va.

Bryan Kemper of Stand True Ministries, who was recently named youth outreach director of Priests for Life, will also be the keynote speaker at another event, a Jan. 21 youth rally at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. It is officially co-sponsored by Gray’s March for Life.

Speakers at the youth rally will include Lila Rose of Live Action, who became famous for her undercover investigations of Planned Parenthood. But here, too, the 2012 presidential election will loom large.

The rally will promote a BeMyVote.com campaign, featuring pro-lifers not yet old enough to vote who will ask people to support their cause. Those registered for the campaign can win a Ford Mustang and a trip to Washington to be on hand to see the 2013 presidential inauguration.

What if Barack Obama is being sworn in that day?

“We don’t believe that is going to happen,” Kemper said confidently. “I believe that we are going to have a new, pro-life president and a renewed commitment to pro-life work by this generation. If you look at the right-to-life movement, it gets younger every year.”

‘Something Big Will Happen’

“The thing that is huge this year is that with 40 years of legalized abortion we see an entire generation that has grown up with the legalized killing of children,” Kemper said. “We want to take this 40-year mark and know that something big is on the horizon. If we stand up and make pro-life the priority, something big will happen.”

As usual this year, commentators will likely note that there are more and more young people at the March for Life — and, as usual, they will most likely be right.

“I used to go to the March for Life with my parents in the 1980s,” said Maria McFadden Maffucci, editor of Human Life Review, “and there weren’t all these young people. When I was in college, I was alone. It was considered nerdy to be pro-life. But now you see Union Station awash in young people trying to get fast food after the march.”

Also scheduled to speak at the youth rally are Victoria Hearst, a member of the publishing family (and sister of Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped in 1974) and founder of the nondenominational Praise Him Ministries, and Julia Holcomb, who in the 1970s became pregnant with the child of rock star Steven Tyler of Aerosmith (and more recently an American Idol judge). Holcomb aborted their son, something for which both she and Tyler have publicly expressed remorse.

Hearst is scheduled to receive an award for her pro-life work from Father Pavone at a prayer service, while Holcomb is scheduled to speak on the steps of the Supreme Court as part of Silent No More Awareness’ annual testimony from people who have experienced abortion.

“Julia Holcomb is leading for the first time,” said Janet Morana, a co-founder of Silent No More and executive director of Priests for Life. “This is the first time she is going to be silent no more.”

Morana always finds the three-minute testimonies at the Supreme Court one of the most moving times of the march. “On all minds, as we stand in front of that building this year, will be that we have an opportunity to change the course of history on abortion if we elect a pro-life candidate as the next president — one who is 110% pro-life.”

Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.

Across the Country and on Campus

Tens of thousands more who aren’t traveling to Washington have plenty of opportunities to join in companion events from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

This year, many places are expecting even more new support to join the veteran marchers and walkers for life.

Many of the country’s companion events will be held on Saturday, Jan. 21, such as the largest one outside Washington, Walk for Life West Coast in San Francisco (WalkforLifeWC.com). Last year’s conservative estimates put the numbers at 50,000 walkers.

Among the featured speakers will be the Rev. Clenard Childress and a former abortionist.

Walk for Life West Coast co-founder Dolores Meehan has even higher expectations this year because this event has a new location, time and route due to a providential scheduling conflict.

Instead of walking along San Francisco’s waterfront, scores of participants will rally in front of City Hall and walk down a closed-off Market Street.

“It’s so much more visible than in prior years,” said Meehan. “This will be much more of a shakeup for the city: to see tens of thousands in front of City Hall and closing down Market Street.” The route is the same as the city’s “gay pride” parade.

“This is a much stronger statement politically,” she said. “We need to walk, and we need to be visible — and not go just into Golden Gate Park and have a walkathon there. And because we have a very good track record with the city, we actually got last year’s cleaning deposit back.”

“We are definitely the largest demonstration of pro-life people in the city,” she said. “We have 13 bishops coming also. The hope is that with greater visibility it will reach more people … than we typically would reach.”

While many of the participants come from the area, others travel from hours away, such as those who drive from the Reno-Carson City, Nev., area.

According to Linda Ugalde, executive secretary of the Respect Life Commission for the Reno Diocese, the office is helping fund buses for some parishes. The plan this year is for six buses, double the two or three procured in the past.

On Monday, Jan. 23, the day after the Roe v. Wade anniversary, there will also be a memorial Mass at St. Albert the Great Church in Reno.

In the same state, Kathleen Miller, the liaison for pro-life activities in the Las Vegas Diocese, noted that Bishop Joseph Pepe will celebrate a special “Right to Life” Mass in the afternoon at Guardian Angels Cathedral in the city on Sunday, Jan. 22.

Then many of those who attend will proceed to the 19th annual Lights for Life interdenominational prayer vigil at the Lloyd D. George U.S. Courthouse; it will be a memorial service for unborn babies and an occasion to pray for their mothers and fathers.

In Dallas, thousands are expected to come for Mass and various commemorations, as they did last year. The 2012 theme for the diocesan memorial events is “That They Might Have Life.”

In calling his flock to witness at the events on Saturday, Jan. 21, Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell, who will be joined by three other bishops, including Bishop Kevin Vann of Forth Worth, wrote in a letter on the ProLifeDallas.org website: “Since Jan. 22, 1973, more than 52 million unborn children have been killed by abortion in the United States. Abortion is taking the lives of 14,000 innocent unborn children each year in the counties comprising the Dallas Diocese.”

He urged everyone: “Please pray and march with me and thousands more in downtown Dallas on Jan. 21. … It is our obligation as a people of life to remember the lives lost and stand up in prayer and witness for the lives to come, until the tragedy ends in the very city where it began — Dallas. In particular, I would like to see as many young people as possible participating in these events. Schools, churches, organizations and youth groups are encouraged to bring banners to carry in the family-friendly, ecumenical Dallas March for Life, which this year will prominently feature thousands of yellow ‘LIFE’ balloons as part of our strong public witness to the sanctity of every human life.”

He and his fellow bishops will celebrate the annual Roe memorial Mass at the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Then all will join in the Dallas March for Life and the “Ecumenical Rally” outside of the Earle Cabell Federal Courthouse, where Roe v. Wade was first filed in 1970.

Norma McCorvey — the anonymous plaintiff of Roe v. Wade — will be the speaker, said Karen Garnett, executive director for the Catholic Pro-Life Committee of North Texas (ProLifeDallas.org).

Last year, the event featured 200 empty strollers to memorialize the 200 babies aborted every week in the city. This year, 2,000 yellow balloons with the word “Life” printed on them will be set aloft. Garnett noted the Dallas march not only memorializes all the lives lost, but will “try to rejoice in some of the incredible blessings and incredible pro-life victories in Texas this year.”

The sidewalk counseling ministry in the city counted 815 babies saved in 2011, an increase of nearly 275 more than the previous year.

“We’re looking for more evangelicals to be participating this year than ever before,” she said, noting the mega-Baptist church that will send their chapel band to the rally.

Further east in Florida, the Venice Diocese again begins its commemoration on Saturday, Jan. 21, with Mass at a local Sarasota parish with Bishop Frank Dewane, who will then lead everyone in prayer for the 14th annual “Prayer Walk” by the local Planned Parenthood, the largest such facility in the state.

Earlier in the week, on Jan. 17, the diocese will hold a similar walk in Port Charlotte; that event has been going on for eight years.

The diocesan director of communications, Billy Atwell, said 350-400 people are expected to attend the Sarasota events and up to 300 will participate in the Port Charlotte walk.

“One of the newest and largest initiatives is a youth pilgrimage to the March for Life in Washington,” he added. For the first time as a diocese, 90 people from parish youth groups and high schools signed up to go to the Jan. 23 March in Washington with Bishop Dewane.

On Florida’s coast, the growing March for Life in the Diocese of St. Augustine takes place on Saturday, Jan. 14, beginning with Mass at Prince of Peace Votive Church, where the first Mass on the North American continent was said. A march through the city to the public plaza downtown near St. Augustine Cathedral-Basilica will follow; there, marchers will hear keynote speakers Scott Klusendorf and Dr. Gerard Nadal, national director of Medical Students for Life of America.

Busloads of people come from around the state and from Georgia too, according to Lorraine Allaire, director of the Family Life Office for the St. Augustine Diocese.

“Bishop (Filipe) Estevez is very much pro-life and youth-oriented, and lots of youth groups from all over will come the night before for the ‘Living Rosary’ around the great cross on the shrine grounds in St. Augustine,” said May Oliver, the founder and coordinator of the St. Augustine march. “Every year, it grows. We decided the very first year to dedicate a living Rosary to Our Lady to start off our march. Everything starts off with that the night before the march.”

At the end of the Rosary, glow sticks light the darkness.

Last year approximately 2,000 people came, and this year the hopes are for even more, with groups planning to come from Florida universities and high schools.

In Connecticut, Peter Wolfgang, director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, will be the keynote speaker for the Jan. 21 events in the Diocese of Bridgeport’s March for Life.

Greg Schleppenbach, director of pro-life activities at the Nebraska Catholic Conference, which plans events for Saturday, Jan. 28, said the hope for any of these kinds of events is that each one will be “the catalyst that prompts people to stand up and take a stand. It also serves as a shot in the arm to come out and be with thousands of other people standing up for life and praying for life, and for people to renew their own commitment to the cause.”

Meanwhile, colleges are planning to head to the national March for Life in Washington. Among them is Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. Every year, 400 travel via buses, while hundreds more, including alumni, go by car.

According to sophomore Victor Bermudez, the president of the college’s Students for Life group, is looking forward to the trip.

“Freshmen this year have been more involved in pro-life activities,” he said.

Franciscan students will be visible among the crowd due to their matching light-blue shirts with an Our Lady of Guadalupe image.

“We definitely will stand out at the March,” said Bermudez.

Franciscan Students for Life’s vice president, Jessica Foti, a tireless worker for the pro-life cause since high school, hopes students will “bring what they learn back to campus.”

The whole student body of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., attends the march in Washington. Student body president Gabe Schuberg said last year the school led the national march.

“We’re hoping we can get the most numbers for this march and to show people what the Christian life is all about,” he said. “We’re hoping we can convey the general spirit of Christendom College: to restore all things in Christ.”

Christopher Tipton, president of Christendom’s Shield of Roses pro-life club, which prays every week at an abortion facility, said: “We hope that Congress will take a look and see how many people are standing up against the legality of abortion.

“There’s more of a hope for a personal reflection as well as encouragement for anyone else who does pro-life work by coming together to see you’re not standing alone, and that would give strength and encouragement to everyone else.”

— Joseph Pronechen