Jan. 22 event marks 26 years of Roe v. Wade

WASHINGTON—As many as 200,000 pro-lifers will be flowing to the nation's capital to participate in the 26th annual March for Life on Jan 22. A broad cross section of people will be coming by plane, car, and, in the greatest number, by bus, to take part in what pro-life activist Joseph Scheidler calls a “family reunion.”

The peaceful protest against the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision will include speeches near the White House and a walk past the Capitol, and will end at the Supreme Court Building. All three branches of the federal government are thus confronted by the marchers.

But while this unique event seeks to overturn abortion laws, it also provides a bond that stiffens the pro-life resolve of those who attend. In fact, a second generation is now enduring personal sacrifice to bear witness for the movement.

Perhaps one of the most inspiring stories about the March involves the efforts of the late Ruth Pakaluk of Worcester, Mass. A dedicated pro-life advocate and one-time president of the Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Pakaluk battled cancer while rallying young people to the cause.

A devout Catholic, she was named associate director of the Diocese of Worcester's pro-life office in 1997. Although she was undergoing chemotherapy, Pakaluk made a vigorous effort to recruit high school students to attend last year's March for Life.

According to her husband, Michael, she “believed you have to connect the March with young people. She felt this could be a decisive element in his or her life.”

Her recruitment paid off—five busloads went to the March from Worcester, and a majority of them were students. No more than three buses had ever gone from the area before.

But it came at great cost to her. “When the March was over and she helped put everyone on the buses in Washington, she came down with pneumonia. Within minutes, she was almost unable to breathe,” her husband said.

Pakaluk recovered enough to return home, but she died eight months later. Her successor at the diocesan office, Catherine Kelleher, said Pakaluk still inspires them. On Jan. 10, Kelleher held a two-hour session with students at St. Mary's Church in Uxbridge, encouraging their participation in the upcoming March.

Five hundred miles away, in the Pittsburgh suburb of Aspinwall, Mary Catherine Scanlon prepared for her annual trip to the March, which first began in 1974. Encouraging and accompanying her then was her 17-year-old daughter, Ann, who has been wheelchair-bound by cerebral palsy since birth.

Ann Scanlon is now 41, and the pilgrimage to Washington has become an important part of her life. Her mother says, “She goes every year and at great inconvenience and cost.” Some years Mary Catherine carried her daughter on and off the bus. Other years one or more of the other ten Scanlon children assisted.

Thanks to Anderson Bus Lines of Greenville, Pa., the eight-hour ride will be a little more comfortable for Ann Scanlon this year; the bus is wheelchair accessible. Her mother said, “This is the first such charter bus we've heard of.”

Another Scanlon daughter, Mary, was arrested for rescuing outside an abortion clinic several years ago. The sheriff offered her the option to start the five-day jail sentence the following Monday, but she couldn't do that because on Monday she was going to the March for Life.

Mary Catherine Scanlon is a bus captain, a volunteer who handles the logistics of the trip for 40 or so pro-lifers. She annually runs a bus from St. Scholastica Church, and six other churches join them. They have formed an Our Lady of Guadalupe “cluster.”

This bus is one of 110 which come from southwestern Pennsylvania. The effort—which involves Catholic and Protestant churches, schools, and colleges—is coordinated by People Concerned for the Unborn Child (PCUC). Fifteen bus companies are involved in a journey which begins at midnight; marchers have to endure at least a 24-hour day.

PCUC's political action director, Mary Lou Gartner, said the trip is long and often scary. “You're never sure what the weather will be like. We've had to endure slow rides over the turn-pike when the windshields were snowed up.”

But these concerns don't deter the 5,000 people who come. “We're basically witnessing to the world and to ourselves that this atrocity has to stop,” Gartner said. “I don't think we're asked by the Lord to accomplish anything. We're asked to be faithful.”

PCUC also holds a prayer breakfast the Saturday before the March. Farther up the state in Erie, the People for Life, hold an ecumenical prayer breakfast, too. This year Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the former-abortionist turned pro-life-advocate, will be the guest speaker on Jan. 16.

After the breakfast, which attracts more than 600 people, there is the annual Greater Erie March and Motorcade for Life and a brief memorial service for unborn children. The event has been held for 21 years.

Jean Hammer, the treasurer of the organization, says these events help energize people for the journey to Washington. A veteran of every March for Life, Hammer eagerly looks forward to the grueling but rewarding trip. “You get to the top of the [Capitol] Hill, and you see all the people coming behind you. It renews your spirit.”

Some veteran marchers have come by bus from different cities over the years. Jennifer Swope of Derry, N.H., came as a high school student and teenager from Cincinnati; as a college student from Bloomington, Ind.; and as a wife and mother from New Hampshire.

She said, “Whenever I've gone, I've been impressed by the unity of the pro-life movement. There were old people and young people. There were Atheists for Life and those carrying Rosaries. There were Catholics, Protestants, and non-Christians.”

Often these witness bearers come to the March by plane. Diane Trombley of the Right to Life-Lifespan of Metro Detroit, a National Right to Life Committee affiliate, is one of 25 or 30 who annually attend from southeastern Michigan.

Trombley has attended about 15 marches, and she vividly remembers the 28-hour marathon which begins with a 4:30 a.m. trip to the airport. “It's the winter, of course, and I can remember the juice containers in our lunch being frozen solid,” she said.

“But it's a renewal of purpose. It's an ever-present display that the issue the Supreme Court thought it solved 26 years ago, is alive. They thought they had us packaged and put on a shelf. It hasn't happened.”

As many as 35 people from Washington state fly to the March each year. But not before they have their own event. The Washington State March for Life is the only organization affiliated with the national March for Life, and each year between 5,000 to 8,000 take to the streets of Olympia, the state capital.

The group's president, Kathy McEntee of Tacoma, said, “Every member of the legislature is invited to speak. But the House Democrat leadership has removed committee assignments from their members who do so. Some have changed parties.”

The state march will observe its 21st anniversary on Jan. 19, and McEntee says, “We're not going away. We can change local laws. But we also have to make our presence felt in D.C.”

While people are converging on the nation's capital, pro-lifers in the Washington, D.C., area are serving as hosts to their fellow marchers. Some local churches lodge those who come in early by bus and spend the night. This has become a tradition in Memorial Hall at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Hundreds of members of Knights of Columbus councils in Virginia serve as marshals for the March. They direct buses at the downtown Mall area in Washington, as well as at parking sites outside RFK Stadium; they establish a control center; they work with various police agencies. “We're involved in every aspect,” according to state Deputy Skip Rogers.

About 5% of Knights in Virginia will attend the event, many with their families. “Our organization has been part of this because we are pro-life. It's an integral part of who we are. We feel very strongly about that,” Rogers said.

The assistant director for the office of family life in the Diocese of Arlington, Va., Robert Laird, said that about three-quarters of the diocese's parishes participate in the March. Some parishioners go by bus, subway, car, or merely show up during their lunch break from work in the city.

To Laird, who lives only a few minutes from downtown Washington, and to those who travel from around the country, the attraction of the March for Life is the same. “It re-energizes so many Catholics and others every year,” he said. “And each year, we're winning over more and more souls.”

Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.