Unsettling questions about abortion kept America’s conscience uneasy, as the life issues stayed square in the spotlight of the American public debate in 2009. For the unborn baby it was a year of advances and setbacks.

We’ve seen, for example, more people and groups get behind a move to define personhood in the Constitution as beginning at conception. We’ve also seen a tough battle to make sure Americans won’t be forced to pay for other people’s abortions.

We’ve seen the new Obama administration reverse many pro-life federal policies and even begin funneling tax money to support lethal research on human embryos. Yet we’ve also seen one state — California — wake up to the reality that research on adult stem cells, where no human embryos are put at risk, is much more promising and that taxpayer money should be spent there.

We look back and take stock at this point, obviously, because that grim anniversary is upon us again. On Jan. 22, 1973, a handful of black-robed men changed the course of American history when they ruled that state laws prohibiting abortions were unconstitutional. Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton have led to the killing of millions of unborn babies.

No one is fooled any more by the oft-repeated mantra that the Supreme Court rulings settled the abortion issue 37 years ago. Indeed, a significant proportion of Americans — as shown in survey after survey — have always been uneasy at best with legal abortion. They sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with a nation officially sanctioning the killing of innocent human beings.

This past year, in fact, a Gallup Poll found that for the first time more Americans call themselves “pro-life” than “pro-choice.”

And so, thousands of people are making the trip to Washington this week, many getting up in the middle of the night to board buses and then stand in a field listening to speech after speech and march up a broad avenue where, depending on weather conditions, it can get pretty uncomfortable being outside.

In addition, local commemorations of Roe, as this week’s front-page feature points out, have seen increasing numbers in places like San Francisco, Lincoln, Neb., and Dallas.

Many speakers and marchers will no doubt rue the fact that our country is now being led further into the culture of death by the Obama administration and the majority in Congress. A quick sampling of setbacks over the past year demonstrates that, as far as pro-life issues go, the change promised by candidate Barack Obama is not change for the better: He immediately repealed the Mexico City Policy, for example, and many of his key appointments have been of people with radical pro-abortion agendas.

And, in spite of promising that federally funded abortion will not be part of national health-care reform, the president has supported the Senate version of the health-care reform bill, which includes taxpayer funding of abortion.

Yet, in spite of what appears to be an entrenchment of Roe v. Wade in American public policy, or perhaps because of it, fewer Americans seem willing to accept the ideology of those who would have us believe that a woman’s right to privacy trumps the right of her child to be born.

It’s why a woman named Abby Johnson resigned from her position as director of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas, Oct. 6 and has since begun speaking out against abortion.

It’s why pro-life Democrats and Republicans could hold out on the House of Representatives version of the health-care reform bill until an amendment was passed prohibiting tax money from going to pay for most abortions. It’s why scores of prominent Catholics, Orthodox and evangelicals, as well as at least 320,000 Americans, signed the “Manhattan Declaration,” pledging civil disobedience if confronted with unjust laws such as having to pay for abortions.

It’s why the news resonated with so many people when a man in Belgium began communicating with the outside world after doctors thought he was in a vegetative state — for 23 years. The incident reminded us that life, no matter how fragile, can never be written off.

And it’s why there is still so much hope generated every time there’s another announcement of a possible cure or therapy from stem cells not derived from a human embryo.

The demonstrators in Washington — and throughout the country — don’t really need these bits of encouragement to keep marching, of course, though they don’t hurt. They will keep marching and praying and fasting and advocating and educating. They do so out of a sense of justice. They know that, as Ronald Reagan once quipped, everyone who is for abortion has already been born. They know that everyone started as a miraculous coming together of two gametes and developed through a continuum of stages where they would have been known as a zygote, an embryo, a fetus and finally a baby. Many of the younger generation are well aware that they could have met an abortionist’s scissors or a chemical injection at any point along that continuum.

And perhaps pro-lifers need to see their own movement as being in a continuum of its own. The struggle will continue for some time, and will have the same kinds of ups and downs a pregnant mother has.

But in God’s good time, a new culture of life will be born.