WASHINGTON — Like a sentry, Peter Miller held the pole of a tall banner, while other members of his group played rousing tunes on bagpipes, drums and flutes for the stream of pro-lifers marching by on a rainy day.
“I’m here for God, and I’m standing up for the unborn. And I’m also doing reparation to God for the sin of abortion,” said Miller, a member of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.
Miller, 23, was among the thousands of young people at the 39th annual March for Life who experienced the event not as a one-day stand for life, but as a gathering for inspiration, education, networking and taking active steps toward ending legalized abortion in the United States.
Some estimates put attendance at the Jan. 23 March for Life at 400,000. The march took place a day after the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, the 1973 Supreme Court decisions that made abortion through all nine months of a woman’s pregnancy legal in the United States.
As part of the three-day events centered on the march, young pro-lifers registered people to vote, held a conference that drew 2,000 people, gathered imagery for their media efforts and generally inspired older folks with their sheer volume and positive outlook.
“I thank you for the radiant inspiration you give all of us,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan during Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception before the march.
The large church had been packed the night before with some 10,000 people attending the opening Mass for the National Prayer Vigil for Life, including many young people from across the country. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Teaxs, told the packed congregation gathered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception that the pro-life movement depended on their loving witness in the face of a hostile culture.
“You are a good infection,” said Cardinal DiNardo, who serves as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities. “Do not underestimate your presence.”
Mass was followed by confessions, a Rosary, night prayer and Holy Hours throughout the night. The Catholic University of America hosted almost 1,300 pilgrims overnight.
Students from Christendom College, a Catholic college in Front Royal, Va., which cancels classes on the day of the march every year so the entire school can attend, led the march up Constitution Avenue toward the Supreme Court building.
“Although the college places a primacy upon its education, the magnitude and gravity of this one issue is so great that we believe that a corporate public witness on the part of the college is necessary,” Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College, told the Register.
“Clearly something is happening in our nation,” observed O’Donnell. “Just as Lincoln said, a nation cannot ... continue to exist half slave and half free, nor can a nation continue to exist if it slaughters its own children. I think that the joyful optimism of our youth, the strength of the faith, and the inherent power of the truth of the pro-life argument will ultimately win the minds and hearts of our nation.”
Defend Religious Freedom
Marchers came to Washington just days after Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced a rule that will require virtually all health-insurance plans to include sterilization and contraception, including drugs that cause abortion, free of charge.
Cardinal DiNardo explained in his pre-march homily that this mandate violates the religious liberty and rights of conscience of Catholics and other religious employers by forcing citizens “to directly purchase what violates our beliefs.”
He called for “timely and unwavering actions” to defend religious freedom.
At the same time, the cardinal expressed hope for the future, observing signs of good news, such as the “record numbers” of pro-life laws passed on the state level in recent years.
In many ways, the youth are “weaving Christ into our culture,” he said, urging them to show the loving face of Christ to those who are hostile.
“Don’t be compromised in your dedication to the protection of life.”
For his part, President Obama marked the occasion by reaffirming his commitment to defend the constitutionality of legal abortion.
In a statement, Obama sought to frame access to abortion as a necessary precondition for equal opportunity for the next generation of American women.
“As we remember this historic anniversary, we must also continue our efforts to ensure that our daughters have the same rights, freedoms and opportunities as our sons to fulfill their dreams.”
Reacting to the tenor of the speeches and homilies was Lila Rose of the pro-life group Live Action. “I think we should never let ourselves become fearful or discouraged in this work if we face opposition personally, on our campuses, politically — however it is, we have to not compromise,” Rose said in an interview with the Register. “We have to speak the truth with love and with compassion, but speak it boldly and not be silenced.”
Rose, 23, founded Live Action when she was 15 and has become a folk hero of sorts in the pro-life movement for secretly videotaping Planned Parenthood workers counseling alleged underage girls to lie about their ages. Now that she has graduated from UCLA, Rose is excited about having a full-time team and expanding the reach of her organization on a variety of media platforms.
Rose is joined by other passionate pro-lifers in her stand for life.
Victor Bermudez, 20, and Jessica Foti, 19, who attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, were not fazed by rainy weather at the march.
“Back in the past, when a group of humans were discriminated against, this is the same thing. This is just a group of the unborn who are being discriminated against. This is how they (marchers) show America that, you know, we’re not okay with this,” said Bermudez.
Back in Ohio, Bermudez and Foti are leaders of Franciscan’s pro-life organization. On Saturday mornings, around 100 members of their group rise at 5am to go to 6am Mass; then they make a 45-minute drive to an abortion facility in Pittsburgh to pray for and sidewalk-counsel women.
In shifts, group members are present outside the business from 7:30am to 5pm.
Bermudez, who is one of the counselors, said that there have been many weeks where an average of one or two women has decided against abortion — “saves,” in pro-life parlance.
Foti, who minors in human-life studies, is on the prayer team. Standing off to the side, the intercessors are not there to attract attention to themselves, she said.
“We want people to see us and think of God, and then, through our prayers, we know that the sidewalk counselors will allow God to speak through them verbally,” she said.
Another person who is taking a stand is Bryan Kemper, a longtime leader of pro-life youth.
When he visited Auschwitz in Poland a couple of years back, he thought of the houses outside the onetime Nazi concentration camp.
Kemper, youth outreach director for Priests for Life, said he asked himself, What if that was my house. What if I lived there?
“And what I realized is — that is my house. I do live there because there are death camps around my country. … Everybody needs to realize when the Good Samaritan stopped and saw that man in the ditch he didn’t ask God if he was called to a ditch ministry. What he saw was his fellow human person lying in a ditch, and he loved his neighbor as himself.”
Kristan Hawkins, 26, became the first national director of Students for Life of America in 2006. Since that time, the national group has assisted students in starting more than 300 new campus pro-life organizations. The day before this year’s march, the group held a conference with more than 2,000 in attendance and another 1,000 wanting to attend, according to Students for Life regional coordinator Phil Eddy.
Hawkins hopes a short video called Turn the Tide 2012 will become the unofficial video of this year’s March for Life.
The stirring film, which was envisioned and funded by Students for Life, features adults and youths directly affected by the abortion industry or a crisis pregnancy, including a man whom doctors told to abort his daughter, a woman whose mother walked out of her abortion, a young girl doctors said should have been aborted, a woman whose four siblings were aborted, and a young woman who chose to live at a maternity home instead of having an abortion.
It also commemorates the history and effect of previous marches in Washington. The video is part of a website with the same name and includes a downloadable battle plan and map where visitors can learn where one’s state ranks with regards to life issues and discover how one’s talents can be used to “abolish abortion in your community in the next 12 months.”
After the march, Students for Life members registered people to vote and encouraged them to vote with pro-life causes in mind. IVoteProLifeFirst.com, another website and video, support this effort.
Too young to vote? That’s what the BeMyVote.com campaign is all about: Youths 12-17 — with their parents’ permission — can help adults register to vote and other youths to do the same.
“We believe that young people who are passionately pro-life but are too young to vote can influence their elders to register and vote according to biblical principles,” states the website.
“It’s absolutely essential that we have a pro-life president who not only says they’re pro-life, but in their record we’ve seen them stand up for life and not compromise,” said Lila Rose about the presidential election.
Bryan Kemper, 44, a married father of seven who recently returned to Catholicism, calls the march “essential” and “the booster shot” for the pro-life movement.
Kemper organized a youth rally on the Saturday night before the march and had various speakers address the young people, including Nellie Gray, one of the pioneers who helped organize the march’s beginning some 39 years ago. The goal was for young people to get involved with one of the organizations present at the march’s hotel headquarters.
“You had all these leaders together in one room in total unity, and it was beautiful. I felt it was one of the most beautiful things,” said Kemper.
But Kemper is not looking to hand down the reins of the movement to his children.
“As a father, the scariest thing for me is to pass another generation of child-killing down to my children to have to fight for. I can’t do that. I can’t do that,” said Kemper.
“This is the generation that will abolish abortion,” he added.
In fact, there is a website called AbolishAbortion.com, where users can “donate” their Facebook or Twitter status updates so that their network of friends will receive a daily pro-life message or alert. The website is another outreach of Students for Life.
According to Kristan Hawkins, this past summer, during a trial run of the program “Status 365,” a woman who was considering an abortion saw one of the pro-life messages on a friend’s Facebook page and called that friend asking for help.
The theme of Students for Life’s conference was “Envision … a World Without Abortion,” a message that connects with Jessica Foti.
“I’m really anticipating seeing the pro-life movement in the American History Museum,” said Foti.
Lila Rose, however, stressed the urgency of involvement.
“I mean, we just don’t stand up one day. We have to stand up tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that — because the children are being killed each day; the death toll is continuing,” Rose said.
Live Action’s Facebook page has more than 260,000 followers, and Rose said there were 100,000 unique visitors to her blog recently. The organization has a team of 60 bloggers, and 250,000 copies of their magazine, The Advocate, are distributed on the campuses of 300 high schools and colleges.
“Do not let the opposition fool you. Even though they’re able to commit so many abortions each day and kill so many people, their power is rapidly shrinking, especially among young people,” Rose said.
Said Kemper, “Young people still believe that God is bigger than abortion and that we are going to win this battle.”
Register staff Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.
Justin Bell writes from Boston.
See more March for Life coverage at NCRegister.com.