National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Pro-Lifers Did More than March In Washington


BY Joseph Esposito

January 31 - February 6, 1999 Issue | Posted 1/31/99 at 1:00 PM


WASHINGTON—The 26th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion brought 100,000 pro-life marchers to the nation's capital, and prompted Norma McCorvey, the “Roe” of Roe v. Wade infamy, to call Jan. 22 the annual “National Day of Death.”

McCorvey, now a pro-life activist, drew a big ovation at the National Memorial for the Pre-born and their Mothers and Fathers, where she spoke, one of many events marking the anniversary of the1973 Roe decision.

The nation's capital was awash in pro-life events for several days, though most pro-lifers came for the March for Life. One of the thousands of young people who participated, 15-year-old Alexis Phipps of Kokomo, Ind., told the Register, “We came to show that people do care.”

A day before the march, a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception drew 8,000 faithful and 300 clergy, including five cardinals. William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore, the new chairman of the Bishops' pro-life committee, delivered the homily.

In extolling the sanctity of life, Cardinal Keeler said, “Young or old, white or black or brown, rich or poor, healthy or sick, each one of us has a name, a dignity, a call, indeed, a destiny which comes from the Lord who made us and is forever.” (The homily is excerpted on Page 8.)

The shrine, the largest Catholic church in the Western Hemisphere, also hosted a liturgy the following morning celebrated by Bishop James McHugh, coadjutor bishop of Rockville Centre, New York. Among other Catholic observances was a Youth Rally and Mass at Constitution Hall in downtown Washington.

An Interfaith Service

The annual National Memorial for the Pre-Born and their Mothers and Fathers, a service on Capitol Hill sponsored by the National Clergy Council, included representatives of many faiths as well as pro-life leaders of Congress.

Among the political figures present were Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), and Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.). Hutchinson said, “On Jan. 22, 1973, America entered its own moral fog.”

Expected presidential candidate Gary Bauer, a Republican, said he will make the sanctity of life the prime issue in any campaign he wages.

“We must decide soon,” he said, “that one and half million aborted babies per year cannot be tolerated in this country.”

The most emotional moment at this service was a haunting performance by the Asaph Dance Ensemble of Manassas, Virginia. Ten young women extolled the joys of motherhood and the anguish of abortion in “A Cry From Ramah for Her Children are No More.” Few in the crowd of 400 were left with a dry eye.

The general secretary of the National Clergy Council, evangelist Rev. Rob Schenck, discussed Catholic pro-life leadership with the Register. He said, “In many ways, Protestants and evangelicals need to be ashamed. It's taken us 26 years to catch up with our Catholic brothers and sisters on this issue. I'm happy to say we've started to catch up.

“Every year we're seeing more and more Protestants and evangelical clergy and lay participation in the pro-life movement, and that's very exciting. I'm grateful to the Pope and the Catholic Church for helping us to discover how important this issue is.”

Schenck achieved wide national attention on Christmas Eve 1996 when he approached President Clinton at a service in the nation's capital and said, “Mr. President, the Lord will hold you accountable” for his steadfast support for abortion.

Silver Lining

One Catholic representative on the National Clergy Council, Deacon Keith Fournier of Vienna, Va., also spoke to the Register about the growth of inter-faith pro-life efforts.

“There is a silver lining in the dark cloud of the culture of death,” he asserted. “In the trenches of our common struggle for life, we Christians — Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and evangelical — have discovered one another again as brothers.”

Such unity was most evident in the March for Life, the annual one-mile walk which begins from near the White House, goes past the Capitol, and ends at the Supreme Court Building. The march is perhaps the most visible symbol of the pro-life movement.

A large portion of downtown Washington was peacefully and often prayerfully overtaken by activists of every stripe. From a makeshift stage built to accommodate a dozen prominent speakers, a huge wave of people, especially young people, could be seen for many blocks.

There were banners identifying Feminists for Life, Buddhists for Life, statewide pro-life groups, churches of all denominations, local Knights of Columbus chapters, and hundreds of Catholic parishes from around the nation.

Holly Gatling, executive director of the South Carolina Citizens for Life, was holding a banner with her niece, Darby, and colleague Aimee Green.

“I was with the secular media for 20 years,” Gatling told the Register. “I was a crime reporter who covered all types of crimes. The first time I saw an aborted baby, I thought it was the most violent thing that I'd ever seen. That's pretty tough for a crime reporter.

“It struck me that it wasn't even a crime. Not only was it not a crime, it was considered to be a right in this country. I knew I would have to do something personal.

“I tried to work through the secular media, and that was futile. My point of view as a journalist was censored by my employers. So I left the newspaper business and went to a Benedictine monastery for two and a half years. Then this job came up, and it's one of the most inspiring things God has ever done for me.”

Marching with the Sisters of Life, the order begun by John Cardinal O'Connor in 1991, was Sister Sheila James John. The daughter of retired admiral and U.S. Secretary of Energy James Watkins, she left a career as a music producer to join the pro-life order.

The march was obviously a proud moment for Sister Sheila. She said, “It's evident with the young people, the religious, and the clergy not that the tide is turning, but that it has turned. The hope and joy being expressed here is evidence of that. This is not a downtrodden group, these are people with ‘fight.’”

Asked about the political impact of the march, she added, “I don't think it matters anymore. What matters is that people find solidarity with other people around the country. We're encouraged by each other. We're no longer a marginal group anymore.”

Another marcher was Vincent Ciappetta, a Suffolk County, N.Y., policeman. In 1995 he founded Cops for Life, a group of 200 active and retired law enforcement officers. He has been carrying their banner at the last four marches.

Ciappetta said, “We want to give support to the rest of the movement. Not all police are goons. We want to let all policemen who see our banner know that we're against the culture of death.”

Youthful Showing

Sister Sheila was one of many who were impressed by the young people who came. One typical youth group was from St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Kokomo, Ind., and St. Mary's in Richmond, Indiana. Twenty-one teenagers and 16 adults comprised the group.

Since last September the teens held several fund-raisers to support the trip. According to Father Ted Dudzinski of St. Patrick's, they chose this event as their service project. It's been rewarding to them, he said, because “they've learned they're not alone, and they've gotten a great sense of what the Christian community is about.”

Marchers heard speeches from pro-life congressmen and several religious leaders.

Bernard Cardinal Law, who recently completed his term as head of National Conference of Catholic Bishops' pro-life committee, spoke of the Bishops' commitment to life issues.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), a Catholic and one of the most visible pro-life public officials, was also on hand. “We have to do our part in God's plan, no matter how long it takes, regardless of cost or inconvenience or vilification, to stop the violence of abortion in the United States and abroad,” he said.

Smith told the Register, “This march visibly says that children are valuable. It gives renewed hope and energy to carry on this very difficult task. We're not going to quit, ever.”

Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) was the principal speaker at the Rose Dinner, which took place the evening of the march and has been sponsored by the March for Life Education and Defense Fund since 1983. Citing comments made by Bishop Eugene Gerber of Wichita, Tiahrt, a member of the Assembly of God Church, said, “These precious [aborted] children are today's martyrs.”

Tiahrt said that every time he approaches the Capitol, he says, “Dear Lord, help me do the right thing.” He said that with prayers and a growing number of supportive congressmen, pro-life victories will increase.

Also speaking at the dinner was Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania. He discussed the Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics document, adopted by the nation's bishops last November. In his talk, he emphasized paragraph 32 of the statement, which he called “its strongest declaration.”

He paraphrased the key sentence which reads: “We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin.”

And, in a time where physician-assisted suicide has begun to gain credence, many life issues are coming to the forefront. There is a great realization, as Holly Gatling put it, that “without the right to life there are no other rights. No one is safe.”

Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.