Once again this January, hundreds of thousands of people will gather on the National Mall to protest Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. The March for Life is a longstanding tradition for many Catholic parishes and student groups and serves as a crucial showcase for the pro-life cause. Though the media sometimes downplay the march, the political potency of the event should not be underestimated. Here is a vibrant, grass-roots movement that predates the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street. That so many of the marchers are young people is a clear sign that the pro-life message has lost little of its prophetic power.
This year’s March for Life comes at a time of some uncertainty for the pro-life movement. Thirty-nine years after the promulgation of Roe v. Wade, a legal reversal remains elusive despite the presence of six Catholics on the Supreme Court. At the state level, even in conservative South Dakota efforts to criminalize abortion have failed. In Mississippi, the “personhood amendment,” which would have defined a fertilized egg as a person, was easily defeated on the November ballot. Some within the pro-life community, including some Catholic bishops, have questioned the wisdom of these state initiatives. Indeed, the recent setbacks should spark reflection on the goals and methods of the pro-life movement.
A constructive assessment might begin with a re-examination of the movement’s priorities. The March for Life, as worthwhile as it is, ought not to be the only expression of the pro-life cause. To effectively reduce the number of abortions in the United States, a political strategy must be accompanied by a more personal campaign for conversion. Ultimately, members of the pro-life community must work to make the world more welcoming for children. To accomplish this, they must be nimble, creative and above all motivated by love and compassion for mother and child. A comprehensive pro-life strategy would include, for example, the following important elements:
Outreach to families with disabled children. The challenge of raising a physically or mentally impaired child is overwhelming. A true culture of life makes these families a focus of outreach and support. Group homes for disabled young people and adults, like the L’Arche communities founded by Jean Vanier, should become a regular destination for pro-life groups. How wonderful it would be to see buses filled with volunteer college students pulling up in front of institutions for people with disabilities. Tragically, many prospective parents now choose to terminate pregnancies if prenatal tests reveal Down syndrome or other genetic anomalies. Before judging these decisions, however, the pro-life Christian must ask what circumstances compel a person to make such a choice and must work to offer alternatives.
Support adoption agencies. Adoption is a life-giving choice, both for the birth parent and the adoptive family. Yet it can be a difficult process, requiring the expertise of trained professionals who understand the emotional hurdles involved. Persuading an expectant mother to have a child is not always as simple as showing her an image from an ultrasound test. Adoption counselors can present a fuller view of parenthood, and they are well placed to reach out to women in difficult circumstances. Adoption agencies also find homes for children with special needs.
Improve childcare. Like so many other social services, child care in the United States is anemic in comparison to that available in Europe. Surely more women would choose to raise a child if they knew that there were affordable options for child care. Increased government support is necessary, but it is only one part of the solution. Shared cooperatives of parents, working together to raise their children amid the demands of careers and education, should be encouraged and perhaps initiated by Catholic parishes.
These initiatives will not by themselves bring about a culture of life. Political programs are crucial, and not just those focused on the Supreme Court. With one in four children now counted as poor, working against poverty so that families can feed their children is also key. Child poverty should not be ignored by Congress amid its drive toward austerity.
What must be acknowledged, finally, is that the problem presented by abortion is enormous and that there is no one way to eliminate this scourge. To change the attitudes of a society, whether about war, capital punishment or abortion, the pro-life community must work through a variety of channels. Some will feel called to travel to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 23. They deserve our encouragement. All pro-life supporters should consider attending a support group for parents of disabled children or helping to care for a neighbor’s baby. These works of mercy may not offer the same public witness as the March for Life, but they can help to make the pro-life cause a way of life.