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Kerry WeberJanuary 18, 2023
many people gathering in washington dc, people holding signs protesting abortion, one reads "I am the post-roe generation"Pro-life advocates attend the annual March for Life in Washington Jan. 21, 2022. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Since January 1974, when the first March for Life was held in Washington, D.C., pro-life advocates and activists have gathered in the nation’s capital united around a single message: End Roe v. Wade. Last year, it happened.

In June, the Supreme Court overturned the legislation that legalized abortion nationwide, thus turning the matter over to the states. The ruling was celebrated as a decisive victory by many pro-life advocates and by others as only the start of the work to be done. But the decision also posed a unique question about the mission and direction of the March for Life, an event that was founded in direct response to Roe.

Jeanne Mancini, the president of the March for Life, said she expects in the post-Roe world the March for Life will be “much more involved in the level of the states, where pro-life voices can have greater impact.” But she also said that the commitment to the national march will remain strong because “there continues to be a need to unify people, and there is no lack of national legislative work.” In addition, she said that abortion rights legislation in Congress—like the proposed Women’s Health Protection Act—“would possibly impact state pro-life laws,” so continuing to draw attention to laws at the federal level remains crucial to the movement as a whole.

The march’s organizational support of state-level marches is not a response to the repeal of Roe, however; the effort began six years ago in response to what Ms. Mancini called “organizational discernment on what we uniquely and effectively contribute to building a culture of life.” She said the goal of the March for Life is to “unite, equip and mobilize pro-life Americans in the public square.” The leaders of the national march realized that “the question we were asked more than any other was: Can you help us start a march in our local area?”

President of the March for Life: “Our loftier goal for many years has been to create a culture where abortion is unthinkable. And that culture is upstream of politics.”

The organization set about accompanying different marches and supporting them under their trademarked name. Their first official state march was held in Virginia in 2019. Ms. Mancini said she hoped for 5,000 people in attendance and 7,500 showed up. March for Life sponsored five state marches in 2022: California, Connecticut, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In 2023, the organization plans to hold marches in 10 states and March for Life has hired additional staff to support these efforts.

“We are in a new season where the safety net for mothers facing unexpected pregnancies needs to be that much stronger,” she said. “And local and state elections will be that much more important.”

Ms. Mancini said she hopes the march can help direct people to the organizations “that are working on the ground,” like state chapters of Right to Life, Catholic conferences (through which the bishops work with state governments), and state family policy councils.

“Our loftier goal for many years has been to create a culture where abortion is unthinkable,” she said. “And that culture is upstream of politics.” Ms. Mancini said that the repeal of Roe is “a wonderful thing,” but it’s just the beginning. “Our work to build a culture of life is cut out for us.”

The theme for this year’s March for Life is “Next Steps: Marching in a Post-Roe America.”

She said that she hopes the march can emphasize this through its various speakers. “Real life witness is powerful, and our speakers have tremendous stories to tell,” she said. Speakers are typically organized around a theme, such as “Equality begins in the womb” or the stories of birth mothers who chose adoption. She said the theme for this year’s march will be “Next Steps: Marching in a Post Roe America.”

Ms. Mancini disagrees that the March for Life can be viewed as “divisive”; she also pointed out that it is “the only place that brings many different people and various groups within the pro-life movement together.”

Recommitting to Women

Kristen Day, the executive director of Democrats for Life of America, also stated that the political diversity in the march means that maintaining a unified message is important. “I think we can all work together on supporting pregnant women,” she said, adding that people can unite around the idea that we need to “support women so no women should see abortion is their only choice. We don’t all have to agree on how we provide those resources, but we all can advocate for those resources in our own way.”

Ms. Day believes that “the state rallies are hugely important” and that “the activity and actions in the states is where the action is all going to be.” She said that Democrats for Life wants to work with Virginia’s Gov. Glenn Youngkin on a 15-week abortion ban but also wants to be sure that the state is willing to provide support for women to carry the child to term and beyond. “We’re pro-life for the whole life,” she said. “We have to have this commitment. I don’t see anyone in the pro-life movement walking away.”

Many pro-life advocates noted that the repeal of Roe marked a new phase of the pro-life movement, not an end to their efforts.

Many pro-life advocates noted that the repeal of Roe marked a new phase of the pro-life movement, not an end to their efforts. Kathryn Lopez, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor at large of the National Review, said that pro-life activists must recommit to the women at the heart of the abortion debate.

“The march has always been about an end to Roe, but it’s also about an end to abortion,” Ms. Lopez said. “So, rightfully, [the march] continues. It’s a witness to the sanctity of human life, and it’s encouraging to witness the young people who believe that.” She added that the “most important part” is for people to focus on the “front lines,” including doing “a better job” of telling the stories of women who felt pressure to have abortions and chose not to because of the outreach of members of the pro-life movement.

“Everybody who considers themselves pro-life needs to be challenged to ask themselves what more can they do,” Ms. Lopez said. “I am always aware that when I pray outside Planned Parenthood people feel that I’m judging them, and that’s the last thing I’m doing. It’s because we failed to reach out to them as best we could.”

Gloria Purvis: “I want people to understand pregnancy as a natural outcome of sex, and that it’s good and to say, ‘Here’s what we can do to welcome pregnancy even in the most difficult of circumstances.’”

A Call for True Community

Gloria Purvis, the host of “The Gloria Purvis Podcast” at America Media, agrees that the pro-life movement can help create a shift in how American culture talks about sex, pregnancy and marriage, and she sees the March for Life as being a crucial part of creating that change.

Ms. Purvis said she hopes that the March for Life will continue as long as abortion is an option for women in the United States and that it continues to work to create a community for people who want to see more pro-life legislation at the state level. But she also hopes the march changes how people choose to talk about sex and pregnancy.

Ms. Purvis said the most common conversation about pregnancy is how to protect oneself from it. “We are approaching it as a threat until it is wanted,” she said. “I want people to understand pregnancy as a natural outcome of sex, and that it’s good and to say, ‘Here’s what we can do to welcome pregnancy even in the most difficult of circumstances.’ How are we going to celebrate this gift and help these women to have a real sisterhood?”

Ms. Purvis also expressed hope that the march could continue to find new ways to encourage a culture of life, including considering the ways in which working for racial justice is a part of the pro-life cause. The writer and commentator Ben Shapiro was a speaker at the 2019 March for Life, and Donald J. Trump, then-president of the United States, addressed the march via video in 2018. Each was met withcriticism among some pro-life activists. (Ms. Mancini said she enjoyed having Ben Shapiro speak at the March for Life and that she “will remain always grateful that [President Trump] came to the March for Life,” as it sets a precedent for any future pro-life president.)

“Articulating a culture of life needs to be made more concrete, and it has to be done in a way that is not aligned with the politics of either party.”

“I support the March for Life while also understanding those who don’t see the appeal,” Ms. Purvis said. “They see the witness of some of the past March for Life V.I.P.s and the overt MAGA presence as contradictory to building a culture of life after Roe.” She said that she has spoken with many people who were upset with the choice of Mr. Shapiro as a speaker due to, among other things, several of his tweets calling out-of-wedlock births in the Black community problematic.

Purvis said that tweets like Shapiro’s “undercut the message [of the March for Life].... A pro-life culture needs to cheer on the mother regardless of the circumstance. Our bodies get pregnant. That’s just a fundamental fact, and our language should cherish that…. We need to say: How can we help you flourish? Articulating a culture of life needs to be made more concrete, and it has to be done in a way that is not aligned with the politics of either party.”

A New Message for a New Era

Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa is no stranger to on-the-ground pro-life work, as the founder of the pro-life group New-Wave Feminists. Her mother became pregnant with her at 19, and Ms. De La Rosa became pregnant with her first child at 16, so she understands both the challenges of unexpected pregnancies and the need for strong support networks.

Ms. De La Rosa hopes that the march remains a national event but that the reversal of Roe “reignites a fire” in the marchers and helps introduce marchers “to legislation you need to be supporting, organizations you need to be supporting.” She said she is “concerned that there will be a portion of the pro-life movement who thinks our work here is done” but hopes that the march can help to remind people “the hard work is just beginning.”

“I want to see legislators that are pushing for paid family leave and pregnant worker protection laws,” she said, adding that the need for such things is not new.

“I want to see legislators that are pushing for paid family leave and pregnant worker protection laws.”

“I am sick of being used as a political pawn by politicians,” she said. She cited Abide Women’s Health Clinic in Texas, which works largely with Black women and focuses on comprehensive care, as a good model. “I want to see that across the nation,” she said. “I would love to see more women of color and people of color speaking at the march.”

“The march for life is actually pretty fun,” she said. “Helping people is hard.” She said she hopes that, by attending the march, people are reminded that “that you have to go home and do something.”

Some advocates feel that the end of Roe could be a chance to reimagine the rallying cry of the march. Quang Tran, S.J., who is completing his doctoral studies in counseling psychology at Boston College, agrees that much work remains for the pro-life movement. He believes there is a “symbolic value” in continuing to march every year, “not to celebrate Roe v. Wade falling but to mourn [the lives lost to abortion] and to examine ourselves and to ask how we have failed the unborn and the disadvantaged and women in general.”

He thinks that it could be useful to reframe the march “as a time of repentance and mourning” as well as an opportunity for an “annual examen of how our institutions, and Catholic institutions especially,” have lived out pro-life values, looking at parental leave at Catholic institutions or whether parishes are child friendly. “It could be a time of reflecting on: ‘What have we done to be prophetic not just in words but in our actions?’”

The spectrum of pro-life issues is frequently debated in a class on contemporary moral problems taught by Dana Dillon at Providence College. The theology professor said abortion and gender identity issues often lead the class discussions. She noted that “from a legislative standpoint, physician assisted suicide is becoming an increasingly important issue; I’d love to see them connect anti-racism and anti-poverty agendas to the pro-life issues.” She hopes the March for Life will more fully “attune itself to some of these other life issues.”

She also hopes that the repeal of Roe will force opposing sides of the abortion question to have more nuanced conversations that avoid partisan politics. “Sometimes among pro-lifers, it can feel like what we are a part of is more committed to the Republican Party than the Gospel,” she said. She said that social media feeds can lead us to believe that “everyone in America is celebrating [Roe’s repeal] or everyone is mourning it.”

“It was a little daunting, but the best part was when people cheered for me and my daughter. I felt like I wasn’t alone all those years. I could see that there were people supporting me.”

Dr. Dillon said that although it seems the country is incredibly divided on the issue of abortion, surveys show that “a lot of people are pretty willing to limit abortion,” and she hopes the repeal of Roe might spark some “larger conversations.” For example, she said that the Mississippi abortion law that many pro-choice advocates oppose remains more permissive than many countries in Europe. She said she hopes the repeal of Roe “will force us to check some of our assumptions. When you ask ‘Are you pro-choice or pro-life?’ we’re very divided. We need to ask much more complicated questions.”

Mikaela Kook is no stranger to hard questions. She spoke at the March for Life in 2022, at the age of 19. She was 18 when she found out she was pregnant, and her boyfriend and many friends pressured her to have an abortion. When she refused, her parents told her she had to leave home. She then lived with friends until finding her way to Mary’s Shelter in Fredericksburg, Va.

Mary’s Shelter offered her help with housing and a counselor and case manager, helping her to manage legal matters and apply for SNAP. She said the organization offered her food and shelter before she could support herself. Today, she is studying at George Mason University to be a history teacher.

Her story is a powerful one, but she said she was at first hesitant to share it at the March for Life. She said her politics are middle-of-the-road and wasn’t sure she would be a good fit. “I didn’t want people to see me speak at the March for Life and assume I had conservative views,” she said. She was assured by her friends at the shelter that her talk need not be a political one.

Ms. Kook said she knew that “a lot of the arguments against pro-life people are that they’re hypocritical” and she knew some people like that, but she was encouraged by the fact that she also knew pro-life advocates “who wanted to help people, including both children and mothers.”

In the end, Ms. Kook was glad she accepted the invitation to speak at the March for Life. “It was actually a good feeling, going out and seeing all those people there and knowing all those people were watching me live,” she said. “It was a little daunting, but the best part was when people cheered for me and my daughter. I felt like I wasn’t alone all those years. I could see that there were people supporting me.”

Ms. Kook said she hopes that the march can help to “get rid of the stigma that an unexpected pregnancy is bad.”

She recalled: “I was told, ‘You’ll ruin your life.’ But I’m still going to school. All I needed was support.”

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