.- Hundreds of thousands of people packed the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 24 to show their support for the human rights of the unborn at the annual March for Life.
This year's march marked the 38th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade.
For the first time ever, the morning rally events that preceded the March for Life took place at two locations – the Verizon Center and D.C. Armory – to accommodate larger-than-usual crowds. Growing youth participation, possibly assisted by online social media, has nearly quadrupled the size of the march during the past decade.
Fr. Mark Ivany, a priest from Bethesda, Md., told the crowd at the Verizon center on the morning of the march that they were speaking on behalf of those who would never be able to speak for themselves.
"The greatest difference between other civil rights movements and this one,” Fr. Ivany reflected solemnly, “is that most of the people affected by Roe v. Wade can't march on Washington. They can't give great speeches.”
In the afternoon, the demonstrators assembled on the Washington Mall before proceeding to the steps of the Supreme Court. Although the city of Washington, D.C. does not provide estimates of the crowd size at the yearly event, organizers predicted that up to 400,000 people would participate in this year's march.
The evening before the event, thousands gathered in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the opening Mass of the National Prayer Vigil for Life. Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Texas and chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, celebrated the Mass for a capacity crowd at the nation's largest Catholic church.
Cardinal DiNardo drew particular encouragement from the presence of many young people who came from across the nation to advocate for the human rights of the unborn. He described the youth as the “genuine leaders and pioneers of this March for Life,” noting that their stand against abortion showed a willingness to question the fashionable stances and received opinions of popular culture.
He recalled the words of Pope John Paul II, whose beatification he hailed as “sign of light in darkness” for those defending the rights of the unborn against violence. The late Pope, he said, “called on us to be a 'luminous conscience' for many whose conscience, on the dignity of the human person, is distorted, and thus lives in shadows.”
Catholic participation in the March for Life itself has always been strong, although the event attracts participants with various beliefs. Its focus is on the right to life as a question of justice and human rights, rather than as a matter of faith – an approach that Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York recently endorsed when he called the defense of unborn life “the premier civil rights issue of our day.”
In a statement welcoming the marchers to the nation's capital, House Speaker John Boehner (R – Ohio) expressed a similar perspective on abortion as a violation of both constitutional and moral principles. He stated that the March for Life, and similar efforts “aimed at restoring the damage of the Roe decision,” reflected the best principles of American society and “must continue.”
“Americans love life as much as we love freedom,” he said, indicating that public policy should never seek to balance the freedom of one individual against the vulnerable life of another, but must always respect both. In an authentic vision of freedom, he said, these “founding principles” – individual liberty, and the right to life – are inseparably “intertwined, and form the basis of our national character.”
No one is safe, Boehner observed, when the most vulnerable members of society lose their rights. “Without respect for life, freedom is in jeopardy.”
President Obama, however, praised the Roe v. Wade decision on its anniversary, Jan. 22, stating that he is “committed to protecting this constitutional right.” The decision held that a right to abortion was implicit in the 14th amendment, a provision originally intended to ensure that no person or group would be unjustly deprived of “life, liberty, or property” after the abolition of slavery.
The president, whose 2009 “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” allocated a total of $4.1 billion for government-funded or state-run child-care programs, nonetheless said that the Roe decision “affirms the fundamental principle” that “government should not intrude on private family matters.”