Participants returned in large numbers to the annual March for Life Friday, braving frigid weather one year after the event’s pandemic-related virtual shutdown to demonstrate solidarity for the unborn at the start what could be a decisive year for the pro-life movement.
Billed as the “largest human rights demonstration in the world,” the daylong gathering began tentatively with scattered clusters of bundled participants trickling into the National Mall on a clear but chilly morning. That it was bracingly cold was apparent from the the woolen socks Franciscan friars wore beneath their sandal straps.
The ongoing coronavirus crisis, coupled with tightened COVID-19 restrictions in the District of Columbia, kept some regulars at home. But by the start of a mid-day, pre-march rally, headlined by a passionate speech by “Bible in a Year” podcast star Father Mike Schmitz, the size of the crowd had swelled into the tens of thousands, resembling a typical year’s turnout.
But this year’s march was anything but typical. The possibility that the country’s highest court later this year might strike down the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide — and sparked the first March for Life 49 years ago — lent a festive, anticipatory air to the day’s rituals, culminating in a walk up Constitution Avenue to the steps of the Supreme Court.
“We are hoping and praying that this year, 2022, will bring a historic change for life,” Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, the event’s organizer, said at the rally.
“Roe,” she said, “is not settled law.”
No time for complacency
Such statements carry extra weight this year because of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a pivotal Mississippi abortion case that many in the pro-life movement see as the best — and possibly last — opportunity to unravel the tightly woven legal framework that has produced some 62 million abortions across the United States, a staggering toll the Catholic Church views as an epic human tragedy. A decision in the case isn’t expected until the end of the court’s term in June.
“The Supreme Court, God-willing, (is) poised to affirm the Dobbs case, to prevent abortions after 15 weeks, but also to begin, and we hope, the dismantling of Roe v. Wade,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who spoke during the rally.
The intense polarization surrounding the case was made manifest by a brazen publicity stunt by an activist group called Catholics for Choice, which on Thursday night beamed carefully calibrated pro-choice messages on the facade of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here, while a prayer vigil to end abortion took place inside. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the Archbishop of Washington, criticized the group’s actions, which another prelate, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone called “diabolical.”
Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said the pro-life movement cannot afford to become “complacent,” regardless of the outcome of Dobbs.
“The Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion is a response of love for both mothers and their children in the womb. The Church’s teaching proclaims a message of life, reminding us that every life is a sacred gift from God from the moment of conception until natural death,” Lori said in a statement.
“We cannot build a truly just society and remain complacent when faced with the massive impact of Roe v. Wade, which has taken over 60 million lives since 1973. May we pray, fast, and work for the day when the gift of every human life is protected in law and welcomed in love,” he added.
‘A large Catholic presence’
Thursday night’s drama gave way to an upbeat show of solidarity at Friday’s march. By longstanding practice, neither organizers nor the police provided estimates of the number of marchers.
More than 200 students from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio arrived by bus for the march before 5 a.m. on Friday morning, two students told CNA. The overnight bus drive took more than five hours.
This was the first March for Life for 18-year-old Lucia Hunt from Dallas, Texas, and 21-year-old Niklas Koehler from Ashburn, Virginia. They said the march met their expectations.
“I definitely was looking forward to seeing a whole bunch of people defending life and there's this huge crowd out there so I’m definitely happy with the pro-life movement,” Koehler said.
“I was expecting a large Catholic presence and so far I've seen it, which I'm pretty happy about,” Hunt said. He explained that he’s pro-life “because I believe in the truth, and the truth is that a child is a human being from the moment of conception up until natural death.”
Added Hunt: “Not only is a child a human being, but a human being is also a child of God, and I believe in protecting that life.”
Many of the marchers were there for the first time, including a group of young women from Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I just think we can have more options for people rather than just ending lives,” Millie Bryan, a 17-year-old from Charlotte, told CNA. Bryan was attending her first-ever March for Life, and was toting a sign that read “Stop telling women they can’t finish school, have a career, succeed without abortion.”
She added that she was most looking forward to “getting the opportunity to see the people come together to fight for something that’s really important, to fight for life.”
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Bagpipers and drummers with American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property concluded the march. Members of the group carried waving red flags and reverently carried a platform topped with a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.
“There are still a lot of people here. It’s great that people still made the sacrifice to come out,” said Father David Yallaly, who attended the march with the Chicago-based group Crusaders for Life. “It’s a great witness to the message of the sanctity of human life.”
Katie Yoder is a correspondent in CNA's Washington, D.C. bureau. She covers pro-life issues, the U.S. Catholic bishops, public policy, and Congress. She previously worked for Townhall.com, National Review, and the Media Research Center.
Christine Rousselle is a former DC Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. Prior to working at CNA, she was the managing web editor of Townhall.com; she has a BA in political science from Providence College.
Shannon Mullen is the Editor-in-Chief of CNA. He previously worked as a features writer, investigative reporter, and editor with the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press. He has received numerous national reporting awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The priests of Chicago’s St. John Cantius parish have pledged both continued support for their parishioners and obedience to the liturgical changes implemented by Pope Francis and Cardinal Blase Cupich.