“Right now I’m saying a prayer. Lord, let this go off well,” smiled Monahan, who, at 40, is exactly the same age as Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion. The anniversary this year is expected to boost the size of an event that commemorates the ruling and is already one of the Mall’s biggest annual marches.
Monahan embodies the movement’s transition. The photogenic, warm former federal government policy worker was picked in November to take over the March for Life after the death of Nellie Gray, the hard-line, media-unfriendly 88-year-old who ran the massive event almost single-handedly out of her home. Despite being an event primarily of youth, until last year the march had a bare-bones Web site and no accounts on Twitter or Facebook. Its main outreach to Congress (besides marching past the Capitol) had been passing out roses, which was banned after the anthrax scares of 2001.
Monahan’s charge is to modernize the march for a country that is becoming more conflicted about abortion even as it remains steadfastly committed to the Roe ruling and the value of personal choice. For the movement’s next generation of leaders, the question is whether those two things can coexist. Should the focus remain on Roe and changing laws to limit access to abortion, or has that left a legacy too judgmental for younger Americans? Should the emphasis shift to changing minds and hearts, particularly of women who are pregnant and don’t want to be?
There is debate among march participants as to exactly where the country stands on abortion. More and more Americans describe themselves as “pro-life,” yet majority support for Roe has remained steady for two decades. More state-level restrictions were passed in 2012 than in any previous year and the rate of abortions has been declining, yet one-third of American women have an abortion by age 45.
And the reelection of President Obama stung many in the antiabortion movement. Obama is strongly in favor of protecting access to abortion and contraception. He battled during his campaign with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church over the birth control mandate contained in the Affordable Care Act.
With this backdrop, Monahan is an apt face for the march. Unlike Gray, who came to loathe the media and took pride in not checking her voice mail even when it overflowed, Monahan is comfortable engaging not only the public but the divided nature of it. She speaks openly about different points of view on abortion even in her own Catholic family. This year, she launched the distribution of postcards for legislators — but the cards merely urged them to vote “pro-life,” without specifying particular measures.