By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008
Billy Valentine, whose parents met as activists in the 1980s, was virtually born into the "pro-life" movement. Now the earnest college student from Alexandria is carrying on their message with a twist: persuading other young men to take responsibility and "stand up for life" when their girlfriends become pregnant.
"As a sidewalk counselor, I wait outside abortion clinics until the men come out to use their cellphones. I tell them I'm not there to judge them. I'm there to help," said Valentine, 20, one of about 800 participants in the District yesterday for the annual conference of Students for Life of America. "Sometimes they break down and cry and go back and bring out their girlfriends to reconsider."
Ellie Baum, a student at Purdue University who rode 14 hours in a bus to attend the conference at the Catholic University of America, said she was inspired to join the antiabortion movement after witnessing the birth of her sister's child three years ago.
"From that experience, I realized there was no difference between a child after it's born and when it's in the mother's womb. It made me really passionate about this issue," said Baum, 20, an engineering major from Wisconsin. "Every day, as many people die from abortion as the number who died in 9/11. We have to stop it."
Despite the steady drop in abortions across the United States in the three decades since the Supreme Court legalized the procedure in 1973 in the case of Roe v. Wade, a new generation of activists is taking up the cause with conviction and sophistication. There are Students for Life chapters on more than 400 college campuses nationwide.
This week, thousands of activists are gathering in Washington for the annual March for Life tomorrow afternoon. The event will cap three days of speeches, prayer vigils, Masses and other activities across the city.
The campus conference hall buzzed with intensity yesterday. Clusters of students chatted near displays of literature while motivational speakers offered tips on how to lobby members of Congress and recruit on campuses.
Many students were Catholics. Some were well versed in antiabortion slogans and statistics; others were shy and tentative. Their presidential choice seemed to be Republican Mike Huckabee, who has expressed more conservative views on abortion than any other candidate.
A common theme was the need to focus on the challenges of being a mother. Several participants said the antiabortion movement has evolved in that direction, partly to counter criticism that it was indifferent to the hardships of raising a child in poverty or alone.
"In pro-choice circles, people tend to talk about abortion casually, like getting a manicure or an appendectomy. But it is a procedure that takes one life and leaves another one irreparably damaged," said Cayce Utley, a speaker from Feminists for Life. "We can't say we care about the baby and not care about the mom."
Students from several colleges said they were involved in groups that help young mothers find housing, clothing and other necessities if they decide to bear a child. Male students, who made up about half the participants, spoke of the need for unmarried fathers to take responsibility.
"The first person a girl listens to is the father, so you have a big responsibility to help her. You can't just ditch her," said Tom Dougan, 20, an engineering student who was part of a five-bus caravan to Washington from Indiana.
Valentine, who is majoring in human life studies at a Catholic college in Ohio, said that every time he and his friends persuade a young woman not to have an abortion, they throw her a baby shower to make sure she and the newborn start out with the necessities.
He noted that the antiabortion movement is becoming predominantly youthful while the abortion rights movement is aging. "This conference shows that the youth are not the future of the pro-life movement," he said. "We are the movement."