Young activists adding fuel to antiabortion side

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, January 24, 2010; C01

Iwent to the March for Life rally Friday on the Mall expecting to write about its irrelevance. Isn't it quaint, I thought, that these abortion protesters show up each year on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, even though the decision still stands after 37 years. What's more, with a Democrat in the White House likely to appoint justices who support abortion rights, surely the Supreme Court isn't going to overturn Roe in the foreseeable future.

How wrong I was. The antiabortion movement feels it's gaining strength, even if it's not yet ready to predict ultimate triumph, and Roe supporters (including me) are justifiably nervous.

As always, we in Washington enjoy an up-close view of the health of various causes because of the city's role as the nation's most important setting for political demonstrations. In this case, I was especially struck by the large number of young people among the tens of thousands at the march. It suggests that the battle over abortion will endure for a long time to come.

"We are the pro-life generation," said signs carried by the crowd, about half its members appearing to be younger than 30. There were numerous large groups of teenagers, many bused in by Roman Catholic schools and youth groups. They and their adult leaders said the youths were taught from an early age to oppose abortion.

"People our age are going to be the ones to change, to be the future leaders," said Lauren Powers, 16, who came with a group from an all-girls Catholic school in Milwaukee.

After I asked to interview them, a group of eighth-graders from St. Mark School, a private Catholic school in Catonsville, sang a song they wrote, based on a Miley Cyrus tune:

Hands up for saving the babies;

Bad doctors go away . . .

We're saving the babies;

You know they're going to be okay.

Also contributing to the confidence among abortion opponents are some recent political and judicial events. In the House version of the health-care reform bill before Congress, conservatives succeeded in inserting a remarkably strong antiabortion provision. And in November, antiabortion Republican candidates won governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey.

And although he still lacks the five votes needed to scrap Roe, which established a constitutional right to abortion in 1973, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. warned explicitly in a Supreme Court decision Thursday that there was no "inexorable command" that the court must preserve past rulings.

"If you'd asked me six months ago, I'd have been discouraged. Now I'm not discouraged," especially because of the election results, said Thomas J. Hogan, a member of the board of directors of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, which organized the rally.

Asked about the prospect of overturning Roe, he shrugged. "Will we ever attain it? Who knows," he said. "We haven't stopped," he added, and the presence of so many young people is "very promising."

Activists who support abortion rights conceded that there's less energy among young people on their side of the debate.

"Unfortunately, I feel my generation is a little complacent," said Amanda Pelletier, 20, co-director of the abortion rights group at American University. "It just doesn't seem to be a very hip issue."

Erin Matson, action vice president for the National Organization for Women, said that the current political climate is "terrifically hostile" to abortion rights and that her group hopes to organize a national march similar to a huge rally for NOW's side of the issue in 2004.

Matson criticized President Obama and Democrats in Congress for having "put forth the most punitive proposed restrictions on abortion in my lifetime." She referred to the provision in the House bill sponsored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), which would prevent women who receive federal insurance subsidies from buying insurance that pays for abortions.

Matson and Pelletier were among fewer than 100 abortion-rights supporters who demonstrated in front of the Supreme Court on the anniversary of Roe.

Young people in the March for Life said they thought they were more opposed to abortion than people in their parents' generation because they had more information about the issue, in part because of their education.

"We start learning early on why it's wrong. I don't think they got the chance to do that," said Kelly Brennan, 17, who came here with a group from Archbishop Ryan High School in Philadelphia.

Although all of the school and youth group trips were voluntary, one adult leader said she'd urged the students to come because of her own deep feelings.

"I've seen the pain that abortion causes women," said Michelle Fabian, youth minister of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Lancaster County, Pa. She said her mother still "can't listen to a vacuum cleaner without shuddering" because it reminds her of the equipment used when she had an abortion before Fabian was born.

When feelings run that raw, this issue could stir controversy for 37 years more.

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