Democracy Dies in Darkness

Acts of Faith

Trump and Pence give surprise addresses at antiabortion March for Life

January 18, 2019 at 5:34 PM

Crowds listen intently at the March for Life rally on Friday. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post) (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

President Trump and Vice President Pence surprised thousands of protesters demonstrating against abortion on the Mall in Washington by making unannounced speeches at Friday’s March for Life.

Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, strode onstage to the delighted cheers of a roaring crowd carrying antiabortion posters and banners. Then Pence concluded his remarks with a second surprise: Trump, who addressed the march by video feed last year, had again prepared videotaped remarks for the marchers.

“When we look into the eyes of a newborn child, we see the beauty and the human soul and the majesty of God’s creation. We know that every life has meaning,” Trump said in his video, before listing his administration’s antiabortion actions and vowing to reject any legislation passed by the new Democratic-controlled House that “weakens” the campaign to prevent abortion access.

He said he signed a letter to Congress on Friday announcing his intent to veto any such law.

Related: The abortion issue is more polarized than ever, leading some to view the March for Life as a Republican rally

Pence gave a similar list of antiabortion actions, including Trump’s appointment of conservative judges to powerful appellate courts across the country, and his reinstatement of the Mexico City policy that bans U.S. government funding for any foreign aid organization linked to abortion. Pence, too, spoke with religious overtones: “Listen to the truth,” he said, then cited one of the antiabortion movement’s favorite biblical verses. “Know that He who said, ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you’ also said, ‘I will never forsake you.’”

Sixteen-year-old Daniel Pierini was among those cheering, thrilled to hear Pence describe the president’s reinstatement of the Mexico City policy, which he supports.

“I like how he explained what the president has done so far for the pro-life movement,” he said, adding that he is a fan of Trump and Pence except for their opposition to rights for transgender Americans, because he has transgender friends.

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Vice President Pence praised his wife, Karen Pence, saying, “I couldn't be more proud,” while speaking to a crowd at the March for Life rally in Washington on Jan. 18. (Reuters)

Standing with classmates from his Christian school in Forest Hills, Pa., Pierini said his own mother had a troubled pregnancy — a doctor told her that she was at risk of a miscarriage or could die if she carried her pregnancy to term, Pierini said — but she chose not to abort and give birth to him. Now, he hopes, the Supreme Court with two conservative justices appointed by Trump will overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal nationwide.

Related: Mancini: The March for Life wants you, Democrats, but it's hard when your party has become so extreme

Since the March for Life began in 1974, the year after the Roe v. Wade decision, the crowd has been largely youthful, including Catholic school students who ride buses from all over the country to attend the march. In recent years, march organizers said they have tried to welcome a broader group of people who oppose abortion. In addition to the march’s Catholic core, an Evangelicals for Life conference now draws a sizable contingent. Other groups march in step, like Secular Pro-Life and Democrats for Life of America.

However, last year, when Trump addressed the crowd, some complained that the polarizing president distanced those who aren’t fans of Trump from the antiabortion movement. In this shifting environment, the march leaders picked science as their theme this year — under the headline, “Unique from Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science.”

Related: Under President Trump, here are the goals antiabortion activists still want to achieve

March for Life president Jeanne Mancini and other leaders of the movement said before the march that they wanted to include a politically diverse audience of anyone who opposes abortion — which, according to polling, includes at least a quarter of Democratic voters, although antiabortion Democrats in Congress are a rapidly dwindling group. Mancini touted the equal balance in speakers this year, two Republican congressmen and two Democrats (one a state legislator).

But on Friday, Trump and Pence spoke again. And again, some said they were unhappy to associate the antiabortion movement with a president they dislike.

“I think the most dangerous thing we ever did is make this a partisan issue. It’s a human rights issue,” said Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, 35, president of a group called New Wave Feminists that brought about 50 marchers to the event. She gave birth as a teenager, she said, so she understands the plight of women considering abortion.

She came from Dallas to attend the march and said her group will participate in both the March for Life and the Women’s March the following day, a march which demonstrates against Trump and Republican policies.

“We really want to challenge the GOP to be consistently pro-life,” she said. “What about children at the border? . . . They’re doing a lot of things that are anti-life.”

She would like to see more Democrats who oppose abortion rights elected to office, she said.

March for Life 2019 route (Washington Post)

Brian Westbrook, who runs an anti-abortion group that demonstrates outside abortion clinics in St. Louis, said it didn’t matter to him what political parties were represented at the March. The excitement over the president, he said, “has little to do with Trump and everything to do with the Supreme Court.”

He said he is most excited about the two conservative justices Trump has appointed to the court, and wonders about the possibility of a third as he sees Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg struggle with health problems. Otherwise, he has not been impressed by Republicans’ accomplishments on the issue — including, as featured march speaker Ben Shapiro pointed out, their unfulfilled promise to defund Planned Parenthood.

“They had two whole years. They had the House and the Senate,” Westbrook said.

A group of college students said they didn’t think the event seemed partisan.

“It was so inspiring everyone can come together from different backgrounds. We have friends here who are Democrats. I know atheists who are pro-life,” said Evelyn Munsterman, 19, a freshman at James Madison University who studies engineering.

At school, she said, she feels “shut down” whenever she tries to talk about abortion.

The unexpected presidential and vice presidential addresses eclipsed the planned “pro-science” theme of the march, which the March for Life had promoted using two scientific papers. One, published by the antiabortion nonprofit the Charlotte Lozier Institute, describes the meeting of a sperm cell and an egg cell to form a zygote, a new type of cell distinct from the two that formed it. The paper then asks whether that cell is its own organism separate from the mother, or a part of a human like a liver cell or a skin cell.

The fact that the zygote “directs its own development,” leading it to eventually turn into a more complete embryo and eventually a baby in the right circumstances, leads the writer of the paper (a neurobiology and pediatrics professor at the University of Utah) to conclude that from the moment of conception, embryos “are indeed living individuals of the human species.”

Related: Why these activists don't like calling themselves 'pro-life' anymore

Sarah Horvath, a doctor who has performed abortions and works as a family planning policy and advocacy fellow for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said the ACOG, a 58,000-member organization that includes more than 90 percent of the OB/GYNs in the United States, disagrees with that scientist’s explanation of life.

“I think that’s a gross exaggeration of an incredibly complex topic. There are many fertilized eggs that never implant, that implant in the wrong place . . . that become miscarriages, that in fact can become a type of cancer,” Horvath said.

She said medical professionals don’t have a working definition of when life begins. ACOG strongly supports increased access to abortion in its official positions.

“Science isn’t really designed to answer questions about the exact beginning of life or the moral assignations of these sorts of things,” she said. “Science tells us that abortion is safe. Science tells us that abortion is health care. Science tells us that abortion care can be lifesaving.”

That’s the first disagreement. The second disagreement: Putting aside when life begins, what should women be allowed to do about an unwanted pregnancy? One can believe that an embryo is a life or not a life and still have differing opinions about whether a woman should be able to choose to end her pregnancy.

Related: Trump administration hammers California over defunct crisis pregnancy center law before March for Life rally

The second paper promoted by the March for Life stakes out a clear opinion: “The College values all human lives equally from the moment of conception (fertilization) until natural death. Consistent with its mission to ‘enable all children to reach their optimal physical and emotional health and well-being,’ the College, therefore, opposes active measures that would prematurely end the life of any child at any stage of development from conception to natural death,” the paper says.

That College is the American College of Pediatricians, which was founded in 2002 in opposition to the larger pediatric institute’s approval of gay parents. It represents a few hundred doctors, compared with the 66,000 doctors of the American Academy of Pediatrics. That body, the vastly larger medical organization, does not share the ACP’s opinion. It tends to weigh in only on the question of whether teenagers, who can be the patients of pediatricians, should have access to abortion — and strongly supports access to abortion.

“Timely access to medical care is especially important for pregnant teenagers because of the significant medical, personal, and social consequences of adolescent childbearing,” the organization wrote in a 2017 statement opposing state laws that require a teenager to disclose an abortion to her parents. “Early childbearing can lead to a range of negative outcomes for the adolescent mother and her child or children, including lower rates of school completion, higher rates of single motherhood, higher rates of preterm birth and low birth weight, increased rates of incarceration among male children, and increased rates of teen motherhood among female children born to adolescent mothers.”

Participants in the March for Life on Friday expressed a range of views on the topic. Some professed a belief that life begins at conception, while others stated that any scientific conclusions should be secondary to what morality and religion dictate on the subject.

Alan and Lisa Anderson, both nurses, said their belief that life begins at conception motivated them to drive eight hours from Massachusetts for the march.

“If you don’t intervene with that life, what will you have?” Alan Anderson, 64, said as he waited for the march to begin. “You’ll have a full-blown human being.”

But if scientists reached a different conclusion, somehow proving that life does not begin at conception, Alan said, he’d still oppose abortion. That’s what he has learned from his Catholic faith.

Clarification: The description of Brian Westbrook’s anti-abortion group in St. Louis has been updated.


Michelle Boorstein is a religion reporter, covering the busy marketplace of American faith. Her career has included a decade of globe-trotting with the Associated Press, covering topics including terrorism in the Arizona desert, debates on male circumcision, Ugandan royalty, and how strapped doctors in Afghanistan decide who lives and who dies.

Julie Zauzmer is a religion reporter. She previously covered local news at The Washington Post and at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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