The first time Peter Range marched, he was 21. A girlfriend had told him she’d had an abortion before she met him, and the pain Range saw in her inspired him to board a bus and head to Washington, where, each year, as part of the March for Life, thousands of people protest abortion on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
It was 2003. Roe had been in effect for three decades, and as Range streamed down Constitution Avenue, he hoped that someday the courts would overturn the decision that made abortion legal nationwide. He believed marching was making a difference, but that hope felt dim. The end of Roe seemed far away.
Range has attended the march 15 times since then, and he has worked his way up to executive director of Ohio Right to Life. He will return to the march this week with two buses full of young adults in tow, and this time, he says, that hope doesn’t feel quite so distant. By the end of this summer, the Supreme Court could overturn Roe. After 49 years, there may not be an anniversary to protest.
“The mood is incredibly different today,” Range said. “This could potentially be the last March for Life that happens under Roe. All the work the pro-life movement has been doing for years is coming to an apex now with the Supreme Court decision upcoming. There’s a tremendous amount of hope and excitement in the movement.”
The march begins at noon Friday with a rally on the National Mall. At 1 p.m., marchers will move along Constitution Avenue toward the steps of the Supreme Court.
Though the event has long been the country’s largest antiabortion rally, organizers expect a reduced attendance this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. In their permit application, organizers estimated 50,000 people will attend. A small number of abortion rights activists protest the rally each year, but March for Life organizers don’t expect a large crowd of counterprotesters this week.
Dozens of abortion opponents have noted on the March for Life Facebook page that they will not attend because of a new D.C. mandate that requires anyone over the age of 12 to show proof of at least one coronavirus vaccine shot before going inside restaurants, conference rooms and other public spaces. The march happens outside, but the program includes several indoor events. March organizers held most events virtually last year because of the pandemic.
Range said his group will also be smaller than usual: He usually takes about 700 young people from Toledo to the march, but this year only 110 are signed up for the eight-hour bus ride. Still, Range said he sees the annual event as an integral piece of activism. Many young people leave the weekend inspired to start antiabortion groups at their colleges, and others begin demonstrating and praying outside of abortion clinics.
“It’s a joyful event,” Range said. “There’s a special holy spirit that is present that charges people up to come home and fight locally for the right to life.”
That’s what happened to Range’s generation. The years since Range first attended the march have been banner ones for antiabortion activists. According to the Guttmacher Institute, local legislatures have enacted more than 480 abortion restrictions since 2011. Texas so far has succeeded in banning abortions after six weeks, and all but one abortion clinic in Mississippi closed. Ohio has passed more than two dozen restrictions over the past decade, Range said.
Range said he’s depending on the march to renew enthusiasm in Ohio as his group works to pass Senate Bill 123, a trigger law that would ban all abortions in Ohio if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe.
Abortion rights activists are working to stop that bill, which they say is unconstitutional. Aileen Day, communications director at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio, said her group will continue to fight to protect abortion access. Her group has more than 3,000 people signed up to testify against the bill.
“The citizens of Ohio face some of the most egregious attacks in the country when it comes to preserving the constitutional right to abortion,” she said. “But the facts speak for themselves: Abortion is legal in Ohio and in America, and most Ohioans support safe and legal access to abortion.”
Day’s organization is aware of the March for Life, and she has seen young antiabortion activists return home energized from the trip, but her group won’t send counterprotesters during a pandemic. As the number of coronavirus cases continues to surge nationwide, Day said she is worried that the march will be a superspreader event.
“I think it says everything about the antiabortion movement that they are busing in hundreds of people from Ohio, a state that has been leading the nation in this pandemic surge, to celebrate their false flag of life,” she said.
Antiabortion activists in other states say they plan to stay home this year to focus on local efforts. In Kansas, antiabortion advocates are busy organizing the state March for Life, which takes place Jan. 25. McKenzie McCoy, executive director of North Dakota Right to Life, said she had to forgo the national event this year because she’s the keynote speaker at her state’s march, which will happen in tandem with the national event Friday.
“The state marches are so important because we’re the ones with the boots on the ground,” McCoy said. “We get tired. We get beat down. Sometimes we feel like we’re running on this treadmill alone, and it’s good to go to events like this where you can fill that tank back up. Your fire gets rekindled. You get reminded of why you got into this movement.”
Although North Dakota has a trigger law that would ban abortion if Roe falls, McCoy said her organization is working on a plan to reach people who may still want, or try, to terminate their pregnancies, no matter what the law says. Her organization is working with another local group to buy a mobile pregnancy unit that will function as a kind of roving crisis pregnancy center with free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds.
“Just because Roe may get overturned doesn’t mean our work is done,” McCoy said. “I think it’s just beginning. We still have the issue of how do we change these pregnancies from unwanted to wanted. There has to be a shift there, and we have to have the resources to back that up.”
Florida will also host its own marches this weekend, but Andrew Shirvell, executive director of Florida Voice for the Unborn, plans to travel to D.C. for the national march.
He attended his first March for Life when he was a sophomore in college, and he has attended 10 or so others in the two decades since. He has marched in the snow, he said, and he plans to march next year, too, no matter what the Supreme Court decides. Though Florida lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would prohibit abortion after 15 weeks, the state does not yet have a law that would ban the procedure outright if Roe is overturned.
“Roe being overturned doesn’t mean abortion would be illegal all over the country,” Shirvell said. “There’s going to be huge battles over abortion in the state legislatures and even at the local level. What we’d ultimately like to see is a constitutional amendment ensuring the right to life in every state, but that’s probably a long way in the future.”