The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Roe dead, thousands attend March for Life in Washington

Washington, D.C. — JAN 20: Marchers celebrated before the start of the March for Life in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20, 2023. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Friday’s March for Life, the first since organizers’ dream of overturning Roe v. Wade became a reality, was a celebration for Monica Condit. She had come from Kentucky at the urging of her teenage daughter, Catie. They talked before starting the route about their hope of abolishing abortion totally. At the same time, Condit, 53, said the day was just the start of the real battle: a “conversion of hearts.”

Unless people start to feel differently about abortion, said Condit, “none of these things are going to change.”

The Condits were among thousands who marched to the U.S. Capitol for a historic chapter of the March for Life. Their aspiration of defeating Roe accomplished, the marchers’ words and signs revealed a movement in flux.

In a strategic route-change meant to symbolize abortion opponents’ new focus on legislation, marchers passed by the Capitol instead of heading directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Among the crowd, though, people shared different ideas about what comes next, how to change the culture and what kinds of laws to pass. Is the path more religious conversion or parental leave? Is the movement, post-Roe, energized or complacent? What specifically does “pro-life” entail?

Attending her fourth March for Life, 69-year-old Fran Clifford said the protest is just as important in post-Roe America as it was before Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, last year’s Supreme Court ruling that left states free to restrict or outlaw abortion.

“We’re not united,” she said. “We need to come together.” Antiabortion advocates need to recommit themselves to helping the women who will now have to carry their pregnancies, said Clifford, who volunteers at a crisis pregnancy center — places, often religiously affiliated, where counselors try to talk pregnant women and other pregnant individuals out of having abortions. “We can’t just say we’re pro-life. People have to do things.”

Standing in the sun and cold air on the Mall, Anna Claire Flowers, 22, said the end of Roe hasn’t yet sparked the kind of cultural change she was hoping for. And since Dobbs, she said, she’s seen “more anger than openness.”

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To change the culture and end abortion, Flowers, a George Mason University graduate student from Alabama, said antiabortion advocates need to take meaningful action to help mothers in need. She said she and her husband recently started making plans to adopt a child. She is also helping to fundraise for a local crisis pregnancy center. “For hearts to change on this, we need more flexible work, child care … efforts that surround the family and the mother.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Dobbs should be duly celebrated — but briefly — as “many national legislative battles loom,” the march website read Friday. It emphasized “our need to maintain a presence in Washington.” Speakers talked about the organization’s five, relatively new state-level marches and its aim by 2030 to have one in every state. They called out their classic targets, from the nonreligious media to former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, eliciting a chorus of boos.

“When you’re in a battle it’s important to keep focus on mission,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.). “It’s also critical we celebrate victories, and boy did we get a huge victory when Roe was overturned. But as you all know, that is only the end of the first phase of this battle. The next phase begins.”

He emphasized the focus shifting to the states, a theme many marchers echoed as well.

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Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who helped shepherd the state case that led to Roe’s overturn, greeted the crowd with a prayer: “To God be the glory!”

She said their cause remains fragile and “aspirational” until the environment changes for mothers and children.

“It’s our charge in this new Dobbs era, to channel that determination and hope and prayer that led you to these streets, and use it to make changes. Use it to support women when they are pregnant and use it to make more affordable quality child care, make it more accessible. Use it to promote workplace flexibility and to make fathers equally responsible for their children. Use it to upscale resources for women and to fix adoption and foster-care systems.”

Marchers cited political and policy challenges to further restrictions on abortion.

Catie Condit, 17, said she and her mother, Monica, also are worried about the results of the 2022 midterm elections and the decision by the Food and Drug Administration to allow pharmacies to dispense abortion pills. She was “heartbroken” when an antiabortion ballot initiative failed in November, with Kentucky voters backing abortion rights.

“There is so much more we can do. We’re so close to having abortion banned completely,” Catie said.

Madelyn Reichert, 25, of D.C., carried a sign that said “Pro-life, ALL-Life! Migrants, refugees, the sick, the disabled, the poor, the oppressed, women, the unborn!” She wants to see policies like paid parental leave, a living wage and better health care and housing aid for families. Forming ties across the antiabortion movement as well as with progressives who promote other values that Reichert see as “pro-life” presents a challenge, she said.

“I would like to see the March’s leadership focus on reaching people who aren’t my demographic, who aren’t Christian, who aren’t White,” she said. “I’d love to see stronger connections between being antiabortion and support for the systems we need to set people up for their entire lives. … The divisions are unfortunate and I’d really prefer to see more coalitions building, more cooperation,” she said. “What I would like to see is people to realize the importance of a consistent life ethic. When you’re pro-life, you’re pro-all life.”

As the March approached the Capitol, many of the protesters turned their attention to Congress. “One, two, three, four, Roe v. Wade is out the door,” one group of students yelled as they passed the House office buildings. “Five, six, seven, eight, now it’s time to legislate.”

Some who had attended the March before took note of the new route, discussing the need for federal antiabortion legislation as they walked. “Our youth need to be vocal with government officials so maybe it can become a national ban,” said Dawn Shipp, a 51-year-old high school principal from Ville Platte, La. Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, she said, “the sky is the limit.”

Others worried about a culture that polls show isn’t budging in the antiabortion direction and hasn’t for decades.

Elizabeth Um, 22, said the end of Roe “has been a dream for so long.” Um, president of Wellesley For Life, an antiabortion student group at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, said she and other members have faced intense backlash since June. When their group hosts events, students who support abortion rights almost always show up to protest, sometimes blocking the doors. They feel determined now to be even more outspoken.

“I want to be braver on my campus and change opinions,” said 21-year-old Grace Park, the group’s treasurer, who wants a nationwide ban. “There is so much animosity towards pro-lifers.”

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For a half-century, the March for Life has been the closest thing there is to a global symbol of the antiabortion movement. With its mix of policy wonks in suits, garbed priests and monks, and activists blasting images of fetal remains on giant screens atop flatbed trucks, the event has been a carnival, bazaar, religious crusade and professional conference rolled into one. While its evolution over the years reflected changes in the movement, its laser focus on overturning Roe gave it a center. Now that center is gone.

“Historically, the March was sort of like the moment when everyone from the antiabortion movement came together. And this is a movement, like any movement, that can be kind of fractious … so this was the moment when the tent was the biggest,” said Mary Ziegler, a legal historian of the antiabortion movement at the University of California at Davis. Now, the movement is at an inflection point, needing to reach a consensus about its next goals, Ziegler said — and what happens at this year’s March for Life could signal initial visions for the post-Roe movement.

The group of Americans who think abortion needs to illegal in all or most cases — a number that’s hovered around the high 30-percent mark for decades, according to Pew Research — is more diverse than those who tend to go to the march.

The March has been changing in some ways all along. In the 1970s, like the movement, it was overwhelmingly Catholic. And with that came a framework that explicitly matched orthodox Catholic teaching: Life begins at conception. The motto of March founder Nellie Gray was: “No exceptions, no compromise!”

Longtime watchers say it’s become more and more explicitly partisan, though defenders say activists had no choice as the Democratic Party became less officially tolerant of antiabortion voices.

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In the early years, politicians and politics in general were looked at much more skeptically, said Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who was for decades a leading antiabortion activist that has become critical of the movement.

“I can remember when Nellie and her leadership team wouldn’t speak laudably about any politician. There was a lot of talk about women in distress and babies. Then as the years went on it was all about legislation and all about reversing Roe. All about Supreme Court appointments. The language, the signage during the March went from social movement monikers to political ones,” said Schenck.

As more White evangelicals took up the antiabortion cause, the March became somewhat more pluralistic, including not only Protestants but secular groups, Jews and marchers of other faiths. Groups from Christian high schools and colleges became a huge feature of the march, presenting a young face of the movement on screens across the globe.

Presidents who opposed abortion, including Ronald Reagan and both George H.W. and George W. Bush, declined to appear at the march. Donald Trump was the first, an appearance that some saw as the final step in the complete politicization of the event.

But Jeanne Mancini, president of the March, told The Washington Post that the decision to host Trump was a no-brainer.

“Any time the leader of the free world is coming, you know he will draw a line in the sand for future pro-life leaders,” she said.

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Ann Scheidler, a longtime activist from Illinois whose husband was a key architect of the movement, said this week that the March — whatever happens next — played a key role in helping bring about last year’s ruling to overturn Roe.

“We kept keeping the issue alive as we did, and the March was a big part of why we got so much further in America,” she said, describing the movement as less engaged in Europe.

Schenck characterized the March as mainly a lab for testing messaging to abortion opponents and for “giving politicians a knowledge of how to play” the crowd. “It was a primer for how to play to the sensibilities of pro-life voters. And in that way it was very useful.”

But it fell short of changing public opinion, he noted. Surveys show most Americans support some form of legal abortion.

“But in terms of — did it really produce the pro-life culture that Nellie and others said the March existed to advance? No. It didn’t.”