With legislative drama about abortion literally unfolding behind them at the U.S. Capitol, tens of thousands of abortion opponents held an upbeat rally Thursday to emphasize participants’ belief that U.S. culture is turning in their favor.
As has become standard in recent years, the March for Life participants were overwhelmingly young and religious, with busloads of students who had come from across the country giving the Mall the feeling of a pop concert.
To many, that House lawmakers were debating at that moment a measure to restrict access to abortion — a measure that had been watered down after a late-night Wednesday revolt by Republican women — seemed not central.
“We’ve been doing this so long that I don’t go up and down” with the political fluctuations, said Geri Nagle, a 71-year-old retiree from New Jersey. The politics, she said, “doesn’t affect me much. The crowds here show where people stand.”
During the hour-long rally before a march to the Supreme Court building, speakers emphasized what pollsters say may be the more skeptical attitude young people have toward abortion. This year, they sought to push back against potential soft spots in the antiabortion argument, urging against, for example, exceptions in the case of rape. Several speakers also emphasized that while technology — sonograms, specifically — had helped the movement, it can lead to abortions when people learn about fetal complications.
Among the sea of signs and banners that said “Life Counts” and “We Are the Pro-Life Generation” was a small but some say growing presence of people advocating for other issues. Among them was Sister Ilaria Buonriposi, who stood with three other women holding a sign that said “Promote Restorative Justice” with a crucifix. The four came from the group Catholic Mobilizing Network, which works against the death penalty.
Buonriposi said during the march that this was the first of the four years she had come that she had not had a negative encounter with abortion opponents who thought she was diluting their message.
By about 1 p.m., the four women said they had handed out about 500 “Who would Jesus execute?” stickers and had only positive conversations.
The apparently warmer welcome Buonriposi received on the Mall comes nearly a year and a half after Pope Francis set off a firestorm by urging Catholics to stop “obsessing” about abortion. Activists say more groups are answering his call by seeking to pull into the “pro-life brand” such topics as the death penalty, immigration and human trafficking.
Last weekend, the five dioceses in Southern California held their first “One Life” event, a march and fair timed to this week’s anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion nationwide, and highlighting not only abortion but also homelessness, foster care and elderly rights. More than 10,000 people attended the Los Angeles event.
On Wednesday, more than 100 Catholic leaders — including 31 presidents of Catholic colleges and universities — released a petition calling on Congress to pass immigration reform, which the document calls “a pro-life issue.”
Kathleen Domingo, coordinator of the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace — which organized One Life — said that Archbishop José Gomez created the idea for the event in response to Francis’s emphasis on all kinds of human issues.
“His vision was a celebration of the beauty and dignity of every human life,” Domingo said of Gomez.
“Absolutely, it takes place around Roe v. Wade, because abortion is the biggest civil rights issue of our time. But we aren’t making distinctions between different things. Every human life matters — that’s the point.”
In the same spirit, Gomez created Domingo’s office in 2011 by merging the “justice and peace” office with the “life” office, which had handled efforts on abortion, end-of-life issues and capital punishment.
Catholics have been debating the proper place of abortion in the hierarchy of issues since Roe v. Wade was decided, with some saying it holds the highest theological priority and shouldn’t be muddled in with other topics that may be less black and white and less fundamental. But Francis’s framing of such issues as care for the elderly, economic inequality and loneliness as urgent — rather than abortion and same-sex marriage — has forced Catholics to consider what being an advocate of “life” means.
“My suspicion is that a number of people have gotten what we’ve come to call the memo from Pope Francis,” said Terrence Tilley, a theologian at Fordham University. “That is, we want to be a church that is pastoral and welcoming and not to war against the culture but to work to convert those who have to live in the culture.” Working against abortion goes from being a litmus test, Tilley said, “to one of the things you do.”
On the other side of the abortion issue, Jon O’Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice, said in a statement: “Having failed to make political or electoral inroads to defeat pro-choice support in the United States under Roe v. Wade, the anti-choice lobby is elbowing into more popular issues like immigration reform and anti-death penalty advocacy. Leaders in these movements would be advised to steer clear of the anti-choice lobby’s attempt to co-opt their issues to one that so clearly has failed in U.S. opinion.”
Others said they saw it differently: that abortion is associated with moral gravitas other groups would like to share.
Jeanne Monahan, president of the March for Life, said that when she took over the event more than two years ago, she started calling people focused on other causes up on stage during the rally “to show unity.” But she drew the line when non-abortion representatives would ask to address the massive crowd on the Mall.
“It can be hard, say, with friends who work on end-of-life issues when they ask to speak at the march,” Monahan said. “I personally don’t think ‘pro-life’ stops with the abortion issue, but we have a responsibility.”
Julie Zauzmer and Aly Seidel contributed to this report.