Why the Head of the Antiabortion March for Life Will Keep Marching

Even if Roe is overturned, Jeanne Mancini says the movement still has work to do

Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund. (KK Ottesen for The Washington Post)
Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund. (KK Ottesen for The Washington Post)
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The future of the antiabortion movement was on display in the crowd of about 1,000 that gathered for the Virginia March for Life outside the Capitol in Richmond. It was a Wednesday morning in late April, five days before the stunning leak of a draft decision that would signal that the Supreme Court was actively considering overturning Roe v. Wade. Yet the marchers intuited that a dramatic pivot in their nearly 50-year struggle was at hand. They carried signs that said, “The Future Is Anti-Abortion.” College students who were less than half the age of the Roe decision chanted, “We are the post-Roe generation! We will abolish abortion!”

That they were here at all was thanks, in part, to a woman standing to the side before the march began, chatting with her parents while her Tibetan terrier rescue dog, Tobias, stood nearby on a leash. Jeanne Mancini, 50, became a leading figure in the antiabortion movement a decade ago and almost by accident. After holding lower-level policy jobs related to ending abortion, she stepped in as president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund upon the death of the march’s founder, Nellie Gray.

The national march takes place in Washington every year, on or near the Jan. 22 anniversary of the 1973 Roe decision. It has grown into one of the largest annual demonstrations in the nation’s capital and a focal point of the campaign to end abortion, drawing tens of thousands of people to march from the National Mall to the Supreme Court.

A few years ago, as the debate over abortion was moving outside Washington to battles over restrictions being proposed in state legislatures, Mancini started a program of state marches like this one in Virginia, partnering with groups such as the Family Foundation of Virginia to spread the energy of the national march to state capitals. The coming Supreme Court decision, in a case concerning a law in Mississippi — even if it doesn’t completely overturn Roe — is likely to unleash an unprecedented torrent of action and reaction at the state level, and Mancini is already laying plans to expand the state march program.

As the pre-march rally in Virginia got underway, Mancini found herself getting choked up at the words of the prior speaker, a woman who described her agonizing decision as a teenager decades ago to give up her son for adoption rather than have an abortion or try to raise him herself. Walking to the podium, Mancini told me later, she decided to scrap her prepared speech and use the woman’s remarks to make a larger point about the antiabortion movement’s obligation now, beyond the courts and state capitols, as the Roe decision faces reversal.

“At this critical juncture in our country’s history, when it’s possible that the question of abortion legislation could return to the states … pro-lifers, it is more important than ever that we are ready to empower women, to walk alongside women, so that they can make choices” like this, she said. It would mean providing moral, medical and material support on a larger scale than the movement has done before.

Mancini was already thinking about what antiabortion advocates must do to be ready for their wildest dream to come true. The end of Roe would not mean the end of abortion, so redoubled efforts in the states would be key. But what would be the new purpose of the march?

Nellie Gray had thought overturning the Roe decision would be enough. After the Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 22, 1973, she quit her career as a federal lawyer and became a full-time crusader, staging the first march on Jan. 22, 1974. “We thought there was going to be one march,” she said in a 2007 interview with a Catholic news service that was re-aired after her death at 88 in 2012. “Then we realized Congress wasn’t going to help, and we better have a second march. And what I am saying to you is, we will be here until we overturn Roe v. Wade.”

At the time of Gray’s passing, Mancini had just joined the board of the march, while working as a policy analyst for the Family Research Council. There was no obvious successor to Gray; Mancini filled in as interim president until the organization decided she was the best person to expand and modernize the march. “I don’t think we ever envisioned her progression as she went up,” John Monahan, her father, told me at the rally in Virginia. “Then all of a sudden, there she was.”

She grew up mostly in Northern Virginia, where she attended a Catholic retreat in high school that she says changed her life. It made her feel closer to God, and she sensed “that there was more of a mission … for my life.” In college, she knew at least two women who had been emotionally devastated in the aftermath of terminating their pregnancies. After college she joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and worked with children in Arizona who were in crisis after being abused or neglected, or, in some cases, after having been abusers themselves. “My pro-life views actually came from understanding the human dignity of these ones who were so very wounded,” she says. Abortion rights advocates often argue that women should be able to choose not to bring children into desperate circumstances, Mancini notes, and she considered her Arizona experiences the ultimate test of that argument. “It was something I was grappling with, like: Would it be better if these kids weren’t here because they’ve lived such horrific lives? And I came to the other side of, no, it’s better that they’re here. Their life is a gift, even though they’ve suffered a lot, and they carry some real war wounds.”

Gray had designed the national march as a place where disparate parts of the movement took strength and comfort from gathering in large numbers to hold lawmakers and the court to account. Mancini sought to project a wider appeal. Attendance became more ecumenical and demographically younger, with student leaders highlighted. Gray’s wariness toward the media was replaced by Mancini’s eagerness to get the message out. She still remembers her elation the day the march first trended on Twitter, in 2014.

Mancini’s friends say her experience of being close to people with opposing views on abortion — including some family members — gives her activism a broad-minded quality that makes her an effective ambassador. “She does not bring any type of judgment,” says close friend Monica Wenstrup, who met Mancini years ago at a “Theology on Tap” event in a bar in Cincinnati. “She has like a river of joy deep in her soul.” “She is the most humble and selfless servant leader that I’ve encountered in a national role in the pro-life movement,” says David Bereit, former chief executive of the prayer vigil campaign 40 Days for Life. “She asks, ‘How can this march get more people involved?’ ”

Mancini is thinking beyond Gray’s original vow to keep marching until Roe was overturned. “The goal to overturn Roe — that’s always been a hope,” Mancini told me when we met in the March for Life’s small suite of offices in Washington, the week after the Virginia state march. (She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and has three adult stepchildren.) It was three days after the leaked opinion, which, if issued as drafted, she said would be “a tremendous victory.” “But a much deeper and harder and loftier goal has been to make abortion unthinkable,” she continued. “To change hearts and minds so that women don’t want the right of an abortion — the so-called right of abortion.”

To move toward that goal, the march — a pillar of the movement’s hearts-and-minds strategy through the example of massive crowds bearing witness on the National Mall — will continue to be relevant, she said. Other prongs of the movement have focused on drafting restrictions, making arguments in court, or bluntly confronting women and abortion providers outside clinics. Yet even if the Supreme Court throws the issue back to the states, hundreds of thousands of abortions are performed each year in states where the procedure will continue to be legal, and a majority of Americans still favor abortion being allowed in “most cases” or “all cases,” according to Washington Post-ABC News polling. The march must try to reach them, Mancini says.

Overturning Roe would be “a tremendous victory,” says Mancini. “But a much deeper and harder and loftier goal has been to make abortion unthinkable.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court leak, when she gets asked if the struggle is won, she has taken to borrowing words from Winston Churchill. “It’s not the end; it’s not the beginning of the end,” she says. “It’s the end of the beginning, hopefully. Chapter 2 is doing a lot more in the states and increasing services to the moms and dads in need.”

The march can be a vehicle to mobilize and educate people around the message Mancini delivered in Virginia: the greater necessity to support women facing unwanted pregnancies and the children of these pregnancies. She praises the growing pregnancy-care movement and uses the national march to highlight its work. There are now about 3,000 pregnancy centers providing almost $270 million in care and assistance to 2 million people a year, according to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, a think tank that opposes abortion. “We need to increase that exponentially,” Mancini says.

Economic hardship is a leading reason some women choose abortion. Abortion foes typically have relied on faith communities and the private sector to ease that burden. I asked Mancini if it was time for the movement to consider national policies to support poor families. Speaking not for the march, “but in my Jeanne Mancini capacity, I totally agree with you,” she said. “We need to support through all stages of life and do everything we can socially to build the infrastructure so that the supports are there.”

Filling the gaps that many women perceive in their ability to have a child is a growing part of the conversation. “We need to double down and do more than we’ve ever done,” says Bereit. “Jeanne’s leadership has always been walking forward towards this scenario. ... Maybe we set aside some of our fiscal policies to say: Are we going to provide a social safety net for mothers and children, so that when somebody is in the situation, everyone is able to come alongside and help them and prove that we mean what we say?”

There’s still an ideological tension over the nature of the safety net. “Everybody agrees in the movement that you can’t encourage someone to keep their child and not build a safety net around them,” says Virginia Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, Mancini’s partner in putting on the Virginia March for Life. “There’s a difference of where is the safety net built. Is it through government, or is it best built through the private sector?”

Such questions complicated the general euphoria at the march in Richmond. Though the Supreme Court’s leak had not yet been publicized, the conservative justices’ questions during the oral presentation of the case had showed they were poised to substantially diminish Roe at the very least. But what then?

Even the students chanting “We are the post-Roe generation!” knew the fight was far from won. “I’ve lived my entire life in a land that allows abortion, that allows the murder of the unborn,” Jesse Hughes, 20, political action coordinator for Liberty Students for Life at Liberty University, told me. “But now we’re on the precipice of something bigger, something greater, something amazing. ... Then we have to go state by state and fight in the state legislatures. The battlefield is not going to shrink when Roe’s overturned. It’s only going to expand.”

Mancini spotted Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who showed up to march. She told him he was the first governor to join one of the state marches. “You’re kidding!” Youngkin replied, before posing for a cellphone photo with Mancini. “Where have we been?” “Your predecessor wouldn’t march,” Mancini said, referring to former governor Ralph Northam (D), who approved a rollback of some abortion restrictions in 2020.

It was a reminder that in states like Virginia, the Supreme Court’s decision won’t do much to change the reality on the ground. Although the office of governor is held by a person against abortion — at least until the next election — a slim majority of the state Senate favors abortion rights, one of the speakers, Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, told the crowd.

“Virginia is still one of those states that has an enormously long road ahead to even consider passing moderate and rational pro-life laws,” Turner told me later. “Even if Roe were to be overturned … many of us who’ve been around for a while see this as something that would be ongoing for years. This is not going to be an overnight solution.”

Mancini always knew that next year’s national March for Life would be a milestone, if only because it would mark the 50th anniversary of the court decision that launched the march in the first place. Now she realizes that she is planning what could be the first post-Roe March for Life. She is behind schedule in coming up with a theme for the event (it’s different every year) in part because she’s waiting for the court’s official ruling. She’s sure of one thing. If the court’s opinion truly does mark the end of the beginning of the abortion struggle, “we will still need to march.”

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