The overall scene was dramatically smaller than normal, with usually-crowded sidewalks and lawns all along the Mall instead dotted with protesters, including nuns and priests in their garb and packs of Catholic school students holding signs and wearing hats that matched their group. Evangelical leaders made a concerted effort this year to bring their activists to what is traditionally a strongly Catholic event and several national evangelical leaders spoke from the stage to the rally.
“We were late to the party, but we are with you,” said Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, a prominent establishment evangelical group.
Among those in the crowd was Richard Stith, 71, an Indiana law professor who called himself a part of a segment he dubbed “lefties for life” — people who he said view abortion opposition as part of a broader “consistent ethic for life.” In that, he said, is an opposition to the death penalty and any violence against LGBT people. He said he had been a member of a group called Socialists for Life as well and always felt welcome at the march.
Stith was attending with his wife and daughter and son-in-law and said his family had been coming every year for 36 years.
Others who had intended to join them from places including Philadelphia and New York hadn’t been able to make it because their buses had been canceled, Stith said.
However, he said that the march over the years has generally become bigger and more successful as it has become less confrontational. “The benefit of a joyful idealistic nonviolent movement is that you can attract more people,” he said. Even though Stith expected the smallest crowd in decades, he said “the mood is still really upbeat. … What is it that Shakespeare said — ‘We happy few’?”
The weather was a challenge, driving marchers (who usually hang out en masse once they get to the Supreme Court to pray, sing and rally) to immediately run for their car, bus or train once they got there Friday. But the blizzardy backdrop was also inspiring, giving weight to an event that always happens in the dead of winter and is seen by activists as a result as a non-cushy protest for the truly committed.
Some movement leaders and some participants said 2016 feels like an optimistic time for abortion opponents.
The movement got a massive jolt of energy last summer when controversial undercover videos were released purporting to show Planned Parenthood executives discussing illegal sales of fetal body parts. Some said the videos were the biggest thing to happen to the movement in decades, and Planned Parenthood was referenced all day Friday. Along the route as snow fell, the marchers saw large video screens running images purported to be of aborted fetuses and quotes written on screens attributed to Planned Parenthood staff.
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina took the stage first and spoke in fiery tones to the crowd, slamming “the media,” feminism and her potential opponent Hillary Clinton.
“You can throw condoms at me all day long,” she said of opponents.
While organizers emphasized Fiorina’s present wasn’t an endorsement, some movement leaders there said she was perhaps the candidate speaking most passionately to abortion opponents.
“This year is the craziest [campaign season] ever and we need to get past the noise,” Penny Nance, CEO of the anti-abortion group Concerned Women for America, said in an interview at the rally about the political choices in 2016 for abortion opponents. “We need to look past that and see what is the person’s record? They’ll have to answer follow up questions. And Donald Trump is at the top of that list,” she said of candidates whose stance on abortion feels to some unclear.
The crowd that appeared to be in the thousands spread out beneath the Washington Monument roared at Fiorina’s Clinton references but offered a tepid response to Fiorina’s references to “the Left” and feminism.
It can be hard to generalize about the politics of March for Life crowds. Generally they lean conservative and most lawmakers who speak are Republicans, but not exclusively.
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) took up the theme of the March this year: “pro-life, pro-woman.” Of the idea that abortion rights supporters are women’s champions she said, “I reject that. I reject that. I have been to war and let me be clear: this is no war on women.”
Joe Heim contributed to this report.
Correction: Photo captions with crowd estimates have been updated.