The March for Life is a miracle. There is no other annual event of that size in the nation’s capital with that kind of sustained energy; the massive pro-life rally has been going on every January for more than 40 years. But maybe the biggest part of the miracle has to do with the near-total lack of huge-name promoters, as the antiabortion movement continues to be the third rail for American celebrities.
That’s about to change. In a few weeks, the March will be keynoted by a genuine superstar: Ben Shapiro. The 34-year-old Orthodox Jew from Southern California hosts the most popular conservative podcast in the country. A pre-election special he did this fall was one of the most-watched shows on cable TV the day it aired. His “Daily Wire” opinion-news website boasts 140 million page views per month.
Many in the pro-life movement, of which I am passionately a part, will consider the Harvard Law-educated intellectual a huge get. Not me. Despite Shapiro’s star power and stature, I consider his appearance a serious mistake for the March, one that will move us even further from being understood as the broad-based human rights movement we need to embody in order to go from fringe to mainstream.
Shapiro’s appearance is an especially ominous sign after last year’s appearance via satellite TV of President Trump — the absolute nemesis of more left-leaning pro-lifers like myself.
Shapiro, of course, puts the March on the map in a different — and, in some respects, more important — way than Trump’s video did last year. Trump is a buffoon, but Shapiro is helping form the imagination of many millions of young conservatives. He also has deep relationships and regular exchanges with pro-choice members of the intellectual dark Web, and is one of the few pro-life public figures who is taken seriously outside the pro-life movement itself.
Though I disagree with Shapiro about 60 to 70 percent of the time, I listen to his entertaining show regularly and consider him a very important voice for vulnerable populations. His commitment to argument and evidence — and rejection of power politics — represents the only chance those who have lack power in our culture have to get their interests taken seriously.
Still, I do not welcome his appearance at the March.
It is an especially bad mistake to have his show recorded live on the most public stage of the pro-life movement — a stage that will be made even more public due to his presence.
It was bad enough to have the movement associated with Trump. On his year’s stage, will Shapiro read his show’s regular advertisements for the U.S. Conceal-Carry Association? How will the crowd react when he does his daily promotion of his “Leftist Tears: Hot or Cold” tumbler?
Following a challenge on Twitter from me, March for Life President Jeanne Mancini tweeted back an affirmation that the movement is “made up of all of us,” with “different approaches and backgrounds,” and said the March aims to capture that diversity in its program.
Indeed, some 28 percent of Democrats told Gallup in 2014 that they identify as “pro-life.”
The set of all pro-lifers is huge, politically diverse, and, as I have argued in these pages, more representative of the views of people of color than of white people — especially white liberals.
Unfortunately, while the March features the occasional Democratic politician or openly liberal pro-life activist, the speakers’ list and political tone in recent years have become overwhelmingly Republican and conservative. Increasingly, and especially with Trump speaking last year, those who identity with a different political ideology have been alienated from the most important pro-life march in the country — as well as the most important annual pro-life strategic meetings that surround the March.
This alienation is among the factors pushing non-conservative pro-life organizations such as New Wave Feminists, Rehumanize International, Secular Pro-Life, Democrats for Life, Consistent Life, among others, to hold alternative events at the March. This is a disaster for a number of reasons, among them that the pro-life movement will never meet our goals unless we can be understood as a broad-based human rights movement — and not merely as a Republican or conservative constituency.
The movement, for instance, made significant headway with younger people over the last decade or so — a demographic that was trending more antiabortion than young people of previous generations. But especially after the movement hitched its wagon to the Trump campaign, it lost a huge portion of the Trump-loathing young people who, despite agreeing with us on morality and policy, refuse to identify as pro-life. Indeed, the term has become so toxic that the group Students for Life refuses to say “pro-life” when doing its activist work.
Given its focus on human rights and nonviolence for the most vulnerable, the pro-life movement — with the right choices from leadership — could move beyond its narrow level of cultural influence. Our current political realignment creates an even larger opening for something like this. But the one-two punch of Trump and then Shapiro moves us in the opposite direction. Plenty of non-conservative pro-life activists stand ready to build bridges — both to the more traditional pro-life movement and to the people we need but don’t currently have on board.
It is time for the pro-life movement’s leadership to put aside the warm blanket of comfortable, familiar politics and begin to do the difficult and sometimes messy work of featuring the full diversity of the movement.
Charles C. Camosy is an associate professor at Fordham University, and the author of “Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for A New Generation.” He is a board member of Democrats for Life.