The March for Life has been held each January on the National Mall since the passage of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that guarantees a woman’s right to an abortion.
While official events for the march are often packed with GOP officials and speakers criticizing Democrats, the 2021 theme was unity and many speakers said the response to newly inaugurated President Biden — a Catholic abortion rights supporter — was to focus more on prayer and changing the culture.
“You may feel this is a bleak time, but the world needs the pro-life movement," Matt Britton, general counsel of 40 Days For Life, told a few hundred people gathered Friday morning outside a Planned Parenthood in Northeast D.C. "Only prayer can change this. We will only win on our knees. We will fight in court and legislatures but this battle won’t be won in courts. Don’t pin your hopes to the back of man.”
Clinic staff in orange vests patrolled the sidewalk as mostly young advocates packed the sides. A few held signs that read: “Real men love babies” and “Choose love, choose life.” Some speakers sought to evoke anti-racism language by calling abortion a “systemic injustice.” The phrase “Black Lives Matter” was on both a sign plastered across the clinic as well as a protester’s sign with an image of a fetus.
One of the day’s special services took place at a sparsely filled Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in downtown D.C., where the archbishop of Washington called abortion “a dreadful practice.” While abortion opponents protesting capital punishment have said they did not feel entirely welcome at past marches, Cardinal Wilton Gregory spoke out Friday against the death penalty and invoked concerns about euthanasia and treatment of immigrants.
“Today we find ourselves hopelessly mired in defective excuses that now extend to other acts of brutality against the terminally ill and aging, the immigrant seeking a better life, against prisoners who may have committed heinous crimes but are still human beings,” he said. “We tell ourselves that capital punishment prevents crimes and that some horrible criminals deserve to die even as we continue to learn that too many convicted persons have been sentenced to death and later exonerated by DNA tests or whose very trials have been judged to be unfair or biased.”
This year’s March for Life comes as the antiabortion movement appears to be at a crossroads.
In the eyes of many abortion opponents, President Donald Trump was a historical game changer, giving them not only three Supreme Court justices believed to be sympathetic to overturning Roe v. Wade, but dozens of more conservative lower-court judges. Advocates trust these judges will be more respectful toward the dozens of abortion restriction measures that have been enacted to date. Although Trump favored abortion rights before becoming president, as president he spoke more explicitly than many recent GOP leaders against abortion. And his appearance at the march last year — the first sitting president to do so — drew huge crowds.
“Usually pro-life efforts by the Republican Party have been kind of ‘We have to have them here, too.’ It’s not their pride and joy. But it was for Trump! He helped to bring a lot of attention to our issue, and that’s good,” said Shawn Carney, president of 40 Days for Life, which organizes prayer vigils outside abortion clinics. “What he did for abortion was just unmatched. I mean presidents, they move on, we move on, but those Supreme Court justices will last a lifetime.”
Among the crowd outside Planned Parenthood was Miriam Barbato, 29, who works for a medical supply firm in Dallas. She came with other Catholics who held flags representing Catholic communities of the past who were persecuted in Europe. She felt Trump was a boon to the movement. A fetus, she said, is “the most innocent form of life. If you’re not willing to defend it, everything else doesn’t matter.”
Michael New, a Catholic University professor who leads the local branch of the group 40 Days for Life, said, “The fact that [Trump] was willing to promote the movement and put it front and center did so much for us.”
For other abortion opponents, however, Trump’s tenure reinforced the perception that the institutional movement had become too heavily partisan. The march itself had become a place where Trump clothing and signs were common and where allies who wanted to protest other issues, such as the death penalty, were sometimes shouted down. They see Trump’s downplaying of a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans, his ramping up of federal executions and his push for a border policy that led to thousands of children being separated from their families as having poisoned efforts to draw new people to their cause.
“I don’t personally know anyone who was won over to the pro-life mind-set by Trump. I also think he drove people who were in the middle on this subject farther away from considering the pro-life stance. Many called him a hypocrite because he did not appear to respect the dignity of all human beings,” said Lisa McInerny of Lincoln, Neb., where she works in her Catholic parish on antiabortion efforts.
Outside the Supreme Court, a pair of antiabortion Democrats made similar comments about the former president’s impact.
“The affiliation with [Donald] Trump is detrimental in the long term to changing hearts and minds,” Terrisa Bukovinac, president of Democrats for Life of America, said. “The long-term consequences of the alignment could prove to be more detrimental than I think the more conservative wing of the movement is willing to admit."
Standing beside her was state Rep. Angie Hatton a Democrat from Kentucky who was elected in a district that supported Trump. In the march’s live-streamed program, Hatton had called for being “pro-life for the whole life,” connecting abortion to health-care gaps between rich and poor, low salaries for working mothers and the high cost of child care as factors.
“There are unifying figures in history, and there are those that did not unify and I’m afraid that’s his lasting legacy,” Hatton said of Trump.
Bukovinac said she felt the organizers of this year’s march “extended a bit of an olive branch to Democrats in ways we haven’t seen. We usually have a token Democrat who speaks,” she said, but this year there were several involved in the official program. In addition to Hatton, speakers on the livestream included professional football and baseball player Tim Tebow, Southern Baptist Convention president J.D. Greear and Hawaii state Sen. Mike Gabbard, who is also a Democrat (and Tulsi’s father).
Mary Ziegler, a law professor who focuses on reproductive and gender issues at Florida State University, said the impact of the Trump years is still playing out on the antiabortion landscape. Since the 1980s, the antiabortion movement has been focused on Supreme Court justices, she said, and the Trump years, “while disturbing to those who oppose abortion, were like a real-world experiment: What are those judges worth to the movement?”
Ziegler added that the focus on judges and politics “loses sight of the fact that, regardless of laws, people will keep having abortions because the culture hasn’t changed much.”
Public opinion on whether abortion should be legal has been remarkably stable for decades. Gallup polling since the 1970s has shown that the percentage who say it should be “legal under certain circumstances” has hovered around 50, while about 20 percent say it should be illegal under all circumstances and 30 say it should be legal under all circumstances.
In recent decades, opponents of abortion have been successful at passing dozens of abortion restriction laws each year, while a fraction of that number of abortion protection laws have been adopted, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks such data and supports abortion rights.
Meanwhile, Guttmacher in 2019 released a study saying that the abortion rate had hit an all-time low and that the numbers were steady across states with few or many restrictions. Guttmacher pointed to fewer pregnancies, contraceptive access and use, a decline in sexual activity, and infertility as possible causes. The data did not include self-managed abortion, which occur outside health-care settings, might include the use of medication, herbs or other methods, and aren’t counted in the same way.
The Biden administration within its first days took action to protect and expand abortion access, including rescinding what has been called the Mexico City policy, which compelled nonprofit organizations in other countries that receive federal family-planning aid to promise not to perform or encourage abortions.
Ziegler said that although antiabortion movement leaders in the past have worked intensely to focus on abortion, a new generation of leaders is more explicitly conservative and “absolutist,” such as Abby Johnson, who appeared at “Stop the Steal” events and last summer made news when she said police should someday profile her biracial son. New proposed antiabortion measures include heartbeat bills with no exceptions and ones similar to a bill finalized a few weeks ago that forces women who have surgical abortions to cremate or bury fetal remains.
“The insurgent wing is making a bid for dominance,” Ziegler said.
As for abortion rights advocates, some say they feel emboldened after the Trump years. Sheila Katz, chief executive of the National Council of Jewish Women, said, “Right now, people are more receptive because of all the potential risk at the Supreme Court” and the new state laws and coronavirus restrictions that are making it even harder to get an abortion.
Some interviewed at the D.C. clinic protest on Friday were anxious to leave partisan politics out of the event. Andrea Clarke, 28, a government worker from Baltimore, said, “I’m really concerned about the future of life because it’s considered so cheap. We need these people. How many Ben Carsons did we miss out on?” Asked about the impact of Trump, she instead talked about how optimistic protests are and how they need to change the culture. “This is a march of love, not of politics," she said.