“No issue in U.S. history has produced such an impressive and sustained outpouring of citizens protesting a single evil (in both numbers and timespan, for instance, it dwarfs the media-favored anti-war demonstrations of yesteryear),” wrote James P. McFadden in the January 16, 1981, issue of his feisty pro-life newsletter Lifeletter. Lifeletter, which appeared from 1974 to 1992, was the politically activist and pugnacious complement to the Human Life Review that he also founded. Published by the Ad Hoc Committee in Defense of Life, Lifeletter covered the full range of abortion issue news, but with special emphasis on the efforts of pro-life politicians and lobbyists to contain and ultimately outlaw the evils unleashed by Roe. And that meant, from the very first anniversary of Roe, emphasizing the critical role played by the January March for Life in Washington, D.C.
McFadden’s words were penned a mere eight years after the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion in Roe v. Wade and in anticipation of the seventh annual March for Life. At the time—though the authors and readers of Lifeletter may not have fully realized it—the March for Life and the pro-life cause it promoted were still in their infancy. The 1981 March gathered an impressive crowd of almost 100,000 and hopes for a Human Life Amendment were still high. Today, 40 years after Roe, expectations for any such amendment are practically forgotten, though the pro-life cause is arguably stronger than ever. Central to its momentum is the March for Life, which now draws upward of half a million people to Washington, D.C. each year in the cold winter weather to mark Roe’s anniversary. While pro-lifers may at times feel battle fatigue after 40 years of struggle, we have achieved important political, cultural, and spiritual gains—many directly related to the March for Life. These should spur us on and give us hope that our fight is not in vain.
“Good news at last from Washington: the long awaited U.S. Senate hearings on anti-abortion constitutional amendments have finally been scheduled” read the headline on the February 1974 issue of Lifeletter. Pro-lifers understood this as a victory directly related to the first-ever March for Life that had taken place a few weeks earlier. The same issue of the newsletter went on to note that “the Senate hearings would have been further delayed— possibly indefinitely postponed—if the January 22 Capitol Hill demonstrations had not been held, or even if they had not been so impressive.”
In the first incarnation of the March for Life, crowd estimates hit 15,000 to 20,000, with most of the marchers hailing from the East Coast. Their focus? Legislative lobbying, primarily directed toward a Human Life Amendment, but also toward influencing legislators who had yet to declare their position on Roe. Marchers hand-delivered over 19,000 roses to members of Congress to remind them of the fragile gift of life, leading one reporter to remark that “not a single fresh rose was available in the eastern U.S.”
The March achieved another first-time victory in the court of public opinion. While the major media outlets had ignored the push for a constitutional amendment to protect human life, the large crowds at the first March for Life were covered by Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, and other national press. James McFadden summed up the coverage in these words: “[W]hile the January 22 march was too big to ignore, it was badly reported if not grossly distorted.” Not for the last time!
By 1978, March for Life founder Nellie Gray—who organized every March until her death in 2012—had extended her efforts to include legislators alongside everyday citizens in their opposition to abortion. Lifeletter reported that “many more Congressmen were out to greet them,” and that the crowd had grown to over 50,000. Moreover, just five years after Roe, the energy fueling the pro-life cause had spread throughout the United States, manifesting itself in local marches, state and city legislative measures, and the election of politicians. Lifeletter presciently observed that abortion had become a defining issue in United States politics, largely fueled by the enthusiasm displayed at and engendered by the March. McFadden captured the growing sentiment in these terms:
Abortion is no longer a single issue concerning a few thousand “fanatics” focusing on Washington. Rather, it now concerns millions; it has spread to every state legisla- ture (and even city councils!) and has become inextricably merged into many other issues as well In effect, Monday’s March is competing with hundreds of state and local demonstrations, meetings, dinners, etc. “commemorating” what now seems to many Americans another “Day of Infamy” comparable only to the Dred Scott decision. So observers on both sides anxiously await the net impact of the March and its local counterparts—and the kind of media coverage they generate—as key indicators of the publicly perceived strength of the anti-abortion movement.
By the 1981 March for Life, pro-lifers were nursing hopes that the end of Roe was in sight. Fresh off the election of Ronald Reagan (who had ardently decried the Court’s ruling in Roe), pro-lifers hoped that the turning political tide would lead to the passing of the Human Life Amendment. Official estimates recorded over 60,000 attendees at the 1981 March. And this year marked an additional reason for marchers to celebrate: After the conclusion, President Reagan met with a delegation of pro-life leaders and legislators. Even the New York Times reported that “the one-hour meeting was Mr. Reagan’s first visit at the White House with a public organization, and he took the occasion to praise the groups for their work.”
For the tenth anniversary of Roe, Nellie Gray pulled out all the stops and again broke records for turnout. Before setting out for Constitution Avenue, supporters were greeted with a public reading of a letter from President Reagan, who welcomed “all those gathered from across the land for this historic ‘March for Life.’” The President also used the occasion to publicly boost pro-life legislation, stating that “I am especially pleased to see that [Henry Hyde’s] Respect Human Life Act has already been introduced in this Congress.” Reagan concluded: “[M]ay this march prove a hallmark in the struggle to correct a great wrong and may God bless your efforts in the future.” Newsweek summed up the media coverage with the headline “The Issue that Won’t Go Away.”
The following year, 1984, saw marchers rallying in support of the reelection of President Reagan—quite successfully, as it turned out. In 1985, the newly reelected President joined marchers by loudspeaker from the Oval Office and called for the nation to “rededicate ourselves to ending the terrible national tragedy of abortion.” Again the March broke its own records, with over 70,000 attendees. Jack Fowler described the scene in the February edition of Lifeletter as “a panoramic variety of colorful signs and banners (many toted by people on crutches, in wheelchairs, and kids in strollers)—streamed in a dense 15- block long ‘human river’ up Constitution Avenue to the Supreme Court and the House and Senate offices, where they ‘lobbied’ the new Congress.”
The crowds reached well over 100,000 in 1989, as marchers turned their focus on the newly elected President George H.W. Bush to pressure him to continue in his predecessor’s footsteps by supporting both the March for Life and the pro-life cause. The President acquiesced with a hearty welcome by loudspeaker from the Oval Office—a tradition that he would continue for the remainder of his single term in office.
Even as the Clinton era of 1992-2000 gave full-throttled support for abortion rights here and abroad, the March continued to grow in size and vitality. The 1992 Supreme Court decision of Planned Parenthood v. Casey shocked many pro-lifers who had seen the case as a chance to overturn Roe. Yet despite such setbacks, as pro-lifers turned the corner on a new millennium and as George W. Bush was squeaking past Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, the March for Life crowds were topping 300,000 people a year.
The younger President Bush resumed the Reagan-Bush Sr. practice of speaking to supporters by telephone each year at the March, urging them to press onward in the cause of life. In 2006, he offered the following words of encouragement:
You believe, as I do, that every human life has value, that the strong have a duty to protect the weak, and that the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence apply to everyone, not just to those considered healthy or wanted or convenient . . . .
These principles call us to defend the sick and the dying, persons with disabilities and birth defects, and all who are weak and vulnerable, especially unborn children.
Just weeks after this message, Samuel Alito, Bush’s appointee to the Supreme Court, won a hard-fought confirmation battle in the Senate, and even the New York Times cited the momentum of the March as a likely contributor to the confirmation.
In 2008, the ardently pro-abortion Barack Obama prevailed against John McCain at the polls. Mere days after his inauguration, undaunted crowds for the 2009 March again posted record-high numbers. Declining Nellie Gray’s invitation to address the crowd, President Obama released a statement supporting abortion rights, claiming that “government should not intrude on our most private family matters.”
Obama’s push for expanded abortion “rights” became increasingly aggressive throughout the first four years of his presidency, culminating in the HHS mandate that requires pro-life businesses and institutions to include mandated contraception and abortifacients in their health insurance plans for employees. Pro-life activism has ratcheted up in response to the increased threat levels to the unborn. During Obama’s first term, a few media outlets actually sat up and took (appalled) notice of the overwhelmingly youthful makeup of the mammoth March crowds winding from the Mall to the Supreme Court.
Such an injection of youthful optimism and enthusiasm helped fire up the 2013 crowds for the 40-year anniversary of Roe. Although the March took place just days after Obama’s triumphal second inauguration, over 500,000 pro-lifers—the overwhelming majority of them young people—made their way to Washington. There, even though the HHS mandate’s egregious violation of conscience rights featured prominently in the rallies, the mood was surprisingly upbeat. In a January 2013 op-ed in the Washington Times, newly minted March for Life President Jeanne Monahan summed up some of the hopeful signs by noting that “Since the 2010 elections, pro-life activity in the states has moved into overdrive. In 2010, close to 400 pro-life bills were introduced with roughly 100 passed. In 2011, 80 were passed and in 2012, more than 30.” This is, indeed, real change and reason to continue marching.
Cultural and Spiritual Gains
While the March’s influence on politics has been significant, political outcomes will never fully succeed in changing hearts and minds. Creating a “culture of life” therefore must be the ultimate goal of pro-life efforts, although the legal and political components are part of that too. Significant cultural change, however, can be even more difficult than political victories—though we are finding that it is achievable.
Let’s compare two stories in Time magazine. The November 25, 1974, issue strongly endorsed abortion rights, arguing that “there seems to be a growing—if reluctant—acceptance of the fact that in a changing society, such measures are necessary.” Yet just weeks before the 40th anniversary of Roe, the magazine was reporting a different message. To the delight of pro- lifers everywhere, Time’s cover ran this headline: “40 years ago, abortion- rights activists won an epic victory with Roe v. Wade. They’ve been losing ever since.”
Public polling also indicates that Americans are becoming more pro-life. According to results released by Gallup in May 2012, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as “pro-choice” is now one point below the previous low recorded by Gallup in May 2009. Fifty percent of Americans now identify themselves as “pro-life”—only one point below the record high. This is welcome news for pro-life advocates: While there is still work to be done, the cause is gaining momentum.
Consider, too, how abortion is now being treated by the entertainment industry. Several years ago, films such as Bella and Juno began giving voice to the reality that even unintended pregnancies can produce joy for the mother, the family, and the community as a whole. Recent years have seen celebrities such as teen pop star Justin Bieber and sports figure Tim Tebow speak openly and confidently about their pro-life stances. Indeed, being pro-life can be considered “the new normal” among American teenagers and young adults. Evidence for this shift is obvious to anyone who attends the March—in fact, Jeanne Monahan estimates that over 80 percent of attendees at the 2013 March were under the age of 20.
In the spiritual sphere, the March for Life has been an important part of ecumenical opposition against abortion. When the High Court decided Roe, tensions between Protestants and Catholics were significant. Yet, confronted by a common enemy, many Protestants and Catholics began to form a united front on opposition to abortion, along with Jews and Muslims. Just five years after Roe, Lifeletter captured this sentiment in describing the 1978 March:
Nobody watching these exhilarated people troop past for hours on end could seriously argue that they fit the Media’s image: they came in all sizes and types . . . plainly a cross-section of all of us, but most especially those “middle Americans” we hear so much about (but see so little of). Indeed, “middle” was the word: the big battalions seemed to come from that belt stretching from St. Louis across the “heartland” into New York—the populous states that can make or break presidential candidates— and to include many church related groups—both Protestant and Catholic, no matter what the Media reports (the Marchers also included many other Media “no-no” types—Blacks, Hispanics, Orientals—in a word, everybody).
The Continued March for Life
When March for Life founder Nellie Gray died at 88 in August 2012, the March’s board members turned to the young Jeanne Monahan, naming her as president in November 2012. Monahan—who was born the very year the Supreme Court heard arguments in Roe—has worked tirelessly to continue Gray’s legacy while modernizing the March. Just weeks beforehand, a new website was launched with videos and other interactive features to educate participants on pro-life issues. For the first time social media played a vital role in the March, connecting to those who couldn’t physically be present— and eliciting further media attention, including messages of support from politicians, celebrities, and even Pope Benedict. And while major media outlets largely ignored the March over the past decade, this year stories appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and many other major news sites throughout the country.
The theme of this year’s March was hauntingly simple: “40=55m”: 40 years under Roe have eliminated 55 million children. The “might-have-beens” prompted by thoughts of this lost cohort of young Americans linger long after the March’s conclusion. Because of this loss, and those still to come under legalized abortion, we continue to march.
While Roe has yielded 40 years of disappointment for pro-lifers, there is a significant victory in the cause’s continued resilience and growing strength.
J.P. McFadden’s greatest fear (and, correspondingly, the pro-abortionists’ greatest hope) was that with time the crowds of marchers would dwindle and the passionate outcry against abortion would die off, as shocked opposition was succeeded by grudging acceptance and the shift of energy and emotion to other, more promising issues and causes. But this has not happened. We must not forget that it took the Civil Rights movement 58 years to progress from Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal”) to Brown v. Board of Education (which struck down segregated schools). Such victories against great moral evils, as history evidences, are hard fights, but with faithful persistence they can be won. On the Mall in D.C. and in the many social gatherings that take place around the March each year, I find a growing but realistic sense of optimism, grounded in the reality of more work to be done, more hearts and minds to be changed, and more lives to save. Until then, onward we march.
(this article originally appeared in the Winter, 2013 issue of the Human Life Review)