Abortion-March for Life

Abortion opponents march towards the U.S. Supreme Court during the March for Life in Washington, Jan. 21, 2022. Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press file

WASHINGTON — Thousands of abortion opponents streamed toward the National Mall in Washington on Friday for a historic chapter of the March for Life, the first since the overturning of Roe v. Wade and an event busy with activists starting to articulate visions of their movement, post-Roe.

Created in response to the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion across the country, the religious march has now achieved its stated aim of overturning the decision. But it comes after some recent setbacks and internal debate about how to make a national ban. March leaders emphasized Friday that Roe’s overthrow was just the start and that they will be launching dozens of local marches.

Monica Condit and her daughter Catie were gathering with others from Kentucky at a downtown hotel before the march. They said the march this year was a celebration of the overturn by the Supreme Court in June, but they also are worried about the results of the 2022 midterm elections and the decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to allow pharmacies to dispense abortion pills. Catie Condit, 17, said she was “heartbroken” when an antiabortion ballot initiative failed in November, with Kentucky voters backing abortion rights.

“There is so much more we can do. We’re so close to having abortion banned completely,” Catie said.

The battle to protect abortion rights is just beginning, said Monica Condit. The movement needs to focus on sparking a “conversion of hearts.” Unless people start to feel differently about abortion, she said, “none of these things are going to change.”

Officially, Friday’s march seeks to formalize the antiabortion movement’s new reality by changing the route to pass the U.S. Capitol on the way to its longtime destination, the Supreme Court. The change, the march website says, reflects “that many national legislative battles loom” and “our need to maintain a presence in Washington.” The organization also has five state-level marches and by 2030 aims to have one in every state.


APTOPIX Abortion March for Life

People attend the March for Life rally on the National Mall in Washington on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. The March for Life, for decades an annual protest against abortion, arrives this year as the Supreme Court has indicated it will allow states to impose tighter restrictions on abortion with a ruling in the coming months. Susan Walsh/Associated Press file

For longtime attendees, the event is meaningful for other reasons. For decades, Ann Scheidler has traveled each January from Illinois to Washington, D.C., for the March for Life and the incredible uplift, she told The Post earlier in the week.

“When you get to the spot on [Capitol] Hill and can see behind you, you thought you were near the back but then you see thousands of people behind you,” said Scheidler, whose late husband, Joseph, was considered a key architect of the antiabortion movement. Normally, she said, “you can feel you are alone in the battle.”

Scheidler was in Washington for the march Friday, as always, but what will become of this worldwide annual symbol, she said ahead of time, isn’t clear.

“I don’t know. The national March For Life has launched a lot of marches around the country because they know the focus will move to the states. I think there is definitely something to us gathering annually in Washington, but I don’t know after this year – we’ll have to wait and see,” she said. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to go somewhere in January where the weather is bad.”

Among other marchers gathering Friday morning was Elizabeth Um, 22, who said the feeling of this event – following the June Supreme Court decision – “has been a dream for so long.”

Um, president of Wellesley For Life, an antiabortion student group at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and other members said they have faced intense backlash since June. When their group hosts events, students who support abortion rights almost always show up to protest, sometimes blocking the doors. They feel determined now to be even more outspoken.


“I want to be braver on my campus and change opinions,” said 21-year-old Grace Park, the group’s treasurer. “There is so much animosity towards pro-lifers.” The ultimate goal, she added, is to ban abortion nationwide.

For a half-century, the March for Life has been the closest thing there is to a global symbol of the antiabortion movement. With its mix of policy wonks in suits, garbed priests and monks, and activists blasting images of fetal remains on giant screens atop flatbed trucks, the event has been a carnival, bazaar, religious crusade and professional conference rolled in one. While its evolution over the years reflected changes in the movement, its laser focus on overturning Roe gave it a center.

Scheidler – an antiabortion activist since even before Roe – witnessed those changes. She saw the march shift from overwhelmingly Catholic to include more evangelical “movers and shakers.” She saw a drop in activism in the 1990s after Congress passed laws protecting clinic access. She saw Christian schools start sending buses of students, turning the march’s face younger.

Its next changes are unpredictable. What does it mean to be “pro-life” now? Will different views about prioritizing public aid for pregnant people and for child care become divisive?

“Historically, the march was sort of like the moment when everyone from the antiabortion movement came together. And this is a movement, like any movement, that can be kind of fractious … so this was the moment when the tent was the biggest,” said Mary Ziegler, a legal historian of the antiabortion movement at the University of California at Davis. Now, the antiabortion movement is at an inflection point, needing to reach a consensus about its next goals, Ziegler said – and what happens at this year’s March for Life could signal initial visions for the post-Roe movement.

Sheila Wharam, a teacher in her 70s, has come from Baltimore County to the march for decades with a huge banner that shows a fetal outline and the words: “Justices, overturn Roe and sentence us to life on Earth!”


“It was always: ‘Hey, hey, ho, ho Roe v. Wade has got to go!’ Everyone was cheering,” she said Thursday. “It was almost like a high school football game.” She said she always finds the march both incredibly sad as well as very uplifting.

She’ll be in Washington on Friday but knows the future of the event is a bit up in the air. People from states where abortion is now illegal “will have less impetus to come. Some of those people will be satisfied they have protected the unborn in their states. And in places that still have abortion, they may think: ‘I need to pay more attention on the local level.’ There’s just no way to tell at this point. You do what you have to do.”

In the early 1970s, the march, like the movement, was overwhelmingly Catholic. And with that came a framework that explicitly matched orthodox Catholic teaching: Life begins at conception. The motto of march founder Nellie Gray was: “No exceptions, no compromise!” In the early years, politicians and politics were looked at much more skeptically, said Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who was for decades a leading antiabortion activist but has become critical of the movement.

“I can remember when Nellie and her leadership team wouldn’t speak laudably about any politician. There was a lot of talk about women in distress and babies. Then as the years went on it was all about legislation and all about reversing Roe. All about Supreme Court appointments. The language, the signage during the march went from social movement monikers to political ones,” said Schenck.

As more White evangelicals took up the antiabortion cause, the march became somewhat more pluralistic, including not only Protestants but secular groups, Jews and marchers of other faiths. Groups from Christian high schools and colleges became a huge feature of the march, presenting a young face of the antiabortion movement on screens across the globe.

Presidents who opposed abortion, including Ronald Reagan and both George H.W. and George W. Bush, declined to appear at the march. Donald Trump was the first, an appearance that some saw as the final step in the complete politicization of the event.


But Jeanne Mancini, president of the march, told The Washington Post that the decision to host Trump was a no-brainer.

“Anytime the leader of the free world is coming, you know he will draw a line in the sand for future pro-life leaders,” she said.

Scheidler believes the march helped bring about last year’s ruling to overturn Roe.

“We kept keeping the issue alive as we did, and the march was a big part of why we got so much further in America,” she said, describing the movement as less engaged in Europe.

Schenck characterized the march as mainly a lab for testing messaging to abortion opponents and for “giving politicians a knowledge of how to play” the crowd. “It was a primer for how to play to the sensibilities of pro-life voters. And in that way it was very useful.”

But it fell short of changing public opinion, he noted. Surveys show most Americans support some form of legal abortion.

“But in terms of – did it really produce the pro-life culture that Nellie and others said the March existed to advance? No. It didn’t.”

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