Thousands of abortion opponents began gathering in cold, blustery weather at the Washington Monument Friday for the annual March for Life.
Bundled against a stiff wind, marchers from around the country descended on the northeast grounds of the monument for a rally and march, which Vice President Mike Pence and presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway were scheduled to attend.
No president or vice president has spoken at the march before, according to a march spokeswoman.
Pence, who has called himself an “evangelical Catholic,” has long been a hero among anti-abortion activists and as governor of Indiana signed what was considered some of the strictest laws on abortion.
Organizers expect tens of thousands of people at the events.
This year, organizers believe they will see a surge of energy with the ascension of a president who is expected to move forward on anti-abortion policies, including defunding Planned Parenthood and appointing an anti-abortion Supreme Court justice.
“He’s pro-life,” Lynn Ray, coordinator of campus ministry at the Louisiana State University at Alexandria, said Friday as she stood on Constitution Avenue with a group from the university. “So that’s good for us.”
“Being that we’re Catholics, we’re very pro-life,” she said. “Every step we take, we take for an unborn baby,” she said. “We’re not persecuting anyone, of course, just marching for the babies.”
Madeline Runyan, 22, a senior at LSU, said she, too, was pleased with President Trump’s stance on abortion. “I’m very confident in what he’s doing to help this cause,” she said. “I’m really excited and optimistic.”
The rally was set to start at 11:45 a.m. Eastern time. The march kicks off at 1 p.m., heads east on Constitution Avenue, and ends at the Supreme Court.
By 10 a.m. the crowd had packed in front of the stage, as hundreds more streamed in to the security checkpoint and down the sidewalks leading to the Mall.
Most were in school and church groups, carrying posters – and a life-size cutout of Pope Francis – and wearing school gear. Shrieks of teenage excitement rose repeatedly over the piped-in music of contemporary Christian artists.
Dan Kehoe doesn’t see the March for Life as a political statement, he views it as a religious one.
The 34-year-old from Taos, Mo, is a chaperon on his daughter’s eighth grade Catholic Church trip. They took a Greyhound bus for 22 hours for what they called a “pilgrimage” to Washington.
He saw news coverage of last week’s Women’s March on Washington and thought that was a political march about women’s issues. This, he said, is “completely different,” and is not about women’s rights, but human ones.
“It’s not just a women’s choice, it takes two to make a child,” he said.
More than 200 people made the trip from his central Missouri church community with him, most of them children. He said he voted for Donald Trump, and is happy with his presidents performance so far.
“If the younger generation doesn’t speak up now, who will?”
Large groups are common at the march, characterized by matching hats or shirts and usually sponsored by churches and schools.
One block-long mass of 200 teenagers from 30 churches and three Catholic high schools filled five charter buses and is only part of a 500-strong group from the Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama.
“Remember, we are guests in this city and we’re going to be respectful,” called Adam Ganucheau, 30, has he and other youth leaders handed out 200 boxed Subway sandwiches. “We are pilgrims; we do not litter.”
The size of the group is typical, said Ganucheau, who has attended more than a dozen of these marches since 2001. But he senses an extra electricity because Pence is headlining the rally.
“It’s historic that these kids will be able to say they heard and saw the vice president,” he said as the throng began to move, sandwiches in hand.
Ganucheau said he was encouraged to have an anti-abortion administration take office, although there are parts of the Trump agenda that concern him. In addition to opposing abortion, Ganucheau said his faith also led him to support equal wages, equal pay, a welcoming immigration posture and other progressive social causes.
“Being Catholic is more than being conservative or liberal,” he said. “We believe in treating all people with respect.”
Earlier, Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, listed her four demands for Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress:
– Appoint an anti-abortion justice to the Supreme Court.
– Make the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for many abortions in the United States, into a permanent law rather than the one-year provision that has been extended each year from 1976 to the present.
– Pass a law banning abortion nationwide after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
– Stop all federal funding for Planned Parenthood unless the organization were to somehow stop performing abortions.
The gathering comes a week after Trump’s inauguration and follows last Saturday’s massive Women’s March on Washington.
Asked about the Women’s March, Ray said:
“I’m all about women’s rights, except when it comes to the baby. I believe – it’s my opinion – but I believe a baby is a gift from God, and once the baby is a gift from God, it’s no longer your body, but there’s another body within. And that body has a right also.”
When march attendee Brianna Roberts, 21, of Reading, Pennsylvania, met her birthmother two years ago, she was upset to hear that relatives wanted the woman to abort her.
Her mother was 20, already had one child, and was getting by on food stamps, Roberts said. But when her mother went to a clinic seeking an abortion, she was told she was too far along for the clinic to perform one.
Her birthmother placed Roberts up for adoption. “She did the right and responsible thing,” Roberts said.
Roberts said she did not vote because she didn’t like either Trump or Clinton, but she is optimistic that Trump will advance anti-abortion policies.
“I thought this was going to be a really big year for policy change,” she said.
The first March for Life was held one year after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that recognized a right to abortion nationwide. Subsequent marches have been held on or near the Jan. 22 anniversary every year since.
The past eight years’ marches have been grimmer affairs, with tens of thousands of anti-abortion activists gathering to show their solidarity with one another and restate their opposition, but with little chance of having their hopes fulfilled on the federal level.
This year, change seems not only possible but imminent.
March participants’ anti-abortion stance is counter to the position held by most Americans. Nationwide, 57 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, the highest percentage since 1996, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll. Thirty-nine percent say it should be illegal in all or most cases, according to the poll. Eighty percent of Americans who do not affiliate with a faith group – a rapidly growing portion of the population – say abortion should be legal, according to the Pew poll.
The March for Life is unlikely to draw as large a crowd as the Women’s March or Trump’s inauguration, but organizers said they hope for hundreds of thousands of participants.
In recent years, turnout has generally hovered in the tens of thousands. EventsDC said that 92 buses have obtained permits to park at RFK Stadium on Friday, compared with 450 buses that requested permits for Inauguration Day and 1,200 buses for the Women’s March. Metro, anticipating a large crowd, will run extra trains on Friday, just as it did for the Women’s March.
For decades, the march was run largely by a Virginia woman named Nellie Gray, who died in 2012. Always strongly Catholic-based and attended by many Catholic school groups, the march draws attendees from across the country and has in recent years attracted more evangelicals.
Nearly 70 percent of white evangelicals think that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while 54 percent of Catholics say that abortion should be legal, according to the Pew Research Center.
Michael Ruane, Perry Stein, Steve Hendrix, Terrence McCoy, Paul Duggan and Michael Chandler contributed to this report.
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