At March for Life, a mix of triumph and apprehension

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WASHINGTON (RNS) — Thousands of people gathered on the National Mall on Friday (Jan. 21) for the March for Life, an annual anti-abortion rally that took on a triumphant tone as attendees looked forward to a pending Supreme Court ruling with the potential to strike down Roe v. Wade and return control over abortion legislation to the states.

The speaker lineup for this year’s event, which was themed “Equality begins in the womb,” included an unusually robust array of elected officials — primarily Republicans.

High-ranking officials such as former President Donald Trump have addressed the rally in the past, but this year organizers opted for a large slate of legislators: One of the first presentations at the rally was a video featuring more than a dozen senators expressing opposition to abortion, including Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, Shelley Capito, Mike Lee, Marsha Blackburn, Chuck Grassely, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.

“We believe everyone is equally loved by God, and should be equally protected,” Sen. James Lankford said during the video. “That’s why we don’t give up. That’s why we march for life.”

The Oklahoma senator was also one of around 20 lawmakers who appeared onstage at the event, standing alongside Reps. Dan Crenshaw, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Andy Harris and Mike Kelly, among others.

Scenes from the annual March for Life, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Scenes from the annual March for Life, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Rep. Julia Letlow of Louisiana, who worships at a congregation affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, addressed the crowd directly in a speech. She said she used to pray by reciting Jeremiah 1:5 — “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Before you were born I set you apart” — while pregnant with her first child.

“I believe that the Lord makes that promise for every one of our lives, and every soul is precious in his sight,” she said.

Letlow expressed optimism for the upcoming ruling from the Supreme Court on Dobbs v. Jackson, an abortion case that could overturn or gut Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. She expected a “monumental decision” from the justices this summer, she said, and thanked the crowd for their “faith and perseverance” in advocating against abortion.

Enthusiasm for the pending Supreme Court decision was a running theme among attendees. Gabriel Clyde, who traveled to Washington from New Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with a group affiliated with the Wesleyan Methodist Church, said he has attended the march for years because of his faith.

But 2022, he said, felt different.

“This is an exciting year,” he said. “This case in the summer is huge. We’ve spent a lot of time praying about it and trusting that things are going to change.”

Clyde was one of many march participants who signaled support for Trump, his head covered in a cap featuring the former president’s name above the words “He will be back.” Although Trump paraphernalia was less abundant than in 2020 — the last time the March for Life was convened in person — Trump flags and “Make America Great Again” hats could still be seen dotting the crowd.

While politics is always a common theme at the gathering, this year attracted some extreme varieties. Along the edge of the crowd was a small group of men standing around an ensign with an “America First” logo. The flag was waved by insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — including at least one who breached the Senate chamber — and is tied to Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist. Although there is no evidence that Fuentes, a Catholic, entered the Capitol during the attack, he was recently subpoenaed by the U.S. House of Representatives committee investigating the insurrection.

Scenes from the annual March for Life, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Scenes from the annual March for Life, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Footage showed the America First group chanting “Christ is King!” while marching on Thursday, a phrase they often shout when gathered.

Meanwhile, members of Patriot Front also marched near the rally, handing out fliers to March for Life participants as police escorted them. The white nationalist group has attended anti-abortion protests in the past, although their arrival has frustrated organizers.

Asked about the presence of hate groups, representatives for the March for Life passed along a statement from Jeanne Mancini, the group’s president.

“March for Life promotes the beauty, dignity, and worth of every human life by working to end the violence of abortion,” the statement read. “We condemn any organization that seeks to exclude a person or group of people based on the color of their skin or any other characteristic. Such exclusion runs counter to our mission which recognizes that all human lives are equal from the moment of conception: equality begins in the womb.”

People participate in the annual March for Life on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

People participate in the annual March for Life on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Footage posted to social media showcased pushback from at least some March for Life attendees. In one clip, a person can be heard yelling, “You ruined our march!” as Patriot Front members marched near the rally, surrounded by police.

Other aspects of the event were more typical of past years, such as the presence of religious leaders and activists — especially Catholics.

Sister Veronica Marie, of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, said she and her Catholic group had traveled from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to express their belief that “life is beautiful and it’s a gift from God.” She also said her prayer life in recent weeks has “increased,” explaining that the upcoming Supreme Court case gave her a specific cause to pray for.

Brother Patrick Joseph of Massachusetts was similarly hopeful about the upcoming ruling but said it wouldn’t impact his work to oppose abortion.

“To put it in sports perspective: I think you’ve got to work through the fourth quarter. If this is the fourth quarter, and we’re at the two-minute warning on this one, we’ve got to try our hardest to make sure it comes out successful,” he said.

The Catholic Church has long opposed abortion, but U.S. Catholics remain split on the issue. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Catholics (55%) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Similarly, a 2019 Pew poll found a solid majority of Catholics (68%) do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The views of such Catholics were literally made visible on Thursday night when the group Catholics for Choice staged a protest outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The group used a projector to illuminate messages in support of abortion rights onto the side of the Basilica while anti-abortion activists conducted a vigil inside.

Messages voicing support for abortion rights are projected onto the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Thursday, Jan. 20, 2021. The messages were part of a protest staged by the liberal advocacy group Catholics for Choice. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Messages voicing support for abortion rights are projected onto the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Thursday, Jan. 20, 2021. The messages were part of a protest staged by the liberal advocacy group Catholics for Choice. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

A majority of Black Protestants (64%) and non-evangelical white Protestants (63%) also say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to Pew.

However, there was one outlier among major faith groups in Pew surveys: white evangelical Protestants, more than three-quarters of whom (77%) believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases as of 2021.

That includes actor and conservative activist Kirk Cameron, who promoted his upcoming adoption-themed film “Lifemark” at the March for Life this year while speaking out against abortion.

“Why are we here: The Bible, the book that built America, says that those who hate God love death,” he said. “But we’re the family of faith. We love God, therefore we love life. And our hope is not in the White House, it’s not in Congress. … our hope is in the power of God working in the hearts of his people.”

As for the pending Supreme Court ruling, some attendees on the National Mall Friday were careful to temper their enthusiasm. Asked about the prospect of Roe v. Wade being struck down, Joseph struck a cautious tone.

“We hope this is the last one,” he said, referring to the March for Life. “But if it’s not, we’ll be back next year.”

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