Participants returned in large numbers to the annual March for Life on January 21, braving frigid weather one year after the event’s pandemic-related virtual shutdown to demonstrate solidarity for the unborn at the start what could be a decisive year for the pro-life movement.
Billed as the “largest human rights demonstration in the world,” the daylong gathering began tentatively with scattered clusters of bundled participants trickling into the National Mall on a clear but chilly morning. That it was bracingly cold was apparent from the woolen socks Franciscan friars wore beneath their sandal straps.
The ongoing coronavirus crisis, coupled with tightened COVID-19 restrictions in the District of Columbia, kept some regulars at home. But by the start of a mid-day, pre-march rally, headlined by a passionate speech by “Bible in a Year” podcast start Father Mike Schmitz, the size of the crowd had swelled into the tens of thousands, resembling a typical year’s turnout.
But this year’s march was anything but typical. The possibility that the country’s highest court later this year might strike down the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide — and sparked the first March for Life 49 years ago — lent a festive, anticipatory air to the day’s rituals, culminating in a walk up Constitution Avenue to the steps of the Supreme Court.
“We are hoping and praying that this year, 2022, will bring a historic change for life,” Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, the event’s organizer, said at the rally.
“Roe,” she said, “is not settled law.”
No Time for Complacency
Such statements carry extra weight this year because of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a pivotal Mississippi abortion case that many in the pro-life movement see as the best — and possibly last — opportunity to unravel the tightly woven legal framework that has produced some 62 million abortions across the United States, a staggering toll the Catholic Church views as an epic human tragedy. A decision in the case isn’t expected until the end of the court’s term in June.
“The Supreme Court, God-willing, (is) poised to affirm the Dobbs case, to prevent abortions after 15 weeks, but also to begin, and we hope, the dismantling of Roe v. Wade,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who spoke during the rally.
The intense polarization surrounding the case was made manifest by a brazen publicity stunt by an activist group called Catholics for Choice, which on the night of January 20 beamed carefully calibrated pro-choice messages onto the facade of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, while a prayer vigil to end abortion took place inside. Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the Archbishop of Washington, criticized the group’s actions, which another prelate, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, called “diabolical.”
Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said the pro-life movement cannot afford to become “complacent,” regardless of the outcome of Dobbs.
“The Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion is a response of love for both mothers and their children in the womb. The Church’s teaching proclaims a message of life, reminding us that every life is a sacred gift from God from the moment of conception until natural death,” Archbishop Lori said in a statement.
“We cannot build a truly just society and remain complacent when faced with the massive impact of Roe v. Wade, which has taken over 60 million lives since 1973. May we pray, fast, and work for the day when the gift of every human life is protected in law and welcomed in love,” he added.
Local Students and Parishioners Have Great Hope
Busloads of parishioners and students from the Diocese of Harrisburg made the journey to the nation’s capital to join the sea of people making a stand for life.
Among them were 14 students from Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg, accompanied by Kristianne Thomas, Religion Department teacher and Respect Life Club moderator, and Sister Tracey Uphoff, IHM, Director of Activities.
“I would argue that abortion is the most important issue of our time,” McDevitt senior Michael Gontis told The Catholic Witness about his reason for attending. “Over 60 million children, the most innocent and vulnerable of our society, have been slaughtered for too long. I have attended the March for Life before, but the numbers seem to keep growing each year. With any luck, and God’s grace, we won’t have to march in the years to come.”
“I hope that people recognize the preciousness of life. Instead of looking at children as an inconvenience, we see that they are a gift to be cherished,” said Gontis, president of the school’s Respect Life Club.
He said he was overwhelmed to see the number of young people at the rally and march, and considers it a hopeful sign for a future that values the dignity of life.
“I don’t want to count my chickens before they’ve hatched, but I think America is in the midst of becoming a pro-life nation, hopefully for good,” he said. “I’m very hopeful that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, especially because the Supreme Court is releasing their decision on Dobbs vs. Jackson in June.”
Junior Serena Keller, vice president of the Respect Life Club, echoed that optimism, expressing what she hopes was the message the rally and march sent to the nation.
“I hope that the nation will see that the pro-life community will not be stopped by anything,” she said. “The number of people from all over the United States who were present at the march despite the below-freezing temperatures, distance, and other difficulties of traveling with all of the restrictions due to the coronavirus, should provoke thought in Americans. Hopefully this will prompt people to learn more about why we care so much about eradicating abortion.”
Keller, who has attended the march on several previous occasions, said she will “continue to attend until it becomes unnecessary, until abortion is made unthinkable to all, and until the natural rights of every human being are protected from conception until natural death.”
Still, she is buoyed by the very real potential for a pro-life outcome in the Dobbs case.
“I have great hope that Roe v. Wade will be overturned because of how relentless the pro-life movement is, how much it has grown in the last several years, and the increase in pro-life laws that have been passed in the last few years,” Keller said. “I am proud to be part of the ‘Pro-Life Generation,’ and I am so excited to see all of the good things that God will accomplish through us.”
Husband and wife Steve and Ute Hubler of Good Shepherd Parish in Camp Hill said they were heartened to see the active participation of so many young people at the march. Having lived overseas for a couple decades, it had been more than 20 years since they’d participated in the annual event, and they particularly noticed the youth movement when they returned for the rally and march this year.
“This crowd was diverse, and what was really striking to me was the active participation of young people. They were really pumped and motivated,” Steve said. He and his wife were bus captains for the motorcoach of 35 participants that went to D.C. from Good Shepherd.
“The youth element, as well as the overall size of the crowd, seems to have grown since I first attended the march back when George W. Bush was inaugurated,” he said. “It was breathtakingly beautiful this time around to see so many young men and women praying out loud and joyfully cheering on the pro-life position as they marched and displayed their banners and signs.”
The Hublers said they have been in support of the pro-life movement “since day one,” but became increasingly involved during their time in various countries through Steve’s work as foreign service officer with the State Department.
“We were able to work with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in a number of different posts: Costa Rica, Russia, Macedonia, Ethiopia and D.C. In fact, in Ethiopia we adopted our second daughter. We saw the amazing work that Mother Teresa’s Sisters do all around the world, and it’s truly faith in action. I think all of that has really contributed as to why we have always been firm pro-lifers,” Steve said.
The couple said “it was beautiful to feel the bond of faith between us in the great pro-life cause” as they journeyed to the March for Life, joined on the bus by Catholics and Protestants from Harrisburg and Camp Hill.
“In our personal life and in trying to follow Christ more closely, we are becoming more aware of what’s going on in the world, and it makes me very sad when the young people just follow the stream of lies about abortion,” Ute said. “I have just become more aware of it, and that’s why I have said now is the time to speak up. What should we wait for? If we don’t raise our voices, things won’t change. That’s why it’s important for me to personally make a stand and show up.”
(Contributing to this story was Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
(Photos courtesy of Catholic News Agency, Bishop McDevitt High School and Steve and Ute Hubler.)
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