WASHINGTON — Friars and nuns in woolen winter capes and thousands of fellow Catholics rallied Wednesday in frigid temperatures and snow at the 41st annual March for Life.
The world’s largest antiabortion event, held on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, grows younger each year. The Mall between Seventh Street and the Washington Monument was full for a few hours with youth groups from across the eastern half of the country.
Abortion has been legal in the United States for these young people’s entire lives, and the movement’s leaders say the latest generation of activists is creating a more upbeat culture. Graphic images of fetuses and angry sermons shouted through bullhorns were rare Wednesday. Instead, the Mall was filled with people holding placards with such slogans as “We are the pro-life generation” and large images of a smiling Pope Francis. Speakers pumped out dance music.
Although most marchers are Catholic, particularly members of high school and college groups from parochial schools and Catholic universities, organizers closed the event with a well-known non-Catholic — evangelical leader James Dobson, who appeared with his adopted son.
This year’s theme was adoption, an effort to show more empathy to mothers, said Jeanne Monahan, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund.
March leaders are working to broaden the march — arguably the antiabortion movement’s public face — from being largely Catholic, white and often heavy with Republican speakers and GOP-leaning signs in the crowd. Political speeches this year were shortened, and Monahan did away with video welcomes from politicians.
Brendan O’Rourke, 28, was marching up Pennsylvania Avenue with 70 others from the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. The youth pastor said he doesn’t think abortion has to be a divisive issue — or one based on religious precepts.
“I’m not antiabortion for religious reasons,” said O’Rourke, who wore a sticker saying “I’m worth waiting for.”
“We can’t all agree when life begins, but there’s a good chance there’s a life in there,” he said. “It seems better to be on the safe side.”
The March for Life is the culmination each year of several days of meetings and Masses and training sessions for abortion opponents. Included was a workshop Wednesday for antiabortion bloggers at the Family Research Council.
Rick Santorum, a 2012 Republican presidential candidate and former senator from Pennsylvania, told the workshop that the antiabortion movement is making a key transition, to be more of “love, not of judgment.”
For decades, the march was run largely by one woman out of her home office in Virginia. But since Nellie Gray died in 2012, the march’s staff and its budget have doubled. It has waded into social media — the common language of most participants — and created #whywemarch in the past month.
Monahan said this year’s theme shows that activists are trying to reach out to a new generation who appears more open to the argument of abortion opponents if it is seen as less partisan and more empathetic to pregnant women. Statistics show public opinion on abortion access has not significantly changed.
Kathryn Brown, 20, was among hundreds of students from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., who made a two-day bus ride to Washington. Her group led the march from the Mall to the Supreme Court, holding the front banner and wearing red and black stocking caps. Brown was at a Mass on Wednesday before her fourth March for Life.
“The amazing thing is, they aren’t there because they’re mad at the government, they’re there out of love, sacrificing themselves in the cold out of love,” she said.
Brown stands outside an abortion clinic with 10 or 20 others twice a month to speak with women going to the clinic. Brown has been active in the movement since high school and thinks she and her peers are different from earlier generations in their style — they don’t hold signs of aborted fetuses, for example.
“I think we’ve developed our techniques somewhat. They used to use harsher, more graphic signs. The focus of the pro-life movement has become a more loving, gentle approach,” she said Tuesday.
The White House issued a statement Wednesday supporting a woman’s right to an abortion and vowing to work harder to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies.
Abortion debates have become regular fodder, particularly in state-level elections, as the number of states enacting restrictions has risen. More state abortion restrictions were enacted in 2011-13 than in the entire previous decade — 53 last year alone.
In response, NARAL Pro-Choice America is increasing its state operations and will target multiple candidates in the midterm elections. The legislative pace is much slower on the federal level, but the House passed a bill last year that would ban abortions starting at 20 weeks; that measure is pending in the Senate.
Planned Parenthood issued a statement Wednesday noting that more than half of American women of reproductive age live in states in which state legislatures have placed some restrictions on abortions.