WASHINGTON — James Dobson’s Focus on the Family asked Christians to pray for rain to fall on Barack Obama in 2008 when he accepted the presidential nomination. Various religious conservatives have said that hurricanes, earthquakes and other meteorological phenomena were divine punishment of wayward humans.
So what are we to make of Wednesday’s March for Life on the Mall in Washington? The temperature was 12 degrees at the start of the annual anti-abortion event, the wind chill below zero, and participants were trudging about in snow and ice from the previous day’s storm.
Crowd estimates for last year’s event, the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, went above half a million. The march routinely draws hundreds of thousands. But this time, about 25,000 were on the Mall. Piles of protest signs went unused. Faces turned red. And Dobson was so cold he could hardly talk.
“Greetings to all you frozen people,” the evangelical leader said. “Your faces are cold, but your hearts are on fire. What a wonderful thing to see this crowd on a snowy — coley — cold day like this.” Dobson paused. “I can’t make my mouth work,” he said.
Dobson did not see the hand of God in the brutal conditions. Yet if there are weather gods, they may have been making a pointed comment about a movement that has become frozen in time.
Year after year, anti-abortion faithful assemble for the march, yet their goal is elusive. Gallup found last year that 26 percent thought abortion should be legal in any circumstance, 20 percent said it should be illegal in all cases, and 52 percent thought it should be legal in certain circumstances. In 1975, those numbers were 21, 22 and 54, respectively.
The anti-abortion movement has made progress in states limiting access to abortion. More than 50 such laws were enacted last year alone. But just last week, the Supreme Court reaffirmed Roe in rejecting an Arizona law that blocked abortions after 20 weeks. At the same time, advances in emergency contraception and chemical abortion agents have offset gains made in restricting access to traditional abortions.
Republican lawmakers at the rally spoke of more incremental legislation to chip away at abortion rights. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia told the crowd he would rush to the House floor next week a “No Taxpayer Funds for Abortion Act” — even though the bill hasn’t been fully vetted by committees.
But long before they make abortion illegal, Republicans will make themselves irrelevant, by choosing abortion bills over jobs bills and by validating Democratic claims of a GOP “war on women.” (Not one woman among the House Judiciary Committee Republicans made abortion legislation the year’s first order of business.)
Those on the stage at the March for Life were partly protected from cold reality: Three heaters were trained on the speakers. The guy circling in the anti-abortion truck, with its photos of bloody fetuses and its “Prepare to Meet thy God” message, was also protected. The shivering masses, under banners announcing their origins (“Mercer County Right to Life,” “St. Jude Regional Catholic School”) were not so lucky.
Looking out over what he generously called “this enormous crowd,” March for Life Chairman Patrick Kelly thanked those who “braved frigid temperatures.” For this, they got to hear him recite his organization’s many achievements (“We have a new logo and new offices!”) and praise their dedication: “We may be freezing, but we are freezing for the best cause in the world.”
Matt Maher, a Christian musician who opened the proceedings, had sacrificed his tonality for the cause. “We’re all really cold and my guitar is really out of tune,” he told the audience.
Organizers were concerned about the diminished crowd’s well-being. Jeanne Monahan, president of the March for Life, announced the availability of two “warming tents” for cold-related emergencies. Kelly repeated the offer of first aid, “if the cold is starting to get to you.”
The weather had already gotten to Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., a co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus. He was listed as a speaker but, Monahan said, was “stuck on a tarmac in Illinois.”
Cantor blamed the “unbelievably cold temperatures” on the same culprit he blames for many of life’s ills. He praised “advocates who don’t mind enduring the worst weather Washington can throw at you, for the opportunity to change one heart.”
So the weather was whipped up by Washington? For the anti-abortion marchers, this theory beat the alternative: that it was the wrath of an angry God.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.