WASHINGTON – Thousands of anti-abortion activists, including many young people bundled up against the cold weather gripping the nation’s capital, gathered at a stage on the National Mall Friday for their annual march in the long-contentious debate over abortion.
Signs reading “Choose love, Choose life,” “I am the pro-life generation,” and “Defund Planned Parenthood” dotted the crowd gathering under hazy, wintry skies at the morning rally.
Like last year, President Donald Trump addressed the group by video. He promised to veto any bill that “weakens the protection of human life.”
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who attended the event, listed actions the administration has taken over the past two years to deter abortions.
Trump noted that the administration has ensured foreign aid doesn’t flow to organizations that promote abortion. Pence credited Trump with nominating conservative judges to the federal bench.
Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., who is one of the only anti-abortion Democrats in the House, also addressed the morning rally. Ben Shapiro, a popular conservative commentator, was the featured speaker.
Shapiro spent his time on a live show “debunking” abortion rights arguments. He discussed the value of life and emphasized that his arguments were based in science, rather than religion alone. “Abortion is not just pulling a plug,” Shapiro said. “Abortion is a violent act.”
Pence and his wife Karen also made a surprise appearance at the Friday rally with a video message from Trump. “This is a movement founded on love and grounded in the nobility and dignity of every human life,” Trump said in the message. “I will always defend the first right in our Declaration of Independence: the right to life.”
Pence earlier called into Shapiro’s broadcast from the march. “We’ve got a record of extraordinary progress on the right to life,” Pence said of the Trump administration. “This will be the generation that restores the right to life in America.”
He later tweeted about the administration’s nomination of conservative judges and allowing “states to defund Planned Parenthood.”
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This year, the march unfolds against the backdrop of a change in political power in Washington, with Democrats taking control of the House.
The first march took place on the west steps of the Capitol in January 1974, the year after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, which affirmed the constitutional right to access safe, legal abortion.
March for Life president Jeanne Mancini conceded that things in Washington have “changed quite a bit” over the last 12 months. “Last year we could lean in and expect people to be really courageous on the Hill on our issues and we had all sorts of champions,” she said. “This year, we’re in the place of fighting for the status quo.”
On the other side, the new Democratic House majority vows to block Trump actions affecting birth control access and abortion services.
“We are systematically going to dismantle these restrictions on women’s health care,” Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., co-leader of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, said at a news conference Tuesday where one caucus member donned pink boxing gloves. “So here we go!”
To many participants, the annual march, which draws many young people from Catholic and other religious schools across the country, is a moment to stand up publicly with like-minded activists.
Nathan Elfrich, 19, and Carolin Quinn, 18, both students from Xavier University, see the annual event as a way to bond with peers.
Quinn, who is attending for the fourth year, said she has found a strong community of friends in the movement and the march. “It’s important every year,” she said. “The issue is an ongoing issue.”
Elfrich called the march a “positive” movement unlike violent protests. He sees the march as something that can grow as anti-abortion youth grow up and “become leaders of the country.”
He said it’s important to keep the march going so that their voices continue to be heard. “The message can get lost” without it, he said.
Anna Demeuse, 23, from Green Bay, Wisconsin, who is at her sixth march, says she keeps coming back because abortion is still legal. “Until it is overturned we will still march,” she said. “And even if it is overturned we can still march to celebrate life.”
She called abortion “the greatest injustice in our nation,” adding that she marches not only to save unborn children but also women who may choose to have an abortion.
For an issue that is often portrayed in black-and-white terms, some activists also reflected nuances found within the movement.
“I’m a Christian and I believe that all life matters, including those who are unborn,” said Brianna Kress, 24, from outside Annapolis, Maryland.
“I’m not saying women shouldn’t have rights,” she added. “I’m a woman, but we shouldn’t forget the rights of the unborn.”
Quinn also said that the notion that the march can’t exist with other feminist movements is wrong. “I’m a women and I stand up for life,” she said. “It’s a pro-woman movement.”
Michael Gladu, 55, an operating room nurse from Gaithersburg, Maryland, said he thinks public opinion is changing and moving in support of the anti-abortion movement “because … the younger generation is seeing this as good.”
But he said he thinks the country is so polarized on the issue that it doesn’t allow for debate and for each side to discuss their views.
Gladu thinks that each state should ultimately decide its own abortion laws and that people can be free to choose where they live.
Dan Cipra, 58, also from Gaithersburg, said he thinks the movement is a bit on the defensive politically but that could change soon as public opinion shifts.
“People are starting to understand that there is a movement out there,” Cipra said. He’s hopeful that in his generation or the next, more people will support its policies.
But Matt Woods, 56, of Michigan had mixed feelings on the direction of the movement. He said he and his wife Jenny, 51, are hopeful given that Trump is anti-abortion, but Woods said he was “disheartened” that Democrats took back the House.
Barry Wood, 67, and his wife Susan, 65, of Richmond, Virginia, were married in 1974, the same year as the Roe v. Wade decision, and have been attending the march almost every year since.
Wood said that the abortion rights forces are ignoring facts, but he’s hopeful for change. “We believe that the right to life is the pre-eminent right for people,” he said.
Contributing: Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY