A different March for Life returns



Stuff NZ Newspapers



Thousands of abortion opponents streamed towards the National Mall in Washington yesterday for a historic chapter of the March for Life, the first since the overturning of Roe v. Wade and an event busy with activists starting to articulate visions of their movement, post-Roe. Created in response to the 1973 ruling that legalised abortion across the country, the religious march has now achieved its stated aim of overturning the decision. But it comes after some recent setbacks and internal debate about how to make a national ban. March leaders emphasised yesterday that Roe’s overthrow was just the start and that they will be launching dozens of local marches. Officially, yesterday’s march seeks to formalise the antiabortion movement’s new reality by changing the route to pass the US Capitol on the way to its longtime destination, the Supreme Court. The change, the march website says, reflects ‘‘that many national legislative battles loom’’ and ‘‘our need to maintain a presence in Washington’’. The organisation also has five statelevel marches and by 2030 aims to have one in every state. For longtime attendees, the event is meaningful for other reasons. For decades, Ann Scheidler has travelled each January from Illinois to Washington, DC, for the March for Life and the incredible uplift, she told The Post earlier in the week. ‘‘When you get to the spot on [Capitol] Hill and can see behind you, you thought you were near the back but then you see thousands of people behind you,’’ said Scheidler, whose late husband, Joseph, was considered a key architect of the antiabortion movement. Normally, she said, ‘‘you can feel you are alone in the battle’’. Scheidler was in Washington for the march, as always, but what will become of this worldwide annual symbol, she said ahead of the occasion, wasn’t clear. ‘‘I don’t know. The national March For Life has launched a lot of marches around the country because they know the focus will move to the states. I think there is definitely something to us gathering annually in Washington, but I don’t know after this year – we’ll have to wait and see,’’ she said. ‘‘It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to go somewhere in January where the weather is bad.’’ For a half-century, the March for Life has been the closest thing there is to a global symbol of the anti-abortion movement. With its mix of policy wonks in suits, garbed priests and monks, and activists blasting images of fetal remains on giant screens atop flatbed trucks, the event has been a carnival, bazaar, religious crusade and professional conference rolled in one. While its evolution over the years reflected changes in the movement, its laser focus on overturning Roe gave it a centre. Scheidler – an anti-abortion activist since even before Roe – witnessed those changes. She saw the march shift from overwhelmingly Catholic to include more evangelical ‘‘movers and shakers’’ She saw a drop in activism in the 1990s after Congress passed laws protecting clinic access. She saw Christian schools start sending buses of students, turning the march’s face younger. Its next changes are unpredictable. What does it mean to be ‘‘pro-life’’ now? Will different views about prioritising public aid for pregnant people and for child care become divisive? ‘‘Historically, the march was sort of like the moment when everyone from the anti-abortion movement came together. And this is a movement, like any movement, that can be kind of fractious . . . so this was the moment when the tent was the biggest,’’ said Mary Ziegler, a legal historian of the antiabortion movement at the University of California at Davis. Now, the anti-abortion movement is at an inflection point, needing to reach a consensus about its next goals, Ziegler said – and what happens at this year’s March for Life could signal initial visions for the post-Roe movement. Sheila Wharam, a teacher in her 70s, has come from Baltimore County to the march for decades with a huge banner that shows a fetal outline and the words: ‘‘Justices, overturn Roe and sentence us to life on Earth!’’ ‘‘It was always: ‘Hey, hey, ho, ho Roe v. Wade has got to go!’ Everyone was cheering,’’ she said on Friday. ‘‘It was almost like a high school football game.’’ She said she always finds the march both incredibly sad as well as very uplifting. She knows the future of the event is a bit up in the air. People from states where abortion is now illegal ‘‘will have less impetus to come. Some of those people will be satisfied they have protected the unborn in their states. And in places that still have abortion, they may think: ‘I need to pay more attention on the local level.’ There’s just no way to tell at this point. You do what you have to do.’’ In the early 1970s, the march, like the movement, was overwhelmingly Catholic. And with that came a framework that explicitly matched orthodox Catholic teaching: Life begins at conception. The motto of march founder Nellie Gray was: ‘‘No exceptions, no compromise!’’ In the early years, politicians and politics were looked at much more sceptically, said Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who was for decades a leading anti-abortion activist but has become critical of the movement. ‘‘I can remember when Nellie and her leadership team wouldn’t speak laudably about any politician. There was a lot of talk about women in distress and babies. Then as the years went on it was all about legislation and all about reversing Roe. All about Supreme Court appointments. The language, the signage during the march went from social movement monikers to political ones,’’ said Schenck. As more evangelicals took up the anti-abortion cause, the march became somewhat more pluralistic, including not only Protestants but secular groups, Jews and marchers of other faiths. Groups from Christian high schools and colleges became a huge feature of the march, presenting a young face of the anti-abortion movement on screens across the globe. Presidents who opposed abortion, including Ronald Reagan and both George H.W. and George W. Bush, declined to appear at the march. Donald Trump was the first, an appearance that some saw as the final step in the complete politicisation of the event. But march president Jeanne Mancini told The Washington Post that the decision to host Trump was a no-brainer. ‘‘Any time the leader of the free world is coming, you know he will draw a line in the sand for future pro-life leaders,’’ she said. Scheidler believes the march helped bring about last year’s ruling to overturn Roe. ‘‘We kept keeping the issue alive as we did, and the march was a big part of why we got so much further in America,’’ she said, describing the movement as less engaged in Europe. Schenck characterised the march as mainly a lab for testing messaging to abortion opponents and for ‘‘giving politicians a knowledge of how to play’’ the crowd. ‘‘It was a primer for how to play to the sensibilities of prolife voters. And in that way it was very useful.’’ But it fell short of changing public opinion, he noted. Surveys show most Americans support some form of legal abortion. ‘‘But in terms of – did it really produce the pro-life culture that Nellie and others said the March existed to advance? No. It didn’t.’’ –