On Friday, I took advantage of being up in Washington, DC and attended the March for Life. I had previously attended the march in 2011- my first year in DC- but, for whatever reason, I was more personally affected by this year’s march than I had been two years prior, and not just for the better. There were some elements to the March for Life that I found somewhat disturbing and that I fear may threaten the long-term political efficacy of the March for Life and the pro-life movement as a whole.
I’ll start with the positive senses I gained: it was reassuring to see that, 40 years after Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement is still strong enough to generate a crowd of hundreds of thousands on a cold January morning (cold enough, at least, to keep all of my incredibly lame graduate school colleagues at home while I ventured out alone). Secondly, the overwhelming prevalence of young attendees helps to emphasize the extent to which the pro-life movement has successfully transmitted their message to the rising generation of voters. The fact that so many of these young attendees are also female helps to make last year’s campaign rhetoric of a Republican “war on women” seem somewhat suspect.
All in all, then, the March should at least provide some cause for optimism for the pro-life community as a political movement. Unfortunately, however, such reasons for optimism are heavily counterbalanced by one remaining hurdle that the March for Life must clear if it ever wants to effect any kind of meaningful political change. That hurdle is the March’s explicitly Christian overtones and its failure to significantly expand past their natural support base in the Roman Catholic Church to include other slices of the American culture that should be sympathetic to the pro-life cause.
The overwhelming Christian (and particularly Catholic) influence on the participants was hard to miss: countless examples of Christian imagery and language made it very clear that the March for Life is anything but ecumenical. Is this a problem? Well, it is if the pro-life movement wants to be a force for justice inside a political environment that is actively hostile to the Christian faith, in a country where roughly ¼ of the population is, at least nominally, Roman Catholic.
- Numerous hand-made signs sported Bible verses: in addition to the predictable Jeremiah 1:5 (“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you”) and Exodus 20:13 (“Thou shalt not kill”), other signs and banners cited Luke 1:44 (“The infant in my womb leaped for joy”) and Psalm 127:3 (“Children are a heritage from the Lord”), along with quotes from assorted saints and fathers of the Church.
- Images of the Virgin Mary were almost ubiquitous.
- One woman held up a display of a baby doll superimposed over a crucifix.
- Countless Catholic colleges, high schools, and churches had banners advertising their presence
- Members of Texas Youth for Life carried small wooden crosses.
Leading up to the March, a rally was held on the National Mall where attendees prayed together and received encouraging words from various speakers. These speeches were at times even more explicitly Christian than the signs and banners of the attendees.
- “I believe our country is in need of revival,” declared Senator Rand Paul. “I believe our country is in need of spiritual cleansing.”
- Father O’Malley of Boston read aloud a twitter shout-out from Pope Benedict to all those in attendance.
- A woman representing the abortion recovery group “Silent No More” implored women who had had abortions: “we want you to experience the love of Christ!”
- Other speakers made casual reference to “The Gospel of Life”: a word choice that might make literal, translational sense to those who are in-the-know, but which almost assuredly sounds like religious jargon to those listeners outside the Christian faith.
- Perhaps most egregiously, as the March began and attendees started to clear the National Mall, the speakers played Contemporary Christian artist Third Day’s song “Trust in Jesus.”
These expressions of faith, when taken together with the patently apparent fact that the majority of attendees are there because of their affiliation with a religious institution, all coalesce to create a potentially intimidating environment for those outside the Christian faith who are generally sympathetic to (or at least willing to listen to arguments by) anti-abortion advocates.
In addition to non-religious attendees, the rally’s identifiably Catholic flavor might prove intimidating to evangelicals who are in the decided minority at the March for Life, although they are well-represented in the pro-life movement. John Murdock at First Things had a recent article discussing this disparity. This is not to say that evangelicals are at all unwelcome: there were at least a couple of protestant churches represented at the rally, and I saw nothing that would indicate that Protestants or evangelicals were in any way unwelcome. However, if the March for Life has intentions of becoming a practical political movement instead of a rite-of-passage for Catholic teenagers, they would do well to be much more intentional in incorporating Protestants into their mix.
Wandering around the National Mall during the rally, I spotted a large banner advertising the group “Secular Pro-Life” and went by to hear their perspective. The representatives of “Secular Pro-Life” were excited to talk to any passers-by and graciously took the time to answer any questions I had. Describing themselves as an outlet for irreligious anti-abortion advocates, as well as religious minorities (Mormons, Muslims, Jews, “spiritual but not religious”, and Wiccans), “Secular Pro-Life” has grown exponentially in the past few years. Regularly attending pro-life rallies and conferences, the organization tries to break up the perception of spiritual homogeneity within the pro-life movement. “We’re the non-scary people” explains a female representative of the organization (who proudly sports a “Pro-Life, Pro-Gay” sticker).
In the middle of the largest anti-abortion rally in the country, the representatives of “Secular Pro-Life” seem to be just as excited as their Catholic counterparts. The religious folk surrounding them seem gracious and genuinely appreciative for the participation of this little island of irreligion in their midst. The sight of the “Secular Pro-Life” banner is a nice addition to the sea of crucifixes and Blessed Mothers engulfing it. But one wonders how many non-Christian pro-lifers would be willing to stand alone in a crowd such as this.
The pro-life movement prides itself on the fact that it is growing stronger with the passage of time. And there is certainly something to be said for the fact that, 40 years after the passage of Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement seems nowhere giving up. If the opponents of abortion ever win a decisive victory- and I pray they do- it will be because the general culture in America has taken a dramatic turn toward life. And when that happens, it will have precious little to do with the March for Life.
The Catholic Church has anchored the pro-life movement for 40 years. When evangelical Protestants were slow to take up arms in response to Roe v. Wade, the Catholic faithful spurred them to action. But, barring a major shift in the country’s demographics, the Catholics cannot win a decisive victory for life on their own. For that matter, neither can the evangelicals; both camps need to come together to find a way to appeal to those outside the Church.
There is another troubling aspect at work here: by solely focusing on overturning Roe v. Wade, pro-life advocates are ignoring much more promising avenues for eliminating abortion. While the culture wars may not be fairing so well for conservatives on the national level, the Jacobins have yet to fully penetrate the American heartland. Why not pour efforts into the nascent 10th Amendment resurgence?
Secondly, Focusing exclusively on overturning Roe v. Wade gives the case a sense of legal legitimacy that it does not deserve. Roe v. Wade is bad law, not only because they made the wrong policy decision, but because its conclusion is supported absolutely nowhere in the Constitution. Why treat it as if it were binding law at all? Why not encourage states to nullify Roe? Why not encourage Congress to pass a bill clarifying that the term “person” in the 14th Amendment applies to unborn children?
We’ve had 40 years of the pro-life movement telling us to wait for a personnel change on the Supreme Court. I say we’ve waited long enough. 40 years of Roe: that should be enough to show any conservative that the Court is not the defender of the Constitution that we like to pretend it to be.