March for Life

I am unable to forget the “March for Women’s Lives” held on a beautiful D.C. Sunday in April 2004. Its Orwellian event title referring to aborting mothers not unborn females: As the Indigo Girls sang and Whoopi Goldberg held up her coat-hanger, one of the largest banners in the crowd of thousands read “Pro-Life is to Christianity as al-Qaeda is to Islam.”

My profound sadness at this scene of lostness led me to join the small Feminists for Life contingent across the street. In response to my “Women Deserve Better than Abortion” placard, middle-fingers and shouts of “How do you know what women deserve!” flew at me, and two lesbians purposely made out right in front of us in an odd effort to counter our counter-protest. Clearly, there were also thousands of less hostile people in attendance as well, and some civil conversations were had. Still, even the mass produced “It’s Your Choice, Not Theirs” signs spoke to issues of power, control, and antagonism that largely fueled this crowd.

I was pro-life from a young age. Though hardly full of fiery zeal, there was no doubt where our family stood. Copies of the National Right to Life Committee’s newspaper could be found in our home, and my normally quiet father might snarl at the TV whenever Tom Brokaw gave some slanted report on “pro-choice” and “anti-abortion” efforts. “ Pro-life , Tom! It’s a child, not a choice.” In the back of my mind, I may have naively assumed that’s how it was in most other houses in our rural East Texas county where Southern Baptist churches outnumbered filling stations.

The conservative United Methodist congregation I grew up in still had altar calls every Sunday and summer revival meetings. We seemed to differ from our neighbors, the Baptists, mainly in the sprinkling of infants and our lack of emphasis on movies about the Rapture. Talk of abortion was rare, but life affirming. The UM Reporter , though, would bring stories of intra-denominational battles on the topic and occasional head-shakers like the booking of Roe v. Wade lawyer and preacher’s daughter Sarah Weddington to keynote the regional college student retreat.

It would be during my own college years that the realities of apathy and antipathy surrounding abortion would begin to clearly show themselves to me. Only one other person from the evangelical student center that served as my second home heeded the call of a local crisis pregnancy center to teach abstinence skills to teenagers at risk of pregnancies. The dedicated but crusty leader of that pregnancy center also informed me that the pastor of the prim and proper church I attended on Sunday mornings would sometimes recommend abortion to girls who sought his counsel. I didn’t really want to believe it.

My hopes were higher when, while a law student in Austin, I attended a large church that featured a yearly “Sanctity of Life Sunday” that was always marked by a powerful pro-life sermon. Once, when I received word over a church affiliated listserve about a march on the state capitol, I assumed that, with scores attending our singles group, I would not be alone in responding. I was.

Nevertheless, the sender of that message and I joined with a few hundred others on a nice Saturday morning in what was my first official pro-life march. Since moving to Washington, D.C. in 2002 and with the National Mall not much more than a stone’s throw from my office, I have been a regular at the annual March for Life. My trek to the rally is an easy one, unlike the tens of thousands who drive through the night to come and stand in the cold of January.

Most of those buses are filled with Roman Catholics who clearly provide the bulk of the boots on the ground. It seems almost a rite of passage for Catholic youth like my young cousin who came with her parish from St. Louis, marched, and then was back on the road by five o’clock. Their energy and dedication is indeed inspiring, and sometimes frightening to the few members of the media who will break the unofficial coverage blackout surrounding the country’s largest annual protest.

My experience is that rank and file evangelical Protestants like myself generally just give lip service and votes to the life issue and are a small minority at the March for Life. I don’t know exactly why that is the case. Certainly, there are thousands of evangelicals doing important grass roots pro-life work like running crisis pregnancy centers, and there are many notable examples of passionate peaceful protest efforts flowing from non-Catholic traditions.

Operation Rescue firebrand Randall Terry (Pentecostal at the time, but now Catholic) and his successor Rev. Flip Benham (trained at the evangelical Asbury Seminary and who baptized Norma McCorvey, the original pseudonym-ed plaintiff Jane Roe) come to mind. Lou Engle (a Pentecostal and founder of TheCall) has gathered thousands, myself among them, on the Mall and in other venues to pray for an end to abortion. His concept of silent Supreme Court protests, where participants let the red pieces of “LIFE” tape over their mouths do the talking, and not so silent 24/7 prayer meetings in the Justice House of Prayer have become iconic in certain circles. Certainly, the largest non-inauguration gathering ever on the Mall, the 1997 Promise Keepers assembly of over a million men, had, as I recall from what was my first trip I took to the nation’s capital, an important pro-life component and was an overwhelmingly Protestant affair.

Possibly, the Catholic/Protestant disparity associated with the March for Life is simply the result of historical inertia stemming from its roots among white Catholics who first promoted it within their own networks (networks undoubtedly strengthened by the strong pro-life focus of Pope John Paul II). This could also explain something of the race divide as well, as African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians are underrepresented despite strong cultural traditions favoring life issues in many of their congregations. Or, Protestants may, in keeping with our history, just prefer to do our own thing away from hierarchical traditions. In keeping with that thesis, the top-down Orthodox communities seem almost over-represented at the March given their relatively small numbers nationally. I can only say for sure that my own repeated attempts to recruit friends and clergy from evangelical ranks that are similarly well-situated geographically have yielded but a handful of fellow marchers over the years, and I know others who have faced similar frustrations.

I certainly realize the paucity of my contribution to this cause, but I feel an obligation to come and at least symbolically take a stand on the greatest human rights issue of my time. With the coming of ultrasound and then the exposure of the brutal partial birth abortion technique, I, like many pro-lifers in the late twentieth century, assumed that the fog of ignorance would be lifted and America’s moral heart would be touched. Mists of misunderstanding may have been cleared in part but, for millions, their hearts turned stony rather than soft.

Sadly, ultrasound technology has become a weapon of mass destruction used against over 100 million little girls worldwide, and even the eventually successful calls to ban what liberal lawmaker like Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once called “too close to infanticide” galvanized the pro-abortion lobby in its resolve to resist any slide down the slippery slope of abortion restrictions.

Further, after years of campaigning to elect Presidents who would appoint non-activist justices, many expected a judicial reversal of Roe with Planned Parenthood v. Casey , but the 1992 decision instead only opened the legislative door to marginal measures such as waiting periods and the underlying precedent of Roe has not been seriously threatened since. Politically, pro-lifers find themselves having been drummed out of one major party and largely relegated to a fundraising sideshow act by the other.

I still hold out hope that Roe dies long before I do. Even though I can’t do everything, I must do something. Pro-life sentiment has not dried up and blown away in the four decades since Roe as many expected, with younger generations increasing in fervor not sinking into resignation. And so, while the grass on the Mall will be still be trampled from the crowds that came to see the Inauguration of President Obama, the March for Life will faithfully return on January 25th to sprinkle seeds of hope and change.

John Murdock lives in Falls Church, Virginia and works as a natural resources attorney in Washington, D.C.

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