Every year it feels a bit like a carnival. It shouldn’t, when you consider what the March for Life is about. The voices proclaiming the “Forty-Fourth Annual March for Life” seemed to be celebrating an anniversary, not observing four-and-a-half decades of failure. If there was mourning at this event, it was hidden behind the banners and posters, behind the colorful sweatshirts of school groups, behind the cheers and prayers of the friendly crowds.
From inside, the event feels less like a protest than like a celebration of the size and power of the anti-abortion movement. Hundreds of thousands of people, long accustomed to the indifference of the law and the scorn of the educated and well-positioned, see each other and see that they are strong and young and many. “This is the generation that will end abortion!” the speakers exclaim, every year. And every following year the marchers return, with equal enthusiasm and good cheer, as our national shame grows one year deeper.
But this year there was some justification for the enthusiasm. For the first time, a vice president visited the march, and the president tweeted his full support. One did not need to be a Trump supporter to applaud the administration’s reiterated promises to defund Planned Parenthood and appoint pro-life justices. For the first time in many of our lifetimes, there’s a clear political path to the end of abortion. And compared to the enormity of abortion, which the Trump administration has pledged to fight, most faults are forgivable. Buffoonery, corruption, arbitrary executive orders—these cannot be worse than the butchery of millions.
The crowds at the rally before the March were eager to hear Mike Pence and Kellyanne Conway profess their dedication to the cause—as was I. But this eagerness did not transform the anti-abortion protest into a Trump rally. A few men (almost no women) appeared in Trump caps or sweatshirts, and there were chants of “U.S.A.” that I could not recall from earlier marches. But the atmosphere was one of expectation, not triumph. The new administration has made promises, and those who marched against abortion are ready to see them kept.
Trump owes us that much. Bush could count on a cultural affinity with pro-life Christians, and any Republican who opposed Obama could count on the support of a movement Obama opposed so fiercely. But with Trump there is no such natural affinity, no such tactical alignment of interests—the strength of his promises won the anti-abortion movement to him, and the movement will be watching to see whether they are kept. Next to the rally, a group had put up a large sign, with images of Reagan, Bush, Pence, and Trump—and of an aborted fetus. The text made clear: Promises have been made before, and the awful business of abortion went on. The movement has made a deal with Trump, and expects it to be kept. “Michigan Loves Our Pro-Life President,” read one banner; it seemed to want to remind Trump that that love is not unconditional.
After Pence, several other speakers took the stage. They were persuasive—it is easy to be persuasive when one condemns such an obvious evil—but one stood out to me. Karyme Lozano, a telenovela star, gave a speech in Spanish on the importance of family and on the Latino witness against abortion. As she spoke there was much shuffling and checking of phones; it was clear that few in the largely white crowd were following her words. But at length she concluded, with a loud cry of “Viva Cristo Rey!” And the crowd at once understood, and was electrified, and offered their King no less of an ovation than they’d given their vice president. A little later, the march itself began.
Any of the marchers would tell you in a moment that the case against abortion is not a sectarian one—that it is a matter of human decency, not divine revelation. But there is no avoiding the march’s religious character. And despite the few street preachers inviting Romanists to come out of Babylon (“Doth this offend you?” read their placards), there is no avoiding its specifically Catholic character. There are banners with images of the Blessed Virgin, young people praying in public, armies of friars of several types.
Along Constitution Avenue a sort of tarp had been erected, at least ten feet high, with an image of a turbaned priest casting an infant into the fire before Moloch; a boom box behind the tarp provided the crackling of flames and the baby’s cries. Whatever this lacked in elegance it made up for in expressive power: For the marchers, the battle to end abortion is as much against demons as against Democrats.
This sacred character of the march was a solvent in which every possible political and ideological element seemed to be blended. A week earlier, the Women’s March had formally committed itself to the abortion license, and anti-abortion women marching against Trump had found themselves heckled and marginalized. But at the March for Life, no efforts were made to police the ideology of the marchers. Feminists for Life, some stalwart Democrats for Life, and a pregnant woman carrying the quixotic poster: “End Abortion: Abolish Capitalism” walked side by side with the #MAGA caps and monarchists. All political differences faded in a cause greater than any government.
Since we must have a government, those of us who oppose abortion will listen to Trump’s promises. We will hope that he keeps them. But the enthusiasm I saw at the march last Friday, the cheerful and confident faces, was not the result of any recent election. It has been there for years, and will be as long as the fight against abortion continues. It reflects the marchers’ confidence in a higher regime, one not subject to elections, whose orders not even the Supreme Court has in the end the power to stay.
Kevin Gallagher writes from New York.