Why We March

The day that abortion is illegal in law and unthinkable in practice is still not upon us

January 19 marks the 50th anniversary of the March for Life. The late Nellie Gray, then a Washington attorney, was determined not to let pass the first anniversary of Roe v. Wade without a protest. Since that first effort, pro-lifers have trudged to Washington — rain, shine, snow, or frigid temperatures — to protest the egregious civil rights violation represented by Roe. 

It has been an honor to be part of that March since the first time I joined, as a 16-year-old in 1976. I attended in high school (but not in college — didn’t think we had groups coming from suburban Detroit) and during graduate school, then as a faculty member in the New York-New Jersey area, and whenever I’ve been close enough to DC. If asked what I have done for human rights, participation in the March for Life would be among my boasts.

But there are people today who ask: Why are we marching? Roe has been reversed. Shouldn’t we honor Dobbs (which was decided in much warmer June)? Or shouldn’t we just shift to state demonstrations?

There is, of course, a certain coterie that thinks political action against abortion should be given up in favor of concrete, pro-life action like helping pregnant women and pregnancy centers without worrying about the legal status of abortion. That is largely the thrust of a January 18 New York Times op-ed by Daniel Williams.

Why do we still March in Washington in January? Lots of reasons.

Of course, there has always been a group that preferred to bypass political action in favor of practical action. Williams argues for that approach as a way of trying to avoid the various defeats pro-life forces have suffered in referenda. I am not convinced of that approach, for two reasons. First, the pro-abortionists are not going to give up their efforts to ensconce abortion in law and social policy because we fly a white flag. Second, many of those who have endorsed this surrender strategy do so because having to stand for life alienates them from their preferred political allies, the latter having no intent of surrendering their pro-abortion commitments.

But even for those committed to a political effort (which cannot be downplayed), abortion has not ceased to be a federal issue. The incumbent administration is absolutely committed to advancing abortion at every opportunity it can. It would enact legislation reinstating Roe v. Wade were it not for a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and a Republican minority in the Senate capable of filibustering that bill. Any trifecta Democratic government would undoubtedly push abortion-on-demand through birth. When one of America’s two major political parties has made commitment to abortion a litmus test of its identity, pro-lifers need to be present on the federal level.

Our presence in Washington makes clear to federal officials that the pro-life movement will not go away and will fight laws, policies, regulations, interpretations, policy letters, or any rules intended to smuggle Roe back into American national life.

Over at The Pillar, J.D. Flynn ruminates over the future of the March, coming down to a discussion of the March as political protest versus “pilgrimage.” He writes:

But it does seem to me that if the March is to continue, it has two paths: it risks becoming partisan demagoguery focused only on electing the right politicians, or it can be elevated to something more — focused on the transcendent, and, for Catholics, on the efficacy of the cross.

I hope it does that. We need pilgrimage in this country, and we certainly need reparations for the myriad sins against life committed on our nation’s soil.

Perhaps. But having starting coming to the March in 1976, I am old enough to remember when most participants were clearly Catholic. I am proud my Church stood with life. But I am also pleased that the March has become ecumenical, with more Protestants and even non-believers prominent at the March. So, perhaps our “pilgrimage” can be an example of practical moral ecumenism, driven by a common Judeo-Christian value of protecting life.

Back in the 1970s, I remember that our March for Life buses used to stop at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on their way into the city, sometimes for a tour, usually for a meal, whatever. I have to say, I thought it detracted from what we were in Washington to do: make a political statement. What has always bothered me about the March for Life is that individual groups did not understand it is vital they show up in their Senators’ and Congressman’s office. We should NOT be marching to Capitol Hill and then to our bus!

Many buses are sponsored by Catholic parishes. I support having a Mass before people shove off. I even support prayer on the way. But, once you get to Washington, respect the “autonomy of created things,” i.e., maximize your limited time making your pro-life presence felt to everyone who has a decision-making role.

Having said all that about Washington, we now do need state marches for life. For one, the abortion issue has been delegated back to the states, so a lot of the political process will occur in state capitals. For another, the federalization of abortion under Roe has caused our state political muscles to atrophy in many places, and those muscles need to be strengthened again. There is some degree of flexibility at the state level. Pro-life Democrats are virtually extinct at the federal level. Democrats with some instinct of political self-preservation can still be found at the state level, and some of them actually do represent their constituents in pro-life ways. And, while there is a greater degree of political homogenization across the board, local legislators tend nevertheless to be somewhat closer to their constituents.

So, why do we March? We march because life remains under threat. We march because our opponents will not give up; the day after we March, the “Women’s March” plans demonstrations in DC and across the country in support of abortion-on-demand. We march because the day that abortion is illegal in law and unthinkable in practice is still not upon us.

So, pro-lifers, you have no reason to be AWOL.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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