The Anti-abortion Movement’s Victory Generation

The activists who had gathered at the National Mall for the March for Life knew they were winning. With every cheer, every prayer, and every round of applause, the attendees assembled in the shadow of the Washington Monument reminded themselves that this year’s rally and march could be the last one to happen in a country where abortion was at least nominally legal in every state. They waved signs: WE ARE THE POST-ROE GENERATION.

I felt the rally’s triumphant spirit as I traipsed from the Supreme Court down to the march’s meeting spot behind the Smithsonian American History Museum on Friday. After last year’s in-person events had been canceled because of the pandemic, I could see and hear groups of friends reunited, hugging and taking photos in front of the Supreme Court and Capitol Building, and comparing their signs and placards. As I wandered down Constitution Avenue a little before noon, I was surprised at how large the crowds were; despite the below-freezing temperature and threat of the Omicron variant, I saw school groups and religious orders from upstate New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. I recognized logos from a few Catholic universities. Seeing teens in Carhartt beanies and Canada Goose parkas gave me flashbacks to my own education at an all-boys Catholic school.

Liberals might not realize just how young the March for Life crowd tends to be. Most of the people I saw skewed young, male, and white, and most of the first-timers I met were girls in their teens with chaperones or women in their 20s who had ventured to Washington with school groups. The older marchers I spoke with emphasized this youthful energy in each of my conversations. “They’re the generation that’s going to save the babies,” Patricia Reber, who was attending the March for Life for her second time, told me.

“It’s so encouraging to us,” her friend Robin Ward—on her eighth march—interjected. “The very first time that I came, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought it would be more sad, and I found that it was very joyous because of the young people and their enthusiasm.”

Reber and Ward told me they had hitched a ride to the march from the Philadelphia suburbs on a bus rented by a local Catholic group; they couldn’t miss this year’s reunion and the high the anti-abortion movement was riding. Over the past two months, the Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 6–3 majority, has suggested that it is poised to strike down nearly 50 years of abortion-rights precedent when it decides Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization later this year.

Every speaker at the rally before the march emphasized this fact. Roe v. Wade “is not settled law,” Jeanne Mancini, March for Life’s president, said in her opening remarks. “Years of hard work and years of you coming here have brought us to this place today, and no matter how Dobbs is decided, your voice … on the federal and state levels are all the more important. If Roe falls, the battle lines will change.”

The college- and high-school-age protesters I spoke with understood this changing battleground. Some had come to the D.C. march for the first time after attending annual protests in their home state. Others were brought along by friends to witness a jubilant event. “It’s a cool crowd, and it’s great to be a part of something that could be a big historical moment,” Heather Kyle, a sophomore at the Catholic University of America, told me.

A few feet away, I chatted with Ellie Kaufman, a 22-year-old from the University of Dayton, in Ohio. She had come to the rally to meet up with a pro-life friend, and her eyes glinted with a peek of sunshine that had broken through the overcast skies. “There is a lot more hope,” she said. “What we’re going to be able to do is take the decision of abortion out of the federal area and give it to the states, which really is where it should be.”

That expectation permeated the conversations I had that afternoon. These Americans expect Roe to fall, and they are ready to continue the anti-abortion fight back home. Twelve states, mostly in the South, already have “trigger laws” on the books that will ban all or nearly all abortions if Roe’s protections are overturned; another nine have laws that could be used to restrict abortion if Roe falls. At the same time, only 15 states and D.C. have written laws to protect abortion rights beyond Roe. Those protesters I spoke with from Democrat-dominated states told me about their determination to continue their political activism, their organizing for anti-abortion candidates, and their campaigning against state expansions of abortion protections. Those from Republican states signaled their willingness to travel to neighboring states and keep electing anti-abortion candidates at home.

Around us, masses were mobilizing to march. Cissie Graham Lynch, the daughter of the evangelical preacher Franklin Graham, thundered over the speakers with a closing prayer. “Lord, I pray for victory this summer, [that] the Supreme Court … overturn Roe, that we would be a nation that stands before the world, that we stand for life.”

As Graham Lynch spoke, I thought of the ladies from the Philly suburbs. They’re planning to return to D.C. later this year for an even bigger celebration.

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