Since it began over 40 years ago, the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., has grown into the largest annual civil rights demonstration in the world. It has also inspired scores of similar marches across North America and around the globe.
But it almost didn’t happen.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision Jan. 22, 1973, there was a period of shock and disbelief among pro-life advocates.
“Most of the people involved in this issue didn’t believe the decision would come down as it did. It was almost unthinkable,” explained William V. Devlin, 82, a member of the St. Frances de Chantal Council 6526 in Wantagh, N.Y.
About six months after Roe, Devlin said, discussions began about how the pro-life community should mark the first anniversary of the decision.
Fellow Long Island native Lew Gardner, 78, who with his wife, Helen, was a member of Families for Life, recalled, “We wanted to commemorate the anniversary, and it was simply a question of how we were going to do it. We couldn’t just let the date go by.”
Devlin, Gardner and several others were then put in contact with a Catholic attorney in Washington named Nellie Gray, who had recently retired from the Department of Labor.
In a 2010 Catholic News Service profile, two years before her death, Gray recalled, “I received a call from [some] Knights of Columbus. I didn’t even know who they were, but they explained their stance against abortion and needed a place to meet to discuss plans for a march. That place was my living room.”
Eileen Vogel of Women Concerned for the Unborn Child in Pennsylvania was among those who attended that meeting in October 1973. But first, she sat in on another gathering made up of right-to-life advocates from the D.C. area. Many expressed hesitation with planning a march, believing that if they didn’t do it well it would be worse than not doing anything at all.
“It was all the ‘What ifs’ —‘What if we have an ice storm? What if nobody comes?’” said Vogel.
“When that meeting was over, I’m sure they thought they had settled the issue,” she mused. “But we were just beginning, and there was no way we were not going to do this.”
Following dinner at her home, Nellie Gray turned to the grassroots organizers seated at her table and said, “I’d like you to tell me why you think we should have a march.”
“I remember saying that it didn’t matter how many people showed up,” Vogel said. “If there were only 10 of us, history would have to record that there was a voice of protest against the killing of innocent babies.”
Because of Gray’s experience with Washington, the group put her in charge.
“Nellie was enthusiastic about it, but she was also a little bit reluctant,” said Gardner, who now serves as financial secretary of Ecumenical Council 5632 in Red Hook, N.Y.
Gray and the rest of the planners stepped out in faith and agreed to hold a demonstration at the U.S. Capitol, which would include political and religious leaders and musicians. It would be followed by a march, envisioned as a “circle of life” around the congressional offices and the Supreme Court building.
The group formulated key “life principles,” articulating the moral and legal responsibility to preserve and protect the life of every human being, and they began the work of raising money, securing permits and publicizing the Jan. 22 event.
Live roses were sent to legislators in the name of people making donations, and Devlin, a commercial artist, designed the logo for the march, which showed the Capitol surrounded by a long-stemmed rose.
Another Knight from Long Island, John Mawn, who died in 2002, helped facilitate transportation. The owner of a charter bus company, he served with his wife, Marie, as the pro-life chair couple of St. Regis Council 4651 in Ronkonkoma, N.Y.
“John told us, ‘Don’t wait until you have 50 people to fill the bus,’” Vogel recalled. “‘Instead, say that we have a bus going to D.C., and we’d like you to come with us.’”
In the end, more than 20,000 people, including busloads from as far away as Illinois, participated in the first March for Life on Jan. 22, 1974.
Though naysayers had been concerned about holding an outdoor demonstration in the middle of winter, it turned out to be 70 degrees and sunny.
“It was divine providence,” Vogel said. “I don’t think we ever had a day like that again.”
Nonetheless, the size of the crowd grew exponentially each year for the next several years, and the March for Life took on a life of its own. A number of annual events have sprung up to complement the march, such as various conferences and the National Prayer Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Hundreds of political and religious figures have graced the rally’s stage on the National Mall and linked arms with marchers. Issues such as partial-birth abortion and post-abortion regret have taken center stage. At times, marchers have had to trudge through snow or shield themselves from biting wind and pelting rain, but growing numbers of young people, making their presence felt from the beginning, have swelled the crowd.
Following the death of Nellie Gray in 2012, Jeanne Mancini was named president of the March for Life Education & Defense Fund. Her leadership has marked a new chapter in the organization’s history as the pro-life movement continues to gain momentum.
“You are the pro-life generation,” Mancini said, addressing the throngs of millennials assembled on the National Mall during last year’s March for Life Rally. “I believe that you are the generation that will bring to an end the greatest social injustice of today!”
JOHN BURGER is news editor of Aleteia.org and a member of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Council 16253 in New Haven, Conn.
|1850s||American Medical Association (AMA) presses state and territorial legislatures to outlaw elective abortion.||1860s-70s||Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other leaders of the suffragist and abolitionist movements condemn abortion as a social evil in speeches and writings.||1890||Statutes advocated by the AMA ban abortion unless necessary to save a mother’s life.||1916||Margaret Sanger opens the first birth control clinic in the United States in Brooklyn, N.Y. Planned Parenthood traces its origins to this event.|
|1937||The National Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Guilds denounces efforts to loosen abortion restrictions, writing that this would “make the medical practitioner the gravedigger of the nation.”||1959||The American Law Institute advocates legalizing abortion for mental or physical health of the mother, pregnancy due to rape and incest, and fetal deformity.||1967||Colorado loosens its abortion restrictions, the first of a wave of states to repeal pro-life legislation. Similar laws are passed in California, Oregon and North Carolina.||1969||The National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now called NARAL Pro- Choice America) is co-founded by Dr. Bernard Nathanson. The same year, Canada passes the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968-69, allowing abortion for selective reasons.|
|1970||New York allows abortion on demand up to 24 weeks. Alaska, Hawaii and Washington pass similar laws.||1973||Roe v. Wade strikes down state laws against abortion in the United States. Doe v. Bolton, the companion to Roe v. Wade, makes abortion on demand legal through all nine months of pregnancy by expanding the definition of a woman’s health.||1974||The first March for Life takes place in Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of Roe.||1976||Congress adopts the Hyde Amendment barring Medicaid and other federal funds from being used for abortion.|
|1980||The Hyde Amendment is upheld by the Supreme Court.||1984||President Ronald Reagan institutes the Mexico City policy denying federal funding for groups that promote or perform abortions in other nations. The policy was rescinded and reinstituted in turn by Presidents Clinton (1993), Bush (2001), Obama (2009) and Trump (2017).||1980s||Grassroots pro-life work on the local level includes the opening of pregnancy resource centers to help women with unplanned pregnancies.||1988||In Canada, R. v. Morgentaler allows unregulated abortion in all circumstances.|
|1989||Webster v. Reproductive Health Services upholds a Missouri law stating that human life begins at conception and bars state funds and facilities from providing abortions.||1992||Planned Parenthood v. Casey reaffirms the core holdings of Roe v. Wade but upholds several new restrictions on abortion.||2003||The “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban” is passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush.||2007||The Supreme Court upholds the federal ban on partial-birth abortion. The first nationally coordinated 40 Days for Life campaign takes place in 89 cities.|
|2010s||Dozens of state-level laws are passed to limit abortion, including many states which have successfully banned abortions after 20 weeks.||2016||In the case of Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down laws requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges at a local hospital and for abortion facilities to meet minimal medical standards.||Today||Pro-life marches calling for an end to legalized abortion are held in all 50 states and in countries throughout the world.|
EACH YEAR, Knights turn out in large numbers at the March for Life, joined by their families, councils, parishes and universities. In addition:
• Knights of Columbus were among the founding organizers of the first march in 1974.
• Since 1974, Virginia Knights have served as marshals at the march, collecting donations and offering first aid.
• Every year, Knights from Washington, D.C., and their families assemble and distribute 10,000 K of C “Defend Life” and/or “Choose Life” placards.
• Members of The Catholic University of America Council 9542 and other K of C ushers assist at the National Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
• For decades, the Order has offered signs and pro-life information resources at the March for Life Conference, as well as at Canada’s National March for Life.
• Georgetown University Council 6375 co-sponsors and organizes the annual Cardinal O’Connor Conference for Life, the largest student-run pro-life conference in the United States.
• Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson began participating in the March for Life in the 1970s and has addressed the rally several times.
• Deputy Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly has served as chairman of the March for Life Board since 2012.
59 million — the approximate number of abortions that have been performed in the United States since 1973. (National Right to Life Committee estimate based on the Guttmacher Institute calculation through 2014, extrapolation for recent years and a correction for underreporting.)
Less than 2 percent — the percentage of abortions performed for commonly cited “exceptions” of incest, rape and risk to the mother’s life or health. (The Johnston Archive reports that conception in rape leads to 0.3 percent of abortions, incest 0.03 percent, and danger to the mother’s life 0.1 percent. An additional 0.8 percent occurs because the mother’s health is at risk. The term “health” here does not refer to the legal description of health in Supreme Court rulings, where the word refers to substantially elective abortions.)
7 in 10 — the lower estimate of how many children with Down syndrome, or trisomy 21, are aborted as a result of prenatal screening. (Estimates for the United States range from 67 percent to 92 percent based on various factors, including the mother’s age, race and ethnicity.)
More than 50 to 1 — the number of abortions for every infant adoption in the United States. (National Council for Adoption and Guttmacher Institute)
2 for every 5 — the number of abortions compared to live births in the African-American community. In New York City, that number surpasses 50 percent. (Centers for Disease Control, Guttmacher Institute, and New York City Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene)
This data was compiled by the Charlotte Lozier Institute Department of Data Analytics.
FOR THE PAST DECADE, the Marist Institute for Public Opinion has surveyed Americans’ opinions on abortion in Knights of Columbus-sponsored polling.
As in previous years, the most recent poll, conducted in December 2017, found that the overwhelming majority of Americans support substantial restrictions on abortion. Seventy-six percent would limit abortion to — at most — the first three months of pregnancy, which is a far more restrictive standard than currently exists in the United States. That number has consistently remained more than 3 out of 4 since the polling began. And half would limit it only to — at most — cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
In addition, 60 percent of Americans oppose using tax dollars to pay for abortion, while fewer than 4 in 10 (36 percent) support it. And by a margin of 30 percentage points (63 percent to 33 percent), Americans support a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Mary Forr, 28, is the director of the Department of Life Issues for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. A native of Altoona, Pa., and a former basketball player for the University of Notre Dame, she coordinates programs and education efforts related to pregnancy support, chastity, and death and dying. She also helps organize the Youth Rally and Mass for Life, which precedes the March for Life each year. Columbia recently spoke with her about the march and what led her to this work. This is what she had to say.
My parents are heavily involved in the pro-life movement, and I’ve been going to the March for Life for as long as I can remember. Every year, I’m blown away by the magnitude of the march. When you get to the top of the hill and can look back and see people as far as you can see, it’s just a really awe-inspiring moment.
I remember in college walking up Capitol Hill alongside a young man with Down syndrome. He was freezing cold, but he was smiling and talking about how wonderful it was to be there. Walking next to this young man made it the most powerful march that I’ve been on.
My older sister, Marita, has special needs, and she is a huge source of inspiration for me to fight for the dignity of all life, especially kids who are targeted because of their disabilities. My sister is in Special Olympics, and every summer, my brother and I volunteer at the Pennsylvania State Games.
My dad would always say that sports teach us about life. They teach us that hard work pays off and that there will be wins as well as losses. This is also the case for our work in the pro-life movement, but unlike in sports, the outcome here matters in the long run. This is a battle we must continue to fight because it’s not just a scoreboard that’s at stake here — it’s a human life.
I think that for those who get angry about the right to life — usually there is some kind of hurt. We need to work to help heal those wounds, because they are real. That’s why the work of Project Rachel that our office does is so important.
The annual Youth Rally and Mass for Life was started 27 years ago as an effort to mobilize the young people of the archdiocese. It quickly grew in size, and now we welcome almost 20,000 teens from across the country to Capital One Arena. The rally begins at 6:45 a.m., but these teens could not be more awake. The Mass, which is celebrated by cardinals, bishops and hundreds of priests, is an incredible experience for them.
It’s important to know that you’re not alone. A lot of young people today see a society that tells them that women have the right to choose, that their strong Catholic values are not important. Here, they’re united with 20,000 other teenagers who are all there standing for the same thing that they are.
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