Annual march for life has shaped a generation

The March for Life turns 40 this year, but most participants agree: It’s a young person’s game. From overnight bus trips and sleeping on the floors of church halls, to the many rallies and educational talks aimed at teens and college students, the march holds a special charm for the young.

And that’s a good thing, because those young people have just reached voting age — or are about to — and they’ll be voting for the next 40 or 50 years. If coming to the March for Life when they are young opens their eyes to the pro-life movement, they are more likely to spend their adult years advocating against abortion.

“The real joy of working with the college students is that if you are able to form them well, when they go out into the world and they work in the business or medical field, or they have families, they are going to bring those pro-life values into the world with them,” said Sister Alicia Torres, a member of the Franciscans of the Eucharist, when she worked for the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Respect Life Office and organized bus trips to the March for Life in 2009. “They might not be fulltime pro-life activists, but what we need is for people who believe in pro-life values to penetrate every aspect of culture.”

Intergenerational event

The march has been held on or around Jan. 22 every year since 1974, the first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions, which ruled all state laws banning abortion unconstitutional in one fell swoop. Marchers advocate the overturning of those decisions in the long run, and support interim measures putting more restrictions on abortion.

Eileen Vogel helped organize the first march — she was one of a handful of people who planned it around Nellie Gray’s dining room table — and now it has become an intergenerational affair. She took her children, and now they attend with their children.

Vogel said that when the march started, there were some people who didn’t want to do it because they thought they shouldn’t risk the negative publicity if the march was a flop. To make sure it wasn’t, Vogel said, the march concentrated its efforts on drawing groups from states that were within a day’s bus ride of Washington, D.C.

It turned out, those bus trips were pretty popular with young people.

A 2010 report in The Washington Post estimated that half the marchers that year were under 30 years old. Last year’s march, on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, drew a record-breaking crowd that skewed even younger.Different perspective

That’s because young people know that much of their generation is missing. Twenty-two percent of pregnancies in the United States end in abortion, not counting those that end in miscarriage, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

That gives young people a special perspective, said Rueben Verastigui, 19, of the San Antonio Coalition for Life, who addressed the rally on the Washington Mall at the 2013 March for Life.

“We will not be silenced,” he said. “I believe we are the chosen generation” that will abolish abortion and change history.

While the first march circled the U.S. Capitol, subsequent marches start with a rally on the National Mall, followed by a walk up Constitution Avenue to the steps the Supreme Court. Speakers include prominent leaders of the pro-life movement, including pro-life politicians. The original plan was for the marchers to make visits to their senators and representatives to lobby them on the issue, Vogel said. Some of the students who come on bus trips meet with their congressional representatives, but there are too many for all of them to do so.

While the march itself treats abortion as a human rights issue rather than a religious issue, there are Catholic youth rallies and Masses. The National Prayer Vigil for Life is held the night before the march at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Lives changed

Rebecca Kiessling went to the March for Life for the first time as a young adult in her 20s and was one of the oldest people on the bus her parish sent. A pro-life and pro-adoption speaker, she has attended the march since then, but not as part of a bus pilgrimage.

“I think it’s a much easier trip for teenagers to do,” said Kiessling, also a family attorney who homeschools her five children.

But being among all those teenagers gave hope, Kiessling said. “I had been speaking since 1995, and wherever I went, talking to pro-life groups, I was always the youngest person there,” she said. “I was kind of convinced that the movement was older, and there were no young people.”

Going to the march, a gathering of hundreds of thousands of pro-life people, many of whom are high school and college students, offered a new experience, Kiessling said.

It’s also a wonderful experience for teens who might see themselves as being sort of pro-life, but who aren’t really committed yet, because they feel like the only ones.

“Maybe they’re thinking, I get some days out of school, it’s a trip, maybe it will be fun,” Kiessling said. “Then they get there, and it’s this big crowd of pro-life people.”

Kiessling said she has heard some criticism of the March for Life because it is too much fun.

“There are people who say it’s too much like a rah-rah pep rally, that it should be more of a somber memorial for all the babies who died,” Kiessling said. “I think it does make a difference because it gets young people involved. … There are so many opportunities for reflection, so many opportunities to hear speakers, the youth rally. The visual works because there are hundreds of thousands of young people in the streets.”

With all the activities for young people, it’s no wonder they make an effort to be there.

“A lot of high schools and universities send groups. Students for Life groups have made it a priority to get young people there,” Kiessling said. “Those young people will stay pro-life.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.