WASHINGTON -- The crowd was packed close together on the National Mall, as parents pushing young children in strollers stood cheek by jowl with activists carrying placards and students toting homemade signs. Moving at a sluggish pace, the March for Life was reminiscent of the pro-life movement behind it: making progress slowly, in baby steps -- and then suddenly stopping.
The latest obstacle in front of pro-life progress is the man sworn in as president just two days before at the same location. Unlike the March for Life participants, Barack Obama commemorated the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade by issuing a statement saying that the decision legalizing abortion "not only protects women's health and reproductive freedom, but stands for a broader principle: that government should not intrude on our most private family matters."
In case the meaning was lost, Obama continued, "I remain committed to protecting a woman's right to choose." Of that, there was hardly any doubt. In the last years in which he was scored while a U.S. senator, Obama earned 100 percent ratings from NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, and the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. He got a big, fat zero from the National Right to Life Committee.
Obama was a co-sponsor of the Freedom of Choice Act, which threatens the incremental progress the pro-life movement has made since 1992's Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision. In Washington and Springfield, Illinois, he has voted against banning partial-birth abortion, against laws designed to protect infants who survive attempted abortions, and against restrictions on taxpayer funding of elective abortion.
Yet among the pro-life marchers, there was very little overt hostility toward the new president. One young man carried a sign depicting Obama with a Hitler moustache and blaring, "Stop the Abortion Holocaust: Impeach Adolf Obama." But the imploring tone of one frequently spotted placard was more representative: "Please Mr. President! Protect the unborn." Former President George W. Bush was seldom so politely addressed at the larger antiwar marches.
Of course, the March for Life is different from most other political protests. Families with small children are everywhere. Yesterday's program of speakers was periodically interrupted by calls from the main stage to pick up children who were separated from their parents. One little boy was even allowed to call out for his mother from the podium. There are also large processions of young people from Catholic high schools and parishes across the country.
The politicians who spoke were mostly conservative Republicans, like Sen. Sam Brownback and Reps. Chris Smith, Scott Garrett, Jeff Fortenberry, Bob Latta, Jim Jordan, Michelle Bachmann, and Jean Schmidt. But a common approach was to take lines from President Obama's inaugural address and use them to call for expanding the circle of legal protection to unborn children.
Perhaps the most creative -- and combative -- paraphrase of Obama's speech was offered by former Congressman "B-1" Bob Dornan. "We will not apologize for our way of life -- I add our love of life -- nor will we waver in its defense," he said, his gravel-filled voice starting to rise. "And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror -- the terror of abortion -- and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us and we will defeat you."
It then became unclear whether Dornan was still paraphrasing Obama or addressing him. "I add we will defeat you," he thundered, "and defeat the culture of death or we will perish as a nation." But there was no confusion about whom March for Life Fund President Nellie Gray was addressing.
"Mr. President, you are a great orator, and we appreciate the great words ... but you must also be a great doer of the deeds to overturn the illicit Roe v. Wade and fulfill your responsibility to make right and proper changes as president of the United States and president of all the people," she said.
Rev. Luke Robinson of Frederick, Maryland's Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church expressed his pride in the inauguration of the first black president of the United States. With the mostly white crowd clapping and saying amen, Robinson said he would be even more proud if Obama would reverse his position on abortion, arguing that Abraham Lincoln did not understand the full import of slavery when he took office. Robinson then issued a direct challenge to the president to stop the "black genocide": "Every day people of your ethnic background and of my ethnic background die in staggering numbers."
Obama hasn't shown any sign of budging on abortion, but he did tell pro-lifers in his Roe statement that "we are united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies, reduce the need for abortion, and support women and families in the choices they make." He also declined to immediately issue an executive order lifting the Mexico City policy prohibiting taxpayer funding of international groups that perform or promote abortions. David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network wrote that the move "shows a sensitivity to the culture war over abortion. He may indeed reverse [Mexico City] soon, but you really get the sense that the Obama Administration wants to at least set a new tone and move the discussion toward the need to reduce abortion."
Such optimism is shared by the Doug Kmiecs and Bob Caseys who believe it is possible to find common ground with Obama on abortion, as well as the pro-lifers who are still praying for the president's conversion on the issue. But judging from scene at the Mall yesterday, most pro-life activists are still more interested in speaking truth to power than hearing a few encouraging words.
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