Massive abortion rallies mark anniversary of Roe v. Wade

Forty-one years after landmark Supreme Court decision, politics of abortion still contentious and relevant

Thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators rally during the 41st annual March for Life on the National Mall in Washington on Thursday.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Despite temperatures that dipped into the teens and snow blanketing the ground, thousands of abortion activists converged on the National Mall Wednesday and marched to the Supreme Court to mark the 41st anniversary of the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which affirmed women’s right to the procedure.

The March for Life, an annual gathering of abortion protesters that dates back to 1974, continued as planned, with speakers including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Reps. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., and Chris Smith, R-N.J., urging anti-abortion activists to keep up the fight to abolish what they deemed a barbaric and immoral practice.

“This is not a political truth subject to the whims of man, but a moral truth,” Cantor told the crowd. “You are our movement’s not-so-secret weapon.”

Organizers estimated that about half a million demonstrators attended the 2013 rally, but they said the final crowd count might be smaller this year because of the weather. Proponents of abortion rights were also on hand throughout the day, staging their own events as a counterargument.

Although 41 years have passed since the ruling was handed down, the politics surrounding abortion remain as contentious as ever, with public opinion equally fractured.   

2013 Gallup poll showed that 52 percent of Americans support access to legal abortions under certain circumstances, with 26 percent holding it should always be legal and 20 percent in favor of an outright ban — not far from where those figures stood in the 1970s. Meanwhile, 48 percent of Americans identify themselves as “pro-life,” the term used to describe those opposed to legal abortion rights, and 45 percent identify as “pro-choice,” used to describe those in favor of abortion rights.

The inflamed passions could be seen in the heated rhetoric of participants in Wednesday’s events. March for Life President Jeanne Monahan denounced abortion supporters’ “war on motherhood,” while elected officials lamented what they said was expanded taxpayer-funded coverage for abortion under the Affordable Care Act.

In fact, the law mandates that each state has a plan on its exchange that has no abortion coverage at all. When a woman chooses a plan that does cover abortion services, she pays into a separate account to make sure no federal dollars are used to subsidize the procedure.

Still, Smith, co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, said the Obama administration was using “stealth deception” and the “coercion of the state” to promote abortion.

Although there has been little movement on the abortion issue at the federal level, new GOP majorities in state legislatures have passed a flurry of laws in the last three years curtailing access, imposing new restrictions on abortion clinics and instituting bans on obtaining the procedure at various points during pregnancy, reinvigorating the anti-abortion movement. According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, an advocacy organization in favor of abortion rights, 24 states enacted 53 such measures in 2013 alone.

Anti-abortion demonstrators protest in front of the Supreme Court and Capitol during the 41st annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., Jan. 22, 2014.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Abortion rights are expected to once again arise as a lightning-rod issue in the 2014 midterm elections. Some in the GOP are enthusiastic about using their stance to energize the conservative base — a key strategy in congressional races, when turnout tends to be lower among women and minorities. In an effort to highlight their commitment, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is expected to take up a bill called the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act later this year.

The Republican National Committee’s three-day winter meeting also started a few hours late on Wednesday to accommodate members who wanted to attend the rally and march.

Many Democrats, meanwhile, are expected to use harsh new state-level restrictions, as well as the occasionally insensitive comments made by GOP lawmakers on the abortion issue, to portray Republicans as out of touch, particularly with the concerns of women voters.

“Everything about the GOP right now screams that they are doubling down on their strategy to make outlawing abortion and restricting reproductive rights their top priority for 2014,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice, in a statement. “While most Americans are looking for an honest conversation about how we help women and families get ahead while juggling families and work, the GOP leadership is stubbornly focused on intruding on what most people believe is private matters. If that’s the GOP 2014 strategy, bring it on.”

Tom McClusky, executive director of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, on the other hand said he hopes abortion is catapulted to a top-tier issue in 2014 and that politicians don’t shy away from a topic that is fraught. McClusky acknowledged that some politicians would do well to be trained in how to handle such matters with sensitivity.

“I’m a pro-lifer, so I’m never happy, I’m never satisfied,” he said. “I think the Republican Party and the Democratic Party ignores these issues sometimes as too controversial.”

David Orentlicher, co-director of the William S. and Christine S. Hall Center for Law and Health at Indiana University, argues that the issue remains intractable in the United States precisely because elected officials find that it serves a useful political purpose.

“Elected officials find it useful to have abortion as an issue that they can rally their voters over and you know it’s unfortunate it serves that purpose,” he said. “While it would be possible to find middle ground, there doesn’t seem to be that interest.”

Activists at the March for Life seemed invigorated being around like minds and with some legislative victories under their belt in the recent past. Many came with religious organizations and braved snowy conditions to make it.

Barbara McCune, 54, attended her first March for Life in the 1980s and took the bus from Syracuse, N.Y., with her daughter to attend this year’s rally. She said she is frustrated by the state of affairs but remains optimistic.

“God is pro-life, and nothing will stand in his way,” she said. “It’s like the abolitionist movement. One day we will prevail.”

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