WASHINGTON — Thousands of anti-abortion activists convened on the National Mall on Friday for the March for Life, the rally held every January since 1974 to protest Roe v. Wade.
This year, for the first time, they were there to celebrate its demise. And with Roe defeated, the movement’s veteran leaders stressed it was an opportunity for new ideas, organizations and voices to rise and inject fresh energy into the fight.
“It’s the beginning of an entirely new pro-life movement,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told The New York Times shortly before the program began. “Our job just increased times 50.” Her organization’s priorities, she said, are passing the most ambitious anti-abortion state legislation possible and working to elect a “fight-ready” anti-abortion candidate in the 2024 presidential election.
Activists across the country have said they were looking forward to the first major gathering since the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion last summer, the culmination of five decades of activism. Historically, the march has served as an occasion for strategizing, socializing and making new connections with other activists.
Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House majority leader, encouraged attendees to call their senators to support the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, passed by the Republican-led House last week. The bill could subject doctors who perform abortions to criminal penalties, requiring that a baby born alive during an attempted abortion be resuscitated.
“When you’re in a battle, it’s important to keep your focus on what the mission is, but every step of the way it’s also critical that we celebrate victories,” Mr. Scalise said, praising young activists in particular for their commitment. “The next phase now begins.”
Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House majority leader, addressed the crowd on Friday.Credit…Shuran Huang for The New York Times
Chris Smith, a Republican representative from New Jersey and co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, thanked Justice Samuel Alito from the stage, to cheers from the crowd. “We have an engraved invitation to protect life,” he said.
Prominent anti-abortion figures mingled with the crowd near the stage, including Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, an activist recently removed from the priesthood by the Vatican after being found guilty of disobedience and “blasphemous communications on social media.”
The actor Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus in the popular Christian drama “The Chosen,” received one of the loudest welcomes from the crowd. He gave a wide-ranging and explicitly religious talk addressed specifically to “Gen Z and Gen Alpha,” in which he exhorted them to pray the Rosary, use their resources to defend their values and resist “attacks on the family structure and the sacredness of life.”
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What some activists anticipated last summer would be their party of the century arrives at a complicated moment for the movement. After notable losses in the midterms, Republican lawmakers are struggling with what it means to be “pro-life” in a post-Roe political landscape. Other culture-war issues, including debates about gender, are taking up oxygen on the right. And former President Donald J. Trump, who became the first sitting president to address the march in person in 2020, now seems to be distancing himself from the movement, recently blaming “the abortion issue” for Republicans’ losses in the midterms and lashing out at evangelical leaders for being insufficiently loyal to him.
Presidential politics remained largely offstage on Friday. Franklin Graham, a high-profile evangelical supporter of Mr. Trump during his presidency, expressed gratitude for both Mr. Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence in his closing prayer.
Many activists say they see a reset as a positive.
“Dobbs has provided an incredible opportunity for innovation in the pro-life movement, particularly at the state level,” said Brent Leatherwood about the Supreme Court case that overturned Roe. Mr. Leatherwood was elected last fall as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Historically, the march has served as an occasion for strategizing, socializing and making new connections with other activists.Credit…Shuran Huang for The New York Times
Mr. Leatherwood was among the attendees at a private convening this week of Stand for Life, an organization that started a few weeks ago as an alliance of more than 100 existing groups with the goal of building unity. One of its first projects is a curriculum on abortion and other “life issues” to be distributed by churches. The group was founded by Lauren McAfee, a granddaughter of the founders of Hobby Lobby.
While the march brought out many pillars of the movement, it also attracted some newcomers.
Holli Shelton said she had an abortion when she was 18 in her home state of Arkansas. On Friday morning, she joined the March for Life for the first time, carrying a sign that said, “I regret my abortion.”
Nearly three decades after her abortion, Ms. Shelton, a therapist, traveled to Washington with her college-age daughter.
“This is a new thing for me,” Ms. Shelton said. “I think today is a start for my healing.”
Veronica De La Cruz, 29, has been attending the March for Life every year for the past decade. This year, she is chaperoning a group of middle schoolers from a Catholic group, the Institute of the Incarnate Word.
She hopes that the overturning of Roe will change the mind-set of the next generation of Catholics so that young people opt to reject abortion, regardless of the legal status of the procedure.
“We would love for laws to change, but mainly people’s perspective needs to change,” she said. “It’s about a moral law, our youth don’t have this knowledge.”
Julia Sadik marched with about 30 students from Cedarville University in Ohio, where she is the vice president of the Students for Life chapter. This was her first time at the march.
Ms. Sadik said the end of Roe had not dampened her enthusiasm for the work, including organizing volunteers at a local pregnancy resource center. “Women need help more than ever,” she said.
As the crowd wound its way to the street between the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court, the mood was jubilant. The sounds of a portable speaker blasting “Celebration” from Kool & the Gang meshed with a Catholic school group singing “Amazing Grace.” Other groups recited the Lord’s Prayer and sang, “Sha na na na, na na na na, hey, Roe, goodbye!” The “MAGA rapper” known as Forgiato Blow, wearing a sweatshirt reading “TRUMPS NEPHEW,” posed for photos along the route with teenage fans.
At other events across the city, anti-abortion activists socialized and made new connections.
Herb Geraghty, 26, the executive director of Rehumanize International, used the march as the time to help restart the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians as the Rainbow Pro-Life Alliance, partly to acknowledge the shifting language around gender and sexuality.
“If we’re not welcomed by the mainstream movement, then we’ll make our own space,” he said, adding that given the rising Gen Z presence in the anti-abortion movement, “I’m an optimist.”
Activists opposed to abortion prayed in front of the Supreme Court on Friday.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times
Rehumanize International, which opposes abortion and the death penalty, is hosting a karaoke fund-raiser as an after-party at a bar on Friday night. (There will be vegan food options, and the invitation notes that the venue has gender-neutral bathrooms.)
Abigail Bongiorno, a lawyer with the Thomas More Society, a conservative law firm that often represents anti-abortion clients, said she was thrilled at the presence of so many young people.
“The number of people I’ve already seen, the number of young women here, it’s been absolutely wonderful,” she said.
On Sunday, Ms. Bongiorno’s home state of Wisconsin will be the main host of the annual Women’s March, an event created in 2017 to protest Mr. Trump’s inauguration. This year’s Women’s March will focus on protecting abortion access. .
Rachel Carmona, executive director of the Women’s March, said the demise of Roe was “a loss wrapped in a win” for Republicans, because they have been forced to contend with newly energized voters who support abortion access.
The group Catholics for Choice had papered the march route with fliers bearing slogans supporting abortion rights. Other activists interrupted a Friday morning prayer service associated with the march, shouting, “Protect abortion access.”
Nadine Seiler stood on the street corner opposite the National Mall on Friday with a friend for their own lonely protest of the March for Life.
“I am disappointed in the pro-abortion side,” she said. She believes the mainstream abortion rights movement does not mobilize in the same way that the opposition does. She looked across the street at the growing crowd of marchers and shook her head.
“We don’t show up like this. They consistently come out in numbers, they consistently engage” supporters, she said. “It took them 49 years, but they eroded our rights and made everyone with a uterus a second-class citizen.”