POLITICS JANUARY 24, 2008
“I don’t know what I’ve been told, Roe v. Wade is getting old,” chants one group. “Pro. Choice. Is a lie. Babies. Never. Choose to die,” sings another. Others chant “Stop Planned Parenthood!” “Hey hey, ho ho, Roe v. Wade has got to go,” comes from further down the street. A platoon from the Catholic student group at Bowling Green State University in Ohio makes a catchy chant to the tune of rapper Soulja Boy’s sexually-explicit hit “Crank Dat.”
They came from the Archdiocese of Trenton, the Christ Prince of Peace Church in Ford City, Pennsylvania, and Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, toting signs reading “My Baby Sister Was Aborted,” “Abortion is Homicide,” and “Repent or Perish.” Tens of thousands of anti-abortion activists walked the streets of downtown Washington, D.C., on Tuesday for the annual March for Life, which marked the 35th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision. Beginning in 1974 with only 20,000 marchers, according to its organizers, the event has grown almost ten-fold. This year’s march filled a dozen city blocks en route to the Supreme Court, but the impressive turnout doesn’t mask the fact that this is a time of great tension between the pro-life movement and Washington. Though all the Republican candidates have tried to demonstrate their obeisance to pro-lifers--even Rudy Giuliani has promised to appoint “strict constructionist” judges--the movement has still been unable to find a candidate they can wholeheartedly support among the presidential field.
At a pre-march rally on the National Mall, a cavalcade of Republican congressmen ascends the podium. Steve Chabot of Ohio is excited to be celebrating his birthday with the marchers, though he expresses sadness that “50 million babies never had the chance to celebrate a birthday.” Recently elected Ohio congressman Jim Jordan compares the pro-life movement to the “Israelites camped against the Philistines,” and Michigan representative Tim Walberg, notorious for comparing the safety of Baghdad with that of Detroit, segues briskly from a mention of suicide bombers in Afghanistan to the abortionists at home. The most popular speaker, though, is rabbi-to-the-Christian-right Yehuda Levin, speaking for his 30th year at the gathering--a period of time over which “40 million pre-born babies have been cut, mangled, strangled, burned, discarded, and disdained,” he bellows in a thick Brooklyn accent. “From someone whose mother-in-law bears the mark of Auschwitz, it is time to stop the American Holocaust of abortion.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of supporters of Ron Paul, the only presidential candidate to speak at the event, fan across the Mall. They are decked out in aprons or colonial hats (neither reference is clear to me), and handing out brochures and flyers featuring an illustration of the congressman, an OB-GYN by training, dressed in scrubs and holding a baby wrapped in an American flag.
Though one right-wing pundit recently dubbed Barack Obama “the most pro-abortion candidate ever,” Hillary Clinton is clearly the villain of the day. “We had a president in office for eight years that blocked any progress on our issue, and now his wife wants to be elected president, too,” Congressman Chabot says to a chorus of boos. “Can you imagine the type of judges that would be appointed by Hillary?” Marchers hoist a placard that reads “I Voted 100% Abortion Homicide” next to a larger-than-life cut-out of Clinton.
With the exception of the Paul fans, and one woman wielding a Thompson sign (she obviously didn’t get the memo), though, there isn’t any visible support for any of the other presidential candidates. I expected Mike Huckabee to be a crowd favorite, based on his years as a pastor, his passage of Arkansas' Unborn Child Amendment, and his loud support for overturning Roe. Later that afternoon, at a tea for right-to-life bloggers at the Catholic Information Center a few blocks from the rally, I begin to understand his lack of support. “Huckabee is very religious, and he makes a lot of pro-lifers uncomfortable,” says Dawn Eden, a popular anti-abortion blogger and author of The Thrill of the Chaste, sipping on her tea. But aren’t pro-lifers very religious? I ask. “It’s his association with anti-Catholics like John Hagee,” she says, referring to the immensely popular televangelist who once accused Catholics of “plung[ing] the world into the Dark Ages.”
Her message is clear: Catholics, who have historically been the heart of the pro-life movement in the U.S., don’t trust evangelicals with their cause. With unmatched urgency, the Catholic Church put a significant amount of money into forming pro-life groups after Roe. The Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, approved soon after Roe by the full body of Catholic bishops, called on each diocese to establish a pro-life office. The Church’s National Right to Life Committee is the largest antiabortion organization in the country. As Roy White, then executive director of the committee, asserted in 1975, "The only reason we have a pro-life movement in this country is because of the Catholic people and the Catholic Church." Jill Staneck, a Chicago nurse and prominent pro-life blogger, tells me at the tea, “Some evangelicals have been trying, but Catholics have 2000 years of consistency on this issue, and since Catholics make up one-quarter of the population, they are not going to trust this issue to just anyone.”
The attendees at the tea discuss how to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. With Thompson out of the running, Romney a flip-flopper, and Giuliani a heretic (“Choosing between Hillary and Giuliani would be like choosing between Stalin and Hitler,” Michael Hichborn, a spokesman for the American Life League, tells me at the tea), Ron Paul is looking more and more interesting. “He was so good on ‘The View,’” Eden says. “Whoopi kept saying, Don’t you think women blah, blah, blah, and he kept going back to the right to life.”
Another blogger at Eden’s table disagrees, saying that she was “unconvinced” by his appearance. The discussion turns into a complex justification of how Ron Paul can be in favor of the concept of “personhood” for unborn fetuses but still be against a Human Life amendment--essentially, any constitutional amendment that would overturn Roe. “You have to understand everything he does in the context of being a libertarian!” Eden offers, but most of the crowd remains unconvinced. “To me, the amendment is one of the most important things,” says Judie Brown, blogger and head of the American Life League, as she finishes her tea. “I’d never vote for Ron Paul.”
And so, despite the waves of eager Paul supporters, the loudest applause at the march, comparable in volume only to mentions of Justices Roberts and Alito, was reserved for John McCain, who didn’t appear in person but was represented in a letter read by Kansas Senator Sam Brownback: “I pledge to you that I will be a loyal and unswerving friend of the right-to-life movement,” McCain wrote.
Later in the day, I watch as a group of teenagers marching down Constitution Avenue stumble upon a rolled-up banner on the ground, and excitedly unfurl it. “Paul for President,” one of the boys reads. “Get real,” he says as he tosses the banner back on the floor.
Zvika Krieger is an online deputy editor at The New Republic.