This Will Be a Weird Year for the March for Life

A mix of anti-abortion advocates and pro-choice advocates rally outside of the Supreme Court during the March for Life.
A mix of anti-abortion advocates and pro-choice advocates rally outside of the Supreme Court during the March for Life on Jan. 27, 2017, in Washington.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The 46th annual March for Life will take place Friday at the National Mall, where organizers say they expect 100,000 people to gather on behalf of the rights of the “pre-born.” Organizers say the rally will take place even if the government shutdown continues, which it seems likely to do.

The March for Life has been the largest event on the pro-life calendar for decades now. This year, it is taking place in the wake of two political developments that seemed to pull the movement’s fortunes in opposite directions. In October, conservative Judge Brett Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court, an appointment that pro-life organizations hailed as a “resounding victory” after rallying to his defense during his contentious confirmation hearings. Exactly one month later, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, sparking fears in anti-choice circles of rollbacks on policies like the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal Medicaid funds from being used for most abortions.

All this will make for a mixed mood at the mall on Friday. “Like every other pro-lifer, I’m upset with a Republican Party that promises to defund Planned Parenthood every year, then takes control of the House, the Senate, and the presidency, yet fails to do so,” said conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who will serve as the event’s headline speaker. Shapiro will record a live pro-life–themed edition of his podcast from the march in the morning and then deliver a brief keynote address from the main stage. Another speaker will be Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who experienced a dramatic conversion in 2009 and has since become a celebrity within the movement. A movie based on her story, Unplanned, will be in theaters in March.

As a hugely influential conservative voice on issues far beyond abortion, Shapiro is a major prize for the event, which has rarely attracted speakers who are relative celebrities outside the activist community. That makes the March for Life’s steady popularity all the more notable. Though attendance has fluctuated over the years, the event has expanded dramatically since a Labor Department lawyer turned activist, Nellie Gray, organized a protest outside the Capitol on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. (Reporting at the time suggested that the 1974 rally attracted about 6,000 attendees, though the organization now claims 20,000 were there.) At its peak in 2013, shortly after Obama’s second inauguration, organizers estimated that 650,000 activists participated. Even if that’s a Trumpian overestimate, a crowd of half that size would be remarkable for an annual event focused on a seemingly intractable, if hot-button, policy issue.

Critics of Shapiro’s appearance have argued that his presence turns the event into a Republican cheerleading session, instead of an event focused on a broad-based human rights agenda. But the march, like the pro-life movement itself, has long been dominated by political conservatives. Countless Republican elected officials have appeared at the event over the years, including Vice President Mike Pence, who in 2017 became the highest-ranking government official to appear live at the march itself. This year, he will speak at a related fundraising dinner on Friday night. (President Trump addressed attendees by satellite from the Rose Garden last year but has announced no plans to address the crowd this year.) Notably, this year’s speaker list also includes Dan Lipinski, one of the few pro-life Democrats remaining in Congress, who skipped last year’s march in the midst of a tough primary challenge based largely on his abortion views.

Outside the march itself, several religious organizations will host their own events to attract some of the thousands of anti-abortion visitors to the Capitol this weekend. The Southern Baptist Convention hosts a conference called Evangelicals for Life, conceived in part to encourage evangelical interest in the Catholic-dominated march—and to broaden the definition of “pro-life issues.” This year’s event includes sessions on immigration, criminal justice reform, racism, mental illness, gun violence, and disability issues. “It’s a place for people to land who say, ‘I care about the unborn and about justice; is there a place for me?’ ” said Dan Darling, vice president for communications for the denomination’s public-policy arm.

“On a cultural level, this is a moment for optimism,” Shapiro said, referring in part to steady decreases in abortion rates. “On a legal level, it’s a moment for wariness.” For now, conservatives still have a president in the White House who has shown an uncharacteristically steady commitment to limiting abortion rights. But progressives are increasingly matching—or even exceeding—their fervent commitment to reproductive issues. With both sides of the debate energized by the reshuffled political landscape, 2019 is poised to be a landmark year for abortion-related legislation. By next January, the mood at the March for Life could be very different—but in which direction is anyone’s guess.