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Keeping the Flame of Hope Alive

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After march, pro-life community reflects and strategizes for the work to come

Though the March for Life on Friday was certainly the climax of the pro-life events in Washington D.C. this past week, many important events continued on into the weekend. Numerous and varied, these events – the highlight of the year for many pro-lifers throughout the United States – included the Silent No More Awareness Campaign (testimonies of abortion experiences and post-abortive healing at the steps of the Supreme Court), the Advocates for Life Reception, the 1st Annual Nellie Gray 5K, and the 2013 Students for Life of America National Conference, plus three others which I was able to attend: the Rose Dinner, the Cardinal O’Connor Life Conference, and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Life Conference.

Upon reaching the Supreme Court, the approximately 500,000 participants in this year’s march dispersed. The snow and below-freezing temperatures drove everyone indoors, and local restaurants were packed. After managing to catch an early dinner, I stuck around for the annual Rose Dinner. Held in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency hotel just a few blocks from the Supreme Court, this highly attended formal gathering officially caps off the March for Life. The evening’s events were complemented by a re-screening of the emotional tribute to the late founder of the March for Life, Nellie Gray, which was first shown at the March for Life rally. Following this presentation, keynote speaker Peggy Hartshorn of Heartbeat International took the stage.

Hartshorn was passionate and articulate, telling the history of the pro-life movement since Roe v. Wade, with its successes and failures. According to her testimony, pro-lifers thought their cause was winning in the late 1960s and early 1970s leading up to Roe, only to be shocked when the pro-abortion ruling came down. She told a story of meeting a post-abortive woman in 1976 who was distraught with pain and guilt, and that she realized the pro-life movement would need to help women hurt by abortion.

She lauded the fact there are only 600 abortion clinics today (down from a high of 2000), and that the pro-life cause has united Catholics and evangelicals. But she also observed the state of morality in our country today is so bad it would have seemed like science fiction to someone in the early 1970s, and that this fact makes it much harder for the pro-life movement today. Hartshorn added that the root problem of the Culture of Death is selfishness, thereby charging the pro-life movement with the task of promoting selflessness.

She closed by noting the early marches were somber, and how upset she was when the youth first started coming, bringing an upbeat demeanor to the march. As far as she was concerned, “they didn’t get it.” Now, she said, she realizes that she and the older pro-lifers were the ones that “didn’t get it”, and she’s glad that the march now has such a positive and joyful tone.

The second keynote speaker of the Rose Dinner was Representative Chris Smith from New Jersey. He said he attended the first March for Life as a college student and will miss the late Nellie Gray. Praising the defeat of the law to legalize doctor-assisted suicide in Massachusetts as a great pro-life victory, the Congressman criticized President Obama and the United Nations for their use of terms such “reproductive rights”, which Smith regards as duplicitous rhetoric. He also brought attention to the massive human rights abuse in China with their one-child policy and forced abortion, to which he said the Obama administration has turned a blind eye. He praised workers at pro-life crisis pregnancy centers as “angels of love and mercy”, and called pro-lifers to have faith and to pray against the Culture of Death and for the emergence of a Culture of Life.

Methodist pastor Luke Robertson gave some remarks before offering the closing prayer, pointing out that Moses died just before leading the Hebrews into the Promised Land after forty years in the desert, and that, just as Joshua led the Hebrews into the Promised Land, Jeanne Monahan would lead the pro-life movement to the abolition of abortion. He reminded us that, as was the case with Moses and Joshua, it is ultimately neither Gray nor Monahan but God who is in charge of the pro-life movement.

The next day, I made it to the campus of Georgetown University for the annual Cardinal O’Connor Life Conference, the largest student-organized pro-life conference in the country. The conference was attended by hundreds of young people. I arrived just after the conclusion of the keynote address of Dr. Helen Alvaré, Associate Professor of Law at George Mason University. Alvaré is also a pro-life advocate and a major outspoken opponent of the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate. The late morning and afternoon following her keynote speech consisted of three breakout sessions, in which participants chose to attend one of several presentations.

For my first breakout session I chose to attend a presentation by Thomas Peters of CatholicVote.org entitled “Online Pro-life Activism”. Peters encouraged pro-lifers to “raise the volume” and make their pro-life views known on social media. He advised them “not to feed trolls” – that is, to not to engage those looking only to start a fight on your page instead of engaging in purposeful discussion – and to be sure to avoid a tribal mentality in which we express our pro-life views only to other pro-lifers.

I then attended a presentation by Sally Winn, Vice President of Feminists for Life, entitled “Refuse to Choose: Reclaiming Feminism”. At times funny, hopeful, and shocking, Winn began by telling the history of the feminist movement in the 19th century. She explained that all of the major early feminists were adamantly against abortion, believing it to be a monstrous, anti-woman crime that served as a clear sign of society’s failure to help women. According to Winn, it was men concerned with overpopulation that fought to repeal those very same laws in the 1960s and 1970s. She told of how Betty Friedan, Founder and President of the National Organization for Women (NOW), initially rebuffed the attempts of NARAL’s co-founders (Larry Ladder and Dr. Bernard Nathanson) to get her to join their cause of legalizing abortion, but was eventually convinced to support them largely based off of what Dr. Nathanson later admitted were falsified statistics regarding the number of women dying from illegal abortions. Winn closed by saying that while the first wave of feminism had fought for society to change to accept women, the second wave encouraged women to change so that they might be accepted by society. Said Winn: “It’s time for society to accept women as women.”

From there, I went to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Life Conference at a hotel near the Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia. I caught the end of their split mid-day sessions (one for adults, the other for youth), which occurred simultaneously. I watched a presentation for the youth by Lutheran pastor Jonathan Fisk on the topic of using new media to advance the pro-life cause. Engaging and funny, he responded to a frequently used argument (that abortion is permissible because human embryos and fetuses small) by demonstrating to the group that size is relative by using pictures to show how large the universe is.

At one point, Fisk notably remarked that we live in a contraceptive culture. I caught him after his presentation to discuss the matter, saying that I had heard that some Lutherans have started to consider returning to the historic, pan-denominational opposition to contraception that existed until the mid-20th century. He said that he agreed contraception was wrong, was linked to abortion and homosexuality, and that while they were a minority, there was a growing number of Lutherans in his denomination who were taking another look at contraception. He said there was a Lutheran seminary professor at the conference who also shared his views, and said that Lutherans and other Protestants alike would be greatly helped and strengthened in their opposition to contraception if “Rome were louder” in her opposition.

Next came a panel discussion, in which panelists compared Roe to the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, encouraged the crowd to not forget about the importance of local politics for the pro-life cause, and said that culture is prior to and more powerful than politics. A particularly salient moment was when a person from the crowd asked how many present had come to the March for Life for the first time – almost every hand in the room of a few hundred went up.

I had the privilege of being introduced to the professor whom Pastor Fisk had mentioned earlier, and with whom I had a great conversation. He confirmed what Pastor Fisk had said: contraception is immoral and is connected to abortion and homosexuality, adding also that Protestants as a whole need to return to their historic opposition to contraception.

Just before I left, I spoke to Maggie Karner, who planned the conference. She explained this was their first one, and that they are trying to get more Lutherans involved in the March for Life and the pro-life cause in general, as well as host the conference again next year. I wondered aloud to her, given the number of Catholics already involved, if more Protestants were to participate in the March for Life, whether the march could easily have a million people every year. She wholeheartedly agreed.

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