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WASHINGTON — For decades, the annual March for Life here was a one-day blur of drowsy bus rides, jam-packed youth masses, and protest walk from the Washington Monument to the Supreme Court. But the protest this year has evolved into a four-day extravaganza of professional conferences, board meetings, and large commercial exhibits.
"This is the Super Bowl of the pro-life movement," said activist Larry Cirignano, standing in a sea of pro-life vendors at the 2015 March for Life Conference and Expo at a hotel downtown. "This is where you network and build organizations."
March for Life, the organization that runs the march, is not shy about advertising its growing status. In a 43-page program that an affiliate group handed out Wednesday, the March for Life noted it "has grown and expanded its staff to four full-time staff and one part-time employee."
With a newly professionalized staff, March for Life plans to step up its educational and lobbying efforts year round. In a letter to marchers, President Jeanne Monahan-Mancini noted that the organization will launch March for Life Action, a 501(c)4 organization, later this year. The new group will lobby Congress to approve more anti-abortion laws.
Even with extra staff members, March for Life has fewer employees than pro-life groups such as National Right to Life or Americans United for Life. But Cirignano said the professionalization of the pro-life cause will help it compete against competitors. "Every man, woman, and child gives $1 to Planned Parenthood [every year through tax dollars]. And we’re figuring out how to get money in baby bottles?" Cirignano said, striking a note of incredulity. "This is night and day."
Smaller family-run and religious-order vendors were not wanting at the exhibition. Behind Cirignano was a vendor for the Little Audrey Santo Foundation, an organization known to those on the pro-life circuit and Massachusetts, where Santo’s family lived but to few outside it. Next door were three nuns in full habits vending a table for the St. Benedict Center, a traditional monastic religious order.
Yet movement heavyweights such as the Knights of Columbus, the EWTN television network, and the Heritage Foundation had tables, too. Fifty-one vendors were listed in the March for Life’s program, although this reporter counted 46. Still, the number is an increase from the 10 to 12 vendors in previous years, a pro-life activist said, speaking on condition of anonymity, to discuss the matter freely.
For pro-life leaders, the switch to a larger venue this year gives them the opportunity to get their message out and build their brands. In years past, they attended an evening dinner at the Hyatt on Capitol Hill, a well-worn destination for politicos. On Wednesday, the movement’s lieutenants attended a larger dinner at the Renaissance Washington, a larger and more chic hotel that accommodates movement activists and speakers.
The conference and exhibit was the biggest of the non-march events, but not the only one. Democrats for Life of America, a group that seeks to turn around its ailing fortunes of electing anti-abortion Democrats, holds a board meeting Friday. The Cardinal O’Connor Conference, an all-day legal conference, scheduled its annual confab on the campus of Georgetown University for Saturday.
Those conferences come as the pro-life movement expands beyond Washington, D.C. Over the weekend, anti-abortion rallies were held in Chicago and Portland, Oregon. A bigger rally, the West Coast Walk for Life, is scheduled for this weekend in San Francisco.
For one activist, the movement became more professionalized after the death of
March for Life founder Nellie Gray in 2012. "She wanted it to be voluntary," the activist said.
For pro-life speakers at the conference Wednesday, the professionalism of the movement is no accident. At a conference on media Wednesday afternoon, several speakers noted a 2009 Gallup poll that showed a slight majority (51 percent) of Americans identified as pro-life. (In fact, the 2012 Gallup poll was the first to show that at least 50 percent of Americans identified as pro-life).
"We’re at a tipping point. Now it’s a momentum game. We understand what it takes to win," Patrick Castle, the 43-year-old president and co-founder of Runners for Life, told audience members Wednesday afternoon. "We’re winning this fight," gushed Patrick Breen, a lawyer for the Thomas More Society who won a landmark 2003 Supreme Court case, NOW vs. Scheidler.
For pro-choice leaders, the reality is different. NARAL notes that seven in ten Americans support reproductive freedom.
In reality, American attitudes to abortion depend on circumstance and gestation; large majorities oppose abortion for economic reasons and after the first 10 to 12 weeks of pregnancy.
At the afternoon conference, several speakers bowed to this reality. Activist Bryan Kemper of Stand True urged participants to use social media to get out the pro-life meessage. "People say, ‘I don’t have time to do Twitter or Facebook.’ I say, ‘You don’t have time not to. That’s how we’re reaching this generation," Kemper said.
Lindsey Bachmann, an attorney with the Vitae Foundation, said pro-life protesters should stop showing placards of dismembered and bloody fetuses. "We used to hold signs of dead babies outside clinics. The woman will not walk to the abortion clinic. She will run. It’s absolutely ineffective," she said.
Adopting an incrementalist approach to pro-life legislation draws opposition from some pro-life activists. Rebecca Kiessling, founder of Save the One, a group that opposes abortion in cases of rape and incest, criticized congressional legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks because the bill contains a rape-and-incest exemption.
Yet movement leaders debate the wisdom of fetal personhood measures, which voters in Colorado and North Dakota defeated last November. Maria McFadden Maffucci, editor of the Human Life Review, the movement’s intellectual organ, said the publication will hold a pro-and-con on personhood ballot measures in an issue this year.
Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkStricherz.