On Jan. 25, hundreds of thousands of Americans will flock to Washington to mark the 40-year anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which declared a constitutional right to abortion while spurring a nationwide debate over existence and choice. The nation’s capital will host the March for Life at a critical time for the pro-life cause.
Noticeably absent will be Nellie Gray, founder of the event, who passed away in August. She spearheaded the movement by organizing the first march in 1974, which drew an estimated 20,000 pro-lifers. The event has since grown under her guidance, with coordinators predicting more than 400,000 marchers at this year’s rally. The Texas native took a hard-line stance on abortion, using the phrase “no exceptions, no compromise” to advise her colleagues against pursuing common ground. With respect for Gray’s tireless dedication to the unborn, pro-life advocates must begin to chart a new course as the tides of public approval drift away.
Marchers, and indeed pro-life people across the nation, face an uphill challenge as a result of the November elections. Not only did pro-life candidates across the United States struggle to retain positions and unseat incumbents, they also became immersed in national controversy. Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock lost their respective campaigns largely due to statements regarding rape and pregnancy that were widely perceived as thoughtless and irresponsible. The damaging comments of these two men fueled the current administration’s “war on women” charge, giving legitimacy to the idea that women’s rights are being restricted by abortion opponents.
Of course, it takes two to tango. Activism on both sides has become more rigid, more heated and more ruthless since Roe was handed down. The basic principles of the debate concerning public morality and individual freedom have become lost in the harsh tone of those defending them. Each year brings increasingly destructive rhetoric in the form of shortsighted attempts to persuade the ambivalent middle.
Workable solutions may instead be found within the hundreds of student organizations that return every year to march. The Pew Research forum last week released a report revealing that only 47 percent of people under 30 even know what the Roe decision was all about. Young people have a responsibility to keep the pro-life message alive. The next generation of pro-life activists is poised to develop approaches that serve the interests of all parties. Representing a cohort that is more tolerant and less ideological than their predecessors, young people can focus on finding ways to prevent teen pregnancy, making adoption a more accessible option and reducing conditions that lead to a high rate of abortion.
Until young people take the reins, representatives need to be responsible voices in connecting their message to the public. The pro-life platform can function more effectively with public officials who openly acknowledge that there are no easy answers. What is currently lacking in our political discourse is an ethic of respect for people with beliefs that differ from our own, which is an important aspect of the discussion. This involves the recognition that abortion is more than a rhetorical tool for political gain — the decision is a reality for women around the country.
Devoted citizens should be willing to enter the conversation with an ongoing commitment to the common good. Forty years of debate have found this to be no easy task, yet it is the cornerstone of a democratic community. If successful, the issue can be reframed to address both the limits of our circumstances and possibilities for change. That’s something we can all march for.
Ryan Navarro, 25, works in student affairs at Juniata College.