When the March for Life first stepped off in 1973 in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's legalization of abortion, Dr. Jack Kevorkian had not begun to advertise "death counseling," capital punishment had been suspended and the Affordable Care Act was decades from being signed.
Over the course of 40 years, laws have changed and society's perceptions have shifted beyond a simple division between pro-life and pro-choice. Issues such as the death penalty, assisted suicide, "do not resuscitate" medical orders and euthanasia frequently enter the right-to-life debate these days.
"Our belief in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death means caring for every vulnerable member of our society, including but not limited to the lives of all the people the inmate on death row, the person with severe disabilities," said Jamila Evans, associate campus minister for women and pro-life ministry at the Catholic University of America. "The March for Life is a moment that we come together as a community of faith and remember that every human life is precious and deserves nothing less than our protection and reverence."
The 41st annual march Wednesday will feature lawyer Susan Wills, assistant director for education and outreach for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, discussing the Affordable Care Act and its mandate requiring large employers to insure birth control as part of their health care plans, including "morning after" pills that some religious organizations equate to abortion.
"Certain groups are being forced to carry these life-destructive drugs and devices in the name of health, and with no recourse," said Jeanne Monahan, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund. "So that is a huge problem. That one development is very pressing in our news today."
The contraceptive mandate isn't the only issue spurring a new generation of pro-life advocates: Several thousand inmates await execution while complete strangers lobby for their exoneration. Severely disabled and ill individuals plead with their loved ones and physicians for the right to die humanely, while most recently the family of a 13-year-old California girl declared brain-dead by doctors won the right to move her to another location to keep her on life support.
The idea of a broader interpretation of "pro-life" isn't surprising, educators said, given the bioethical issues emerging across the country and how Americans take advantage of the rights for free speech and assembly.
"You could see a common theme in all of these," said Alan Howard, an assistant professor at St. Louis University School of Law with a focus on the First Amendment. "I'm sure among devout Catholics there's a substantial overlap for those who don't like 'Roe' and those who don't like capital punishment."
March organizers might have allowed those issues to be linked to the cause for several reasons, Mr. Howard said, including a desire to stay relevant in the media, to develop a louder voice, or perhaps to "deal with the sanctity of life."
What is unique about the March for Life is that it has continued for more than 40 years with potentially no end in sight, he said.
"Roe v. Wade remains the law of land," Mr. Howard said. "Clearly, people have their First Amendment right, but it's sort of interesting it's become an annual event in the city of Washington. I'm not aware of there being similar kinds of protests directed at other Supreme Court decisions. You wonder, if it became more of a popular form of protest — if 30 different groups wanted to protest 30 other Supreme Court decisions, could they similarly get a permit?"
Charles Hanes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, expressed no surprise about the new generation of pro-life advocates because "this is the American people, and throughout our history we have used these opportunities of assembly to make noise."
But there can be tension in movements, he noted, because of how much protection is given to the right of assembly.
"Everyone is welcome to raise their voice, raise their issue. Sometimes organizers of various protests find themselves surrounded by people who want to say more, want to say something else or add to it," Mr. Hanes said. "They attract all kinds of agendas, sometimes with outlandish behavior. It comes with the territory."
Mr. Hanes said it appears to him that the pro-life movement means to achieve its own goals, just as the civil rights movement was able to bring about major change to the country. The challenge is achieving a defining moment in history like 1963's March on Washington.
"The March on Washington, that was the moment the country responded," Mr. Hanes said. "There were other marches, other gatherings, other protests for decades about civil rights for African-Americans. I should think the pro-life movement is hoping for that moment. They have to keep at it until they are successful in doing, in their view, what needs to be done: awaken the conscience of Americans to their cause."
The March for Life is the culmination of three days of events marking the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling. Founded by pro-life activist Nellie Gray, the march steps off from the Mall, and thousands of participants from all corners of the country walk through Capitol Hill and past the Supreme Court building.
This year's theme is adoption and highlights "the beauty and nobility of being a birth mother," Ms. Monahan said.
Although the march's theme might change each year, the focus is on abortion and "beginning of life" issues, Ms. Monahan said. That's not to say that end-of-life issues aren't important to march organizers, but "that's the day to talk about 56 million Americans that haven't been given the right to life," she said.
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