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Anti-abortion movement attempts rebirth

January 20, 2011 - 12:00 PM
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Anti-abortion activists are set to descend on D.C. this weekend. (Photo: TBD Staff)

This weekend marks the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in America. It’s also the 37th anniversary of anti-abortion activists marching on Washington to demand it be reversed.

One year after Roe, anti-abortion groups took to the National Mall to stage the first ever March for Life. Nearly four decades later, the annual effort can practically be conjured from sense memory. “We’re not doing anything new this year,” admits March for Life founder Nellie Gray, who has organized each of the march’s 36 iterations, and will march for the 37th time on Monday. “I just don’t have anything new to tell you about or describe or anything,” she told me. “There’s not anything new about it.”

Indeed. The March for Life logo—an illustration of the U.S. Capitol building ensconced in a red rose—is the relic of a million photocopies. The group’s motto is “Support the Life Principles”—principles established by the group way back in 1973. Each year, March for Life attendees swap in new props (previous years have inspired blood-spattered child coffins and aborted fetus headdresses) and fresh mouthpieces (the keynote speaker of this year’s post-march “Rose Dinner” will be Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann). But the basic script has failed to advance. “We have adopted the life principals which have not budged," Gray says. "There is no intentional killing of an innocent human being, born or pre-born. No exceptions whatsoever.”

As the March for Life approaches middle age, it threatens to alienate a grop that's always been central to the anti-abortion brand: Young people. Outside abortion clinics, kids look cute with LIFE-emblazoned duct tape pressed over their mouths; at high schools, teens look fetching while telling their peers to wait until marriage. Each year, the March for Life manages to wheel plenty of youth down to the National Mall, whether by stroller or church group caravan. But the event has consistently failed to engage the youth of America on a meaningful level. Consider the theme of the event’s 2011 student poster design contest, advertised to kids as young as 12: “Thou Shalt Protect the Equal Right to Life of Each Innocent Born and Preborn Human in Existence at Fertilization. No Exception! No Compromise!"

That sort of minimal-effort approach might work when kids are at the mercy of their parents' interests, but it does little to keep youth engaged once they fly the nest. “In college, something definitely changes,” says Erik Whittington, director of music-based anti-abortion effort Rock for Life. “To be frank, we lose kids at that age, big time.”

So this year, a new movement will focus on that critical age group. Following the march, organizers will stage the first ever National Pro-Life Youth Rally, an afternoon festival featuring bands, Livestrong-inspired “abolish abortion” bracelets, and free grab bags containing instructions on how to chalk college campus sidewalks with anti-abortion messaging. Barlow Girl, a group of “tender-hearted, beautiful young women who aren’t afraid to take an aggressive, almost warrior-like stance when it comes to spreading the gospel and serving God,” will perform. Mexican heartthrob Eduardo Verastegui will speak.  And Lila Rose, UCLA student and founder of anti-abortion websites LiveAction.org and HeresTheBlood.com, will speak about her “undercover” viral video exposés of abortion providers.

“I totally respect and honor the March for Life and everything that they’ve done. At the same time, you need to think outside of the box and be creative,” Whittington says. “It's about drawing people in. It's about the music."

For a decade and a half, the Archdiocese of Washington has mounted a similar effort—a massive youth rally the morning of the march.This year’s event includes a slate of “Catholic recording artists”—including Steve Angrisano, Ike Ndolo and Maddie Curtis—followed by confessions, rosary, and a mass. The National Pro-Life Youth Rally will cut out the procedural trimmings and focus on the concert aspect. “The youth rally is specifically a Catholic event—that’s awesome, that’s great," Whittington says. "But we’re offering more of a non-denominational, ecumenical thing, something fun for everyone to do at the end of the march.” Besides: “It’s hard to rock out at 6 in the morning. I mean, I can do it, but not many can.”

Whether the party-on sensibility will help maintain anti-abortion support in the radicalizing college years remains to be seen. “It’s really easy to convert a high school student to the pro-life position. I have a lot of success just providing them information and graphic pictures,” Whittington says. “It’s a very black-and-white age. There’s not much of a gray area.” Whittington suspects that the “anything goes attitude on college campuses” is partly responsible for the precipitous drop in activist activity, post-high school. “How do we combat that?" Whittington asks himself. "I just don’t know.”

Where anti-abortion activists begin to lose their grip on the demographic, defenders of abortion rights are waiting in the wings. Tonight, Choice USA will stage a youth-oriented mock boxing match between six young abortion rights “contenders,” including sex ed crusader Shelby Knox and queer Latina activist Miriam “Mimi” Madrid. “Are you ready to rumble?” organizer Kate Childs Graham asked me via Facebook message. The event, she explained, is an “awesome spin on the traditional panel,” in which the six activists will go “head-to-head”—“with words”—on topics like youth participation in reproductive rights activism, online methods of organizing, and abortion policies that affect young women.

“Refereeing” the event will be Choice USA executive director Kierra Johnson. Though Choice USA has always celebrated the Roe anniversary in some way, “We’ve never done something quite as exciting and creative as what we’re doing this year,” Johnson told me. “We get that feedback all the time—people are bored of the same old panels, they’re tired of the old back and forth debates. People really want to engage in deeper ways."

Johnson says that her movement benefits from that sort of advanced conversation. "Many young people—even people on our staff—identified as anti-choice at one point in their lives, but now that they’re out on their own and can look at the full story, they came to the decision to work toward reproductive justice for all people," Johnson says. “Life is complex,” she adds. “The more you live it, the more you know it.”

Whittington says he's not interested in directly "combating" efforts like Choice USA's. Instead, he's begun to fiddle with his own message, in an effort to turn the complexity of the abortion argument to his advantage. “Now more now than ever, I’m trying to use a different terminology,” Whittington says. “Even the term ‘pro-life,’ I use that less and less, because it has that ‘pro-choice’ counterpart. Instead, I’ll use ‘life,’ or ‘human rights for all.’ I've been using a lot of social justice-y terms," says Whittington. "You don’t want for your messaging to be hijacked by other groups.”

RELATED: Your guide to celebrating and/or demonizing Roe v. Wade this weekend.

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