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At March for Life, which way will the movement move?

Thousands of people are expected to arrive next week in Washington for the March for Life. Covid restrictions permitting, it will be the first in-person meeting for the annual event since the 2020 presidential election. It also takes place as the Supreme Court considers the most serious challenge in a generation to the Court’s own precedents on abortion.

Marchers and counter-protestors at the 2020 March for Life in Washington, DC. Credit: Victoria Pickering via flickr. CC BY SA 2.0

Attendees at the March for Life will hear from a slate of speakers decidedly less political than in recent years. And the speakers list might point to a pro-life movement gearing up for the new reality it will face if a Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health sends abortion regulation back to the states.

The 2021 March for Life was an online event — the in-person event canceled amid major security measures introduced after the January 6 riot, when supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump confronted police and pushed their way into the Capitol building.

But in the years prior to that, the March for Life’s speaking slates had often been headlined by partisan media and political figures, with even Trump and Vice President Mike Pence live or by video in some years.

Donald Trump at the 2020 March for Life. Credit: The White House.

MAGA hats and Trump flags had become a common sight among the parish banners and homemade signs which traditionally punctuate the crowd, and some critics of the march lamented their perception that it had become too tied to Republican party politics and a broader Republican agenda.

That criticism fed into public perception about the alignment of pro-life advocacy with the Republic Party agenda — and fed into a robust internal debate among pro-lifers during the Trump Administration, about the extent to which their movement might have been used for votes and money, and about whether they had gotten any return for the investment.

With the prospect that Roe vs. Wade might actually be overturned, many pro-lifers will be keen to say their alliance with the GOP — and with Trump especially — has had a payoff beyond expectation. And some will point out that, at the national level, the few remaining pro-life politicians in the Democratic Party are being hounded out, and that party pols increasingly demand, as they did of Joe Biden, an absolute pledge of absolute support for unfettered abortion access as the price for the party’s nomination for president.

But if the Supreme Court sends abortion regulation back to the states, pro-life campaigners in some states are likely to argue that a new strategy will be essential — that in state legislatures, where compromise and actual legislating are still possible, the perception of lockstep and unflinching Republican alignment will do the push to end abortion no favors.

If Roe is overturned, making the case for the unborn in deep blue as well as red states is going to require new alliances. Forging them needn’t be considered an impossible task: One of the most pro-life states in the country, Louisiana, includes a critical mass of opposition to abortion from state Democrats. And even in New York, polling has repeatedly shown that the state’s extremist pro-abortion laws are out of step even with self-identified pro-choice Democrats in the state.

But some pro-lifers argue that a standing perception that pro-life organizers are willing to let life become a cat’s paw for partisan agendas has the potential to seriously derail local efforts to stop abortions.

They say that no less harmful is the stereotype that pro-life campaigners are unwilling, because of partisan alliances, to advocate for a net of family social supports at the same time they’re calling for restrictions on abortion.

In short, they argue, future pro-life gains in many places will require forging the kind of local consensus that can transcend the toxic national partisan conversation.

At the national level, that means some pro-life campaigners will push to see leaders become more deferential to local strategies, and more careful not to impugn or hinder local alliances and approaches.

Of course, if Roe is overturned, there will not be consensus among pro-life leaders about which way to turn. Some will want to see political strategy devolve to the states, while others will focus on the possibility that Congress will pass abortion-permissive legislation, and make efforts to federally fund abortion. There will be disagreements over strategy, and, as is typical among pro-life groups, there will eventually be acrimony.

Money, politics, and longstanding personal alliances have had influence over the national campaign to end abortion for decades. Those factors mean that fierce disagreement among leaders is often the only constant. As pro-life groups decide what to do in a possible post-Roe universe, the March for Life might itself be inclined to leave the internal politics at the door, and to position itself as a unifying event.

And that might well explain the relatively apolitical speakers’ list at the 2022 March for Life, which includes Katie Shaw, a pro-life self-advocate with Down syndrome, and Fr. Mike Schmitz, a well-known and popular evangelist.

It’s possible that 2022 will mark the beginning of a new approach to messaging and strategy at the March for Life — aiming to forge unity and focus on culture, while state-level groups focus on the politics. But it may also be that the messaging will stay the same, that the March for Life will focus on the midterms, and that pro-lifers will continue to be perceived mostly in terms of their partisan alignment.

Next week’s March for Life will be a good indication of which way the movement, or at least the March, intends to move.

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