Why I Don’t Attend the March for Life
Long-time readers of this blog know I am about as pro-life as they come. I mean that not only on the issue of abortion but also in terms of capital punishment, euthanasia, assisted suicide, etc. I am not anti-war but take a Geneva-conventions approach about avoiding civilian casualties as much as possible and believe in limiting the use of warfare to stopping murderous regimes. Otherwise, I believe in erring on the side of life and in using non-lethal alternatives, imperfect though they may be, to addresss life’s problems. The issues on which I am most committed to this approach are capital punishment and abortion.
For the latter reason, you might think that I would be an annual fixture at the March of Life in Washington, DC, the 2011 edition of which took place today. You would be mistaken. I have gone a couple of times, many years ago, but I found the last experience so offensive that I vowed never to go again, at least not as long as Nellie Gray was in charge.
By way of introduction for those who don’t know who she is, Nellie Gray is the woman who founded the March for Life organization that runs the event of the same name every year on the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Roe v. Wade case (or on the nearest day when Congress is in session). For many years, Gray’s name was featured prominently on the organization’s website, always as “Miss Nellie Gray” because apparently she wanted to make sure everyone knew she was single and not a feminist who would use the title Ms. It’s hard to find any mention of her on the web site these days, and my attempts to dig further today were met with a bandwidth limit error. I managed to find out from another web site, though, that she is now in her mid-80s, and my own guess is that she might be loosening her grip on the organization’s reins. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking.
My negative feelings about Gray are a reaction to the way she has portrayed her event as the flagship event for the entire pro-life movement, while using it to promote a message that is overtly religious, conservative, anti-feminist, and anti-gay. The last time I attended, Gray had just been engaged in a row with Feminists for Life, on whose board I sat and whom Gray didn’t like because we were feminists. She relented at the last minute and allowed one of our more conservative and religious members on the stage for the pre-march rally, then proceeded to insult every feminist in the crowd by calling attention to the many “clergymen—and I do men clergyMEN” on the stage (emphasis hers). Her emphasis on religious arguments against abortion led an atheist friend with whom I attended to declare that she too would never return. She prominently featured Republican politicians (which is fine when they’re pro-life) but with barely a mention of pro-life Democrats who buck their party’s leaders and take a stand against the party platform. A centrist or liberal who is pro-life found very little to feel positive about at a March for Life.
Then there was Gray’s temper tantrum one year over gay pro-lifers in attendance as part of the contingent from the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians (PLAGAL). She was so insistent that the purity of her event not be sullied by the presence of gay and lesbian marchers that she prohibited them from marching under her permit and directed the police to arrest the PLAGAL participants. Since then, she has reluctantly tolerated PLAGAL’s presence at the march, but only after officers called her out on her wretched hostility toward pro-lifers who didn’t subscribe to her entire moral worldview.
And therein lies the problem with the March for Life: it presents itself as representing “grassroots prolifers,” but in fact it only represents those who hold traditional religious, political, and social views. The event is heavily attended by religious organizations, church groups, and Christian school groups, but there isn’t much of a presence of other people, beyond those who hold their noses and attend for the good of the movement. But what good to the movement is a march that alienates more people than it attracts? The March for Life typically brings between 100,000 and 200,000 people to the nation’s capital, depending on the weather (January in DC can be cold and blustery) and despite the fact that it always takes place on a weekday. But when the National Right to Life Committee, a much more mainstream organization, held a weekend rally on the National Mall in April 1990, they attracted a million people, many of whom had never attended a March for Life before, haven’t attended one since, and wouldn’t feel comfortable at one if they did. I doubt all those extra people were there just because it was a Saturday and the weather was nicer.
Those people are the great untapped potential audience that Nellie Gray alienates every year while pretending that she is helping “the babies.” If she were as concerned about the lives of children and the well-being of women as she claims to be, she wouldn’t put them second after her insistence on ideological orthodoxy at her event. Indeed, the March for Life long ago became a self-congratulatory event at which no one is converted or persuaded. When even ardent and uncompromising abortion opponents like me don’t attend, you can be sure that the event is doing more harm than good.
Fortunately, despite Nellie Gray’s best efforts, the pro-life movement thrives at the grassroots even if they are not organized. Until just last year, abortion rates in the U.S. had been in steady decline as the population that most embraced abortion aged out of their reproductive years. Young people are more likely to oppose abortion than ever before, even as they become more feminist (though few of them embrace that label). Meanwhile, women’s organizations that long ago shifted their emphasis from issues like equality in employment, lending, and child-rearing to absolute abortion apologetics, are largely irrelevant to anyone under 50.
Perhaps the March for Life board of directors will recognize the enormous missed opportunity their founder has long ignored and take the organization and the event in a more appropriate direction. I was going to suggest a broader approach, but it’s actually a more narrow approach that’s needed: a focus on the problem of abortion and fighting it, without simultaneously encumbering the struggle with other issues like participants’ sexual orientation or political leanings or religious beliefs (or lack thereof) or whether any clergy members in attendance are male or female.
Perhaps events like March for Life are passé for other reasons, too. People just don’t protest like they used to, unless it’s a response to a crisis such as the one that gave rise to the Tea Party movement. Abortion isn’t a new crisis; it’s more like urban violence or domestic abuse or sexual abuse or poverty, something we acknowledge as an unacceptable and widespread problem but can’t quite figure out how to get a handle on. Like those other problems that also threaten lives, abortion will remain with us to some extent. But until people like Nellie Gray get off their high horses, the pro-life movement won’t have its best people on board simply because they won’t feel like they’re welcome.
When that changes, maybe I’ll go to the March for Life again. Then again, when it changes, a March for Life might not be necessary.