When thousands of activists descended on Washington, D.C., on Friday to protest abortion, many of them seemed to offer an ardent defense of the unborn and an olive branch to those considering abortion.
While no current estimate is available, March for Life organizers expected 100,000 people to attend. Young people, religious groups, and schools traveled from around the country to voice their opposition to what some saw as a grave human rights abuse.
The march started with a star-studded rally featuring, among others, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and President Donald Trump, who address the march via satellite.
Thousands marched from the National Mall — where the rally took place — to the U.S. Supreme Court where women testified about their regrets over having abortions.
Participants went to lobby legislators on Capitol Hill where the House of Representatives — that very day — passed a bill mandating doctors provide medical care to infants born after botched abortions.
While appearing at the march, Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) expressed his pleasure with the bill's passage.
“I'm very pleased that just today — literally minutes ago — the House of Representatives passed the Born Alive law that requires health care providers to provide the same duty of care — the same level of care — that an attempted aborted fetus would have if that fetus was actually born alive,” Rokita said.
“If that child, God-willing, is able to make it through a thankfully botched procedure, then the duty of care would apply to those health care providers,” he added.
Just days before the march, Marist released a poll showing that a majority of Americans considered themselves pro-life and favored limiting abortion procedures to the first three months of pregnancy.
But many of the participants seemed less interested in rattling off statistics or political tactics, and more interested conveying what the March for Life's slogan emphasized: Love.
'Love Saves Lives': Pro-Lifers Project a Message of Love
From pro-life leadership to the grassroots, many of the attendees emphasized the importance of approaching women with love and without judgment.
About two months before the march, conservative media harped on a story about a pro-choice activist punching a 15-year-old pro-lifer — Purity Thomas — standing outside of a Planned Parenthood in Virginia.
The story became yet another example of how tensions could erupt between pro-choice and pro-life activists.
But during an interview with IJR, Thomas, who also attended the march, seemed to empathize with the woman who punched her in the face.
“The only thing I said back to her — even though I was lying on the ground, really dizzy — I just remember distinctly calling out to her saying 'I love you, and I care about you.' Because I really do. I absolutely forgive this woman,” Thomas said.
“There is (sic) no hard feelings toward her. I mean, I understand. She is a human being, and she showed her emotion,” Thomas added. “Sure, it was through punching me, but she showed them, and she is perfectly human.”
Between songs at the March for Life rally, singer Plumb similarly hoped pro-life activists acted out of love.
“My prayer is that we could choose to be kind as we fight for what we believe is true,” she said, “and that love, love fuels what we are doing.”
As its 2018 slogan, the March for Life selected “Love Saves Lives.” “Choosing life is not always easy,” the organization says on its website, “but it is the loving, empowering, and self-sacrificial option.”
At the march, activists, and leaders conveyed a love for both unborn babies, as well as women who considered abortion.
Before the rally, IJR found 16-year-old Jimmy George, who stood smiling and holding a sign that read “free hugs.”
“Everyone likes a nice hug now and then, so why not give one?” George told IJR.
“Hugs help people,” he added.
Sister Maria Guadalupe — a nun from who traveled from Ann Arbor, Michigan — said she wished pro-choice activists understood the depth of love that came from the pro-life movement.
“I think that the most valuable thing is that it's a movement of love. It's not a movement of hatred. We're often painted, I think, as hating those who choose abortion and it's not that. We have great love, and great mercy, and great compassion for women who are in a difficult situation,” she said.
Martial Merlin, a 24-year-old seminarian studying to become a priest, and Louis Fielack III, a spokesman for Bikers for Life, similarly conveyed that they didn't seek to judge women deciding whether to have an abortion.
Fielack said that when approaching women during sidewalk counseling outside of abortion clinics, his group prioritized ensuring that their messages were compassionate and not judgmental. “We at all times are never judging,” Fielack said.
Prominent pro-life leaders also told IJR that they wanted pro-choice activists to understand love was inherent in their activism.
Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee who now serves as president of the pro-life organization And Then There Were None, told IJR that she wished the other side understood that “love really is the undergirding of everything that we do.”
“Everything that we do is rooted in love,” she said of her group. “We're not judging, we're not out to shame people. We're not out to intimidate people or scare them.”
“I wish that they could sort of see our heart on this issue and see who we really are,” she said of the other side. “Because in the end, I think that we could be friends with most of the people that oppose us if they truly saw who we were.”
“I wish that the other side could see our hearts,” Penny Young Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America, similarly said, “and understand that our position on life is one that comes from a place of love.”
Lila Rose, the founder of Live Action, told IJR that she thought her position most aligned with love because it protected the most vulnerable's human rights.
“I think that this is the position that is most in line with human rights and love,” Rose said.
“When we protect the weak and their first human right, which is life, that we do a great credit to all rights. And that when we see those that are the weakest and vulnerable as precious ... we're living out love.”
Clarifying the Division: Pro-Choice Advocates Speak Out
Pro-choice advocates were hard to find at the March, but IJR was able to speak with a few who attended.
Mimi Thomas and Frances Penney, both 18-year-olds from Washington, D.C., made clear that while they supported a woman's right to choose, they weren't pro-abortion.
“We want to come here and support women and the right to choose,” Thomas told IJR. “We're not going 'Everybody go get abortions ... have unprotected sex!'”
Both Thomas and 33-year-old Rene Gordon — a pro-choicer who traveled from Georgia to attend the Women's March but walked alongside March for Life participants — said they didn't favor abortion, but thought a woman should be able to have an abortion if they face certain tough circumstances.
“I don't want people to just go around having abortions from a fast-food perspective [...] I think it's a last resort,” Gordon said. “People make mistakes and I think that's OK.”
Finding Common Ground: Can Someone Be Both Pro-Life and Pro-Woman?
While pro-life activists seem to disagree over when life begins, Friday's march appeared to highlight a common interest: protecting women.
“If we're going to save the baby, we have to save the woman, too,” Thomas told IJR. “As a pro-life activist, I don't care just about the baby, I care about both of them.”
Several pro-life leaders and activists told IJR that they sought to protect women from what they saw as abortion's harmful impacts.
Any bystander could likely see at least some of the signs that read “Pro-life is pro-woman”:
“Part of the problem to me about saying 'pro-life' is, you know, it's OK to say pro-life for baby but what about the women?” Gordon asked before citing how women died in back alley abortions.
She — and many pro-lifers — expressed concern for expecting mothers in difficult situations which might prompt them to get an abortion.
Relieving those pressures was one of the aspects that Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, the 34-year-old founder of the pro-life group New Wave Feminists, saw as part of embracing a truly pro-choice culture.
While speaking to IJR, Herndon-De La Rosa described abortion as “a very privileged choice” because, she said, most women feel like abortion is the only option: “When we're only pushing the one choice that's violent, I think that that's unacceptable and it's not authentically pro-choice in any way.”
Pro-life and pro-choice activists could find common ground and provide a “full range of choices,” Herndon-De La Rosa suggested, by discussing forms of relief like maternity leave, helping single moms, and assisting students who were also parents.
Kelli Johnston — a 49-year-old Maryland resident who had an abortion as a minor — told IJR that you can love both the woman and the child.
The feminist movement, Johnston said, focused too much on what women couldn't do rather than empowering them to keep their children.
“I feel like the feminist movement today has become more about what a woman can't do, and I want it to evolve back into what it originally was which is what women can do,” Johnston said. “Especially when we come together ... we can really help empower women, empower them to keep their babies and grow families.”
Sharyn Thomas, a 32-year-old promoting her own brand of pro-life feminism, opined that contemporary feminists sought to “redistribute oppression” to unborn babies rather than addressing systemic sexism at its root.
“When we acknowledge that, yes, there is a wage gap; yes, we need to address child care; yes, we need to address women's health care — we need to address the fact that America has some of the worst maternal mortality rates in the developed world,” Thomas said.
“But we can't address them by just saying, 'Have an abortion and everything is fine.'” Abortion, Thomas argued, didn't solve domestic violence and other underlying issues that “force women to consider abortion in the first place.”
Many activists said that abortion went beyond ignoring the problem and actually harmed women.
Evangelist Alveda King — Martin Luther King Jr.'s niece and a pro-life spokeswoman who regrets her two previous abortions — told IJR that abortion inflicted physical, spiritual, and emotional harm on women.
King subscribed to a religious view that God made women for motherhood and mothers acted against their nature — and God's design — when they terminated their pregnancies.
“Women are designed by God to become mothers and so, spiritually, that's our makeup — that's our composition,” King said.
“And so, when we go against that, that upsets our spirits and then in our own souls, the emotional upheaval, the will, and the mind, and the emotions,” King said.
Nance, who said her organization believed “being pro-life is pro-woman,” told IJR that “a culture that does not embrace life is the most dangerous place for women and their children.”
“Our movement is about yes — it's about yes to life, to all life, to the woman's life, and to the baby's life,” Sister Maria Guadalupe similarly remarked.
Correction: The original story inaccurately attributed quotes to Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.). Those quotes actually came from Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.).