For most of her life, Gina Garvey has trekked to the Washington mall to join abortion opponents in the annual March for Life.
On Friday, the crowd was similar to so many others she had seen: people hoisting signs that denounced Planned Parenthood and declared that life is beautiful; nuns and priests in habits; school groups in colorful knit hats; so many people that at times it was difficult to move.
But something felt different, said Garvey, who traveled from Fredrick, Maryland, with her 24-year-old daughter Maggie and Suzy Wilkinson, 51, the mother of Maggie’s boyfriend.
“There’s actually hope now,” Garvey said.
The first week of the Trump administration has been marked by a series of high-profile political protests, many of them decrying the president. Activists have raised alarms about Trump’s sexually predatory comments about women, as well as his rash of promised policy changes and executive actions that target immigration, climate change, and voting rights, among other issues.
In contrast, several demonstrators on the mall Friday said that they felt emboldened by Trump’s early moves to restrict abortion, including his reinstatement last week of a policy prohibiting U.S. aid money from going to foreign groups that offer abortion counseling.
In Their Own Words: March for Life Attendees Take On Washington
A different feel
And while Trump did not attend, his new influence in the nation’s capital was palpable. Many in the crowd — including the women in Garvey’s group — said they were strong supporters.
Featured speakers included Trump’s presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway and Vice President Mike Pence. It was the first time a vice president has attended. The result was a celebratory mood, with many saying that they felt Trump’s administration had given new energy to their movement.
Speakers made several references to crowd size. That issue has preoccupied the president after reports that his inauguration drew smaller crowds than Obama’s, and that it was dwarfed by the Women’s March on Washington a week later. The latter event drew an estimated half-million people to Washington, but it created friction with abortion opponents who said they were excluded by organizers.
March for Life president Jeanne Mancini told the crowd that, “Pro-Life is Pro-women.” She urged participants to take selfies that showed the crowds behind them and post them to social media with the event’s hashtag, #whywemarch.
Organizers could not immediately provide crowd estimates Friday.
In his turn at the podium, Pence reminded the crowd of his fervent support of their movement and said that Trump had asked him to come.
He also promised that the president’s choice of a justice to fill the empty seat on the Supreme Court, expected to be announced next week, will, “uphold the liberties enshrined in the constitution in the tradition of the late, great, Antonin Scalia.” Scalia, who died last year, was a conservative who opposed abortion and believed abortion rights should be determined by the democratic process, not the courts.
“Life is winning again in America,” he said.
Abortion in the crosshairs
Conway said the administration was committed to rolling back abortion rights.
“Steps away from here, in the White House, a president and vice president sit at their desks and make decisions for a nation,” she said. “As they sit there, they stand here with you.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, was among the members of Congress who took to the stage.
Ernst said she planned to reintroduce legislation that would redirect federal funding from Planned Parenthood to women’s health care providers that do not provide abortions. She said her previous attempt, in 2015, got bipartisan support but was “stopped” by President Obama.
“Thankfully, today is a different story,” she said. “Today as you heard Vice President Pence, we have a pro-life president.”
A spokeswoman said Ernst was referring to a 2015 bill, which Obama vetoed, that would have used the budget reconciliation process to repeal the Affordable Care Act and pause federal funding for Planned Parenthood. The latter part of that measure, “reflected” ideas Ernst put forth in an earlier bill that she sponsored but that did not make it out of the Senate.
Ernst also promised to introduce a bill with Congresswoman Diane Black, R-Tenn., that would reverse a rule Obama passed in December that was meant to protect federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
The March for Life is held every year around the time of year the Supreme Court released the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in 1973. Crowds last year were limited by a snowstorm. This year, the sun was shining as thousands descended on the lawn near the Washington Monument, though the afternoon soon turned frigid with gusty winds.
In the crowd, Joanne and Steven Signorello, cheered.
“This is great,” Joanne said. “It’s just fabulous. It’s better than I thought it would be. It’s so uplifting, and there are so many people here who believe in the things that we do.”
Joanne Signorello, 63, said that she had long wanted to attend the March but had been too tied up with the obligations of raising her three boys and then caring for her mother-in-law, who had dementia. This year, though, she felt compelled to attend. She rose before dawn to walk her dog before attending a morning mass at her church in Abbottstown, Penn., and boarding a bus with 55 other parishioners.
She could not hold back her excitement. “Oh there he is,” she said, when Pence walked on stage. “Oh gosh, there he is. The Vice President is up there. He’s such a nice man.”
She said she was perplexed by the demands of the women who had marched on Washington last week. She did not see herself as a feminist, she said, partly because women had already achieved so many rights. She said abortion opponents were more inclusive.
Dominican priests Humbert Kilanowski, Aquinas Guilbeau, and Ambroise Boyd came with about 200 parishioners from Long Island, N.Y., and Washington, DC, they said. They had attended multiple times before and said the crowds have been similar. But this year, they said, they felt that they would have a greater voice. They all said they were optimistic about the Trump administration.
“There are large parts of American life that haven’t gotten a lot of attention lately,” Guilbeau said.
But some in the crowd were more conflicted.
Maria Baer, 29, said she felt strongly about her opposition to abortion, but she was also deeply troubled about President Trump’s administration. She drove from Columbus, Ohio on Monday for a weeklong Evangelicals for Life Conference and bundled up her 9-month-old daughter Naomi for the march—as she would have done for the women’s march if she felt it had been more open to opponents of abortion.
“It’s unfortunate and inaccurate to make feminism and being pro-woman, to conflate that with also being pro-abortion,” Baer said.
“My biggest hope is that [Trump] doesn’t have influence in the government, and that he has smart pro-life people around him,” she said. “I don’t feel optimistic. I’m just hoping for the best.”