Today, pro-lifers will descend on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for the 46th annual March for Life. What began as a small demonstration to honor the unborn after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision has now developed into a full-scale rally. Last year over 100,000 people amassed near the Washington Monument. The striking thing about the crowd? Almost a quarter of those folks were high school and college kids. “The March for Life is largely made up of young people who travel from all across the nation to stand up for life. They are vibrant, passionate, and knowledgeable,” Jeanne Mancini, President of the March for Life, told me.
Politicos, particularly conservatives, in Washington often debate Andrew Breitbart’s adage that “politics is downstream from culture.’” If so, that means the best way to preserve the unborn would not be through legislation, as older generations seem to support, but changing the culture in which we live. Are young people up for this?
Poll numbers of young people on abortion show conflicted results. While Pew reports that 18-29 year-olds are the most supportive of abortion rights of any age group, other research conducted by the Institute for Pro-Life Advancement shows while millennials are increasingly liberal on issues like gay marriage, they support increasing restrictions on abortions, even “if they do not identify as pro-life.”
The young people I talked to seem to value this sentiment, even if they’ve never heard of Breitbart. They want their friends to value unborn babies as much as they do. In shifting this mindset, they hope the people they know simply won’t choose abortion--regardless of what the government, legislation, or Planned Parenthood has to say about it. It’s reasonable to conclude that the kind of people who attend the pro-life march are ardent about the movement, and may not accurately reflect a swath of 18-29 year-olds from across the entire country.
Indeed, as the March for Life has grown over the years, it has become something of a magnet for college and high school groups. They show up on the Mall in droves sporting their school’s colors, or with matching shirts, or holding banners that show their school name or group. One such group, Students for Life of Michigan, drove through the night to attend today’s march, all 168 of them.
Nicole Hocott, 19, is the president of the Students for Life at the University of Michigan. She told me, “I want my friends and classmates to notice that a normal classmate of theirs is passionate enough about this to go to Washington D.C. and march for it. It feels huge, to be a part of this big literal movement of a mass of people.”
Zoe Griffin, a 17 year-old junior who has been homeschooled for five years and attended Catholic school previous to that, came to Washington, D.C. from Charlotte, North Carolina. She too balked at the idea that mere political intervention might reduce the number of abortions. “If you ban abortion there will still be people who will have abortions,” she said. “I think it’s better to teach people about purity and saving yourself for marriage. If people really knew about the beauty of purity…I feel like that would eradicate abortion but a lot issues in the world too,” Griffin told me over the phone on her way to the march.
Fish Fisher, 18, a student at Michigan State University (yes, that’s his name), is attending the march for the first time. He also thinks the visibility of the march is as important as anything else more tangible. In an email, he said, “I believe the main thing this march accomplishes is something the pro-life movement has always struggled to achieve, and that is gaining the attention of the media and the public. It is difficult to ignore thousands of individuals marching through the streets of downtown Washington.”
Many of the young people who attend the March for Life are devoutly religious and integrate their faith with their conservative politics.
It’s much more common among younger people, even if they are fiscally conservative, to be socially liberal--to support gay marriage--or even to be libertarian, and thus favor abortion and the legalization of marijuana. But when it comes to the people who drive through the night to stand on the cold National Mall in January for several hours, these are dedicated, pro-life zealots; and they’re as much for lower taxes as they are opposed to gay marriage. The former is obviously a known conservative position. On the latter, pro-life advocates have grown up deeply religious and to Christians, the sanctity of marriage and the sanctity of life go hand-in-hand.
The only exception? Environmental issues, like climate change, because, while many faith-based advocates believe it’s a part of good stewardship, it’s also not nearly as divisive as abortion.
Given their age, I doubt most young people have thought substantially about whether politics is downstream of culture or the other way around. But they do feel passionately about promoting a culture of life and seem to think the best way to do that is to stand firm within their sphere of influence. The March for Life, keenly aware of this, and the almost-groupie-like event this has become for young people, is capitalizing on their zeal and willingness to define a movement not by legislation, but by word of mouth. Whether they accomplish this or not, remains to be seen.