New leaders hope to revitalize annual March for Life

Jeannie French first joined the March for Life in Washington, D.C., as a 12-year-old with her parents in 1974, the year after the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide with Roe v. Wade. That decision turns 40 this week and Ms. French, 51, a secretary from Upper St. Clair, has marched against it nearly every year, through ice, snow and slush.

Though she once stood on the platform as a movement organizer, she felt like an outsider.

"I'm a Democrat. I really don't feel included in the whole series of Republicans standing on that platform every year," she said.

There are signs of change. Nellie Gray, who founded and led the March for Life, died in August at the age of 88. Leaders in the anti-abortion movement praise her sacrificial dedication to the march, and one Catholic bishop wants to see her made a saint. But -- off the record -- some say her slogans hurt their cause and alienated potential sympathizers.

New president Jeanne Monahan, 40, has revised the format and updated slogans. A Democrat will speak. But a big difference for 2013 was dictated by the Park Police. The march will be held Friday rather than on Tuesday's anniversary due to President Barack Obama's inaugural events.

The abortion rights movement has no similar anniversary rally. Sporadic mass marches are held in warmer weather. NARAL Pro-Choice America marked the 40th anniversary by decrying legislative efforts to regulate abortion providers, which have been successful in many states.

"Thankfully, the pro-choice-controlled Senate and President Barack Obama served as fire walls and blocked many [federal] anti-choice measures," it said.

The March for Life typically claims crowds of 100,000 to 300,000. More than 30,000 students are ticketed for sold-out pre-march Catholic youth rallies at the Verizon Center and the University of Maryland's Comcast Center.

About 6,000 people from southwestern Pennsylvania go each year, said Helen Cindrich, executive director of People Concerned for the Unborn Child. She had just spoken with a bus captain who was bringing dozens of first-time marchers.

"She wants the pro-life movement to be exciting. She wants the trip to inspire them to do more," she said.

"Exciting" has been a problem. Repetitive speeches by legislators droned on for two hours.

"It lasted too long. We have appointments with our senators and congressmen. We are so eager to get going," Ms. Cindrich said. "The rally has been talking to the choir. It needed a real shot in the arm."

Ms. French devoted her young adulthood to reaching more liberal and secular people for the cause. She founded the University of Pittsburgh Students for Life, joined Feminists for Life and in 1992 organized the National Women's Coalition for Life.

Her commitment was tested when she was pregnant with twins. Doctors urged her to abort the girl, who had severe spina bifida, to give the boy a better change of survival. She refused.

Her daughter died one day after birth, and her donated organs saved two other infants.

"She was loved every minute she was here," Ms. French said.

Her son is 19 and a student at Carnegie Mellon University. "His life was no more or less valuable than hers. I will never save two people, but my daughter did," she said. After 19 years as a single working mother, she is returning to activism and hopes the march will become more effective.

"It's no longer an event for the public but for those who are committed to protecting human life. It's my day each year to reaffirm that this is a terrible wrong that I cannot ignore," she said. "The rally isn't about the message. The message is conveyed when women have ultrasounds. The way that I live my life is the message."

There is a quiet diversity within the march, she said, noting groups such as Feminists for Life and the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians.

In 2002 the march president, Gray, became upset that members of the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians were carrying a banner with their name and the slogan "Human rights start when human rights begin." Their name, she told Park Police, violated the single-issue policy of her march permit and she insisted they be arrested. PLAGAL, whose mission is to take the anti-abortion message to the gay rights movement, has marched since, but its leaders lament that they remained marginalized.

Even leaders in the conservative mainstream of the anti-abortion movement worried that Gray's slogans hampered their work. Her motto was "No exceptions, no compromise."

David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, won't discuss differences he may have had with Gray. But mainstream anti-abortion lobbies only support laws with exceptions for rape and the life of the pregnant woman, he said. He doesn't believe that abortion is morally right in cases of rape, but that it's politically necessary to allow for it.

"You would certainly hope that the decision would be made for the life of the child and perhaps the child adopted. But I'm not aware of any legislation proposed at this time that would prohibit abortion in cases of rape," he said.

In an essay he lambasted some politicians for questioning the need for rape exceptions.

Media bias "together with a sequence of most unfortunate statements by candidates created a perfect storm that played into ... the pro-abortion narrative in this election," he wrote. "The pro-life movement and pro-life candidates cannot ever let this happen again."

Gray, he said, wasn't focused on legislation.

"Our approach is to work to pass legislation that is possible now," he said. "Nellie's role was to draw attention to the issue in the broadest sense. Her organization was making a statement about abortion and unborn children."

She was an accidental activist. Born in Texas, Gray graduated from high school at 15, enlisting in the Women's Army Corps for World War II. She became an attorney, earned a master's degree in economics and worked for the U.S. State Department and the Department of Labor.

She had just retired when the Knights of Columbus asked her to use her contacts to enlist influential politicians to lead a protest rally on the first anniversary of Roe v. Wade. After many turned her down, she volunteered to do it herself. She never received a salary for 38 years of organizing.

Bishop Michael Pfeifer of the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo, Texas, never met Gray, but learned from her obituary that she was born in his diocese. After researching her life he was so impressed that he's trying to spur interest in canonizing her.

"Latent in her personality was a strong desire to do something good. She wasn't especially equipped or trained in her religion, but she was at the doorway at a unique moment. When no one else would, she walked through," he said.

She will be commemorated at the rally and her "no exceptions" slogan will be heard then, Ms. Monahan said. Apart from that, it won't be promoted. The official theme is "Pro-life: The Human Rights Issue of Today."

"We haven't changed our mission or what we stand for at all. You will see different emphases on different things," she said. "Some messages will be nuanced in a more powerful way."

She pared the rally to an hour, reducing legislators' speeches from dozens to four. A Democrat, U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, will be among them, via video.

The new emphasis is on personal testimony, including women who have had abortions and a man who will speak of having been conceived in rape.

With funding from the Knights of Columbus, Ms. Monahan now heads a paid staff. She hopes to expand the group's work beyond one annual event.

As a start, March for Life is co-sponsoring a seminar for attorneys and law students at a Capitol Hill hotel Thursday. It's also organizing a postcard campaign for contacting legislators.

"We aren't endorsing specific bills. We are just asking them to vote pro-life," she said.

Ms. Monahan came to the March for Life from the Family Research Council. That group may be best known for opposition to gay marriage, but her work focused on abortion and euthanasia. Prior to that she worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Her credentials are conservative, but she expressed interest in broadening the march's base.

"I'm actually an independent voter. I would love to have whoever is truly pro-life out there with us," she said.

She sidestepped a question on welcoming groups such as the Pro-life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, saying this year she wants to stress disability rights and the pressure to abort after a prenatal diagnosis of disability.

"It's not that we set out to be more politically correct, we are just trying to address the most critical issues that are relevant to us," she said.

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Ann Rodgers: or 412-263-1416. First Published January 21, 2013 5:00 AM


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