Anti-abortion rally in D.C. today faces bad weather

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Mary Catherine Scanlon of Aspinwall braved cold and snowy weather Tuesday to drive to Sam's Club to buy lots of yogurt, fruit and tiny boxes of cereal.

She needed breakfast for the 24 members from St. Scholastica Catholic Church in Aspinwall and other nearby churches who would be driving to Washington, D.C., overnight for today's March for Life. She also bought plenty of "gorp" -- a mix of nuts, raisins and dried fruit chips -- to fuel them as they marched, chanted and held signs protesting abortion.

In all, more than 30 local churches are sending groups to the rally, marking the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

The protesters, buoyed by recent legislative and judicial developments restricting abortions and clinic operations in some states, hope to keep the momentum going.

Southwestern Pennsylvania residents always have had a large presence there, said Mrs. Scanlon, who has attended almost every year since the first rally in 1974. They wear Steelers-colored stickers on their forearms, making them easy to spot.

Carolyn Sopher-Martin of Upper St. Clair rented two 56-passenger buses to bring seventh- and eighth-graders from the St. Thomas More School in Bethel Park to the rally. Some members of her group were apprehensive about the forecast of snow and temperatures in the teens. On Tuesday, Mrs. Sopher-Martin and her husband were calling and emailing parents of the schoolchildren to decide whether to travel through the weather or cancel the trip and hold their own prayer service today.

"This is the first year we've considered canceling, but we're pro-life, so we don't want to put people at risk," Mrs. Sopher-Martin said.

In recent years, more than 20 states have passed laws restricting abortions and abortion clinic operations. Texas has passed a law, now being contested in the federal courts, that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges in a local hospital. On Jan. 15, U.S. Supreme Court justices voiced skepticism about a Massachusetts law mandating that those protesting against abortion stay 35 feet away from abortion clinics.

A 2011 Pennsylvania law introduced stricter regulations for abortion clinics that caused several to close. The law was in response to the conviction of Kermit Gosnell, who was sentenced to life in prison for killing fetuses that were removed alive from their mothers' wombs in his West Philadelphia abortion clinic.

Mrs. Scanlon remembers attending the first March for Life rally in 1974. She and a few thousand other protesters walked a couple blocks from the National Mall to the Capitol to protest the decision.

The event has become more complicated since then. The crowd has swelled to more than half a million people, making the idea of parking buses on the mall unworkable. The itinerary has expanded to include a giant youth rally and meetings with U.S. senators and representatives. Mrs. Scanlon said the conferences with Pennsylvania's senators, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey, and with U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-McCandless, are polite, featuring coffee and cookies. Although Mr. Casey considers himself anti-abortion, some consider his record on the matter to be spotty.

One of the biggest changes over the years is the increasing numbers of youths in the crowd. At one point, Mrs. Scanlon said, she was worried that the event would peter out as the protesters aged, but now she is hopeful for its future.

Mrs. Sopher-Martin said the rally plays an important role in exciting students about the anti-abortion movement.

"They get on the bus because they want the day off from school, but later they're like, 'Whoa! I want to come back next year,' " she said.

Matthew Hammel, 17, Mrs. Scanlon's grandson, has been attending the rally since he was 7. He remembers feeling overwhelmed the first time he saw the "sea of people" gathered in front of the Supreme Court. A decade later, he's still in awe of the vast crowds -- they make him feel "a part of something," he said.

He likes going to the rally, but he wishes that it didn't have to exist in the first place.

"I wish that I didn't have to [attend the march], because I want to be part of the end of it," he said.

Richard Webner: rwebner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4903.


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