WASHINGTON – Thousands of pro-life activists gathered Friday for the annual March for Life on the National Mall. The event was heavily attended by members of religious institutions, Catholic school children, and evangelical Christians — but politics took center stage.
Many attendees donned bright red “Make America Great Again” hats and held Trump/Pence campaign signs. One sign read: "Make Unborn Babies Great Again!"
The march is held each year around the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court, which held that criminalizing abortion was unconstitutional, but this is the first time a sitting president directly addressed the rally live. (Previous presidents have sent recorded messages or called in via phone.)
President Donald Trump, greeted with thunderous applause as he appeared on the jumbotron live from the Rose Garden, said, "America's future will be filled with dignity and life for every child of God” and assured attendees, "we are with you all the way."
Trump's history on the matter hasn’t been consistent throughout the years. During a 2016 presidential debate Trump said he was pro-life — and he has voiced support for a 20-week abortion ban — but he professed to be pro-choice in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, echoing a 1999 interview with Meet The Press during which he said the same.
"Can we just thank God for giving us a pro-life president back in the house?" House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Catholic, enthusiastically asked Friday’s crowd, to applause and cheers.
Ryan (R-Wis.) attended the rally in person, alongside other members of Congress and religious leaders, noting his long support of the movement. "Life begins at conception!" he shouted.
Ryan listed the anti-abortion measures passed in the House, pausing after each to allow for applause, with the push to defund Planned Parenthood receiving the loudest cheers.
"In the House, we passed legislation to defund Planned Parenthood; we passed Pain-Capable Abortion Act, which restricts abortion under 20 weeks; the Conscience Protection Act, so no one is forced to produce an abortion against his or will; and Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act to protect the lives of those babies through failed abortion," Ryan said.
None of the listed efforts have made it through the Senate, though the Trump administration has taken up the issue of "conscience protections," announcing this week a new Health and Human Services division within the Office of Civil Rights and a new regulation to “ensure that persons or entities are not subjected to certain practices or policies that violate conscience, coerce, or discriminate.”
For many at Friday’s rally, the political leaders’ presence at the rally was a sign that their values would be supported by the administration.
Patrick Fegan, who cradled a wooden crucifix as he marched from the National Mall to the Supreme Court, said he was excited to see the "top three people in government [as] it fires people up!"
The crowd was diverse in age — student groups from Catholic high schools and universities, families with young children, couples (young and older in age) — filled the Mall.
Meredith Jarchow, a college student from Wisconsin who was handing out ‘Defund Planned Parenthood' signs, said she liked seeing "a sitting president show his pro-life support at one of the biggest pro-life events of the year."
The heavy political presence was also embraced by religious leaders as they saw it as a way to spread the pro-life narrative.
Sister Gaudia Skass said she felt it Trump’s presence would bring attention to the pro-life movement. She said she was happy Trump was in attendance as it would garner media attention, which in turn could influence people to join the pro-life movement.
Critics, on the other hand, suggested Trump was using the rally to garner votes. While Trump received 80 percent of the white evangelical vote in the 2016 election, that number was closer to 50 percent among Catholics.
"In the world of politics anything can happen but who am I to judge?” Kass said. “... I would be happy to believe that he is here for a good reason."