What It’s Like for Secular, Liberal Pro-lifers at the March for Life

Though some describe themselves as the “counterculture within the movement,” many members of nonreligious and left-leaning pro-life groups feel welcome at the largely Christian, conservative event.

A person holds a sign saying "I'm With Her" with a drawing of a fetus on it.
Anti-abortion activists participate in the March for Life, an annual event to mark the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States, outside the U.S. Supreme Court. (Saul Loeb / Getty)

Updated at 5:05 p.m. EST on January 23, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C.—On Friday morning, a few hours before the start of the March for Life—the 46th-annual event held to commemorate the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and to call for its repeal—banners waved above the heads of some 60 people gathered on the wet, slushy grounds of the National Mall. Consistent Life Network: … End Abortion, End Poverty, End Racism, End War, read one. Secular Pro-Life: For the embryology textbook tells me so, read another—a sly riff on the “for the Bible tells me so” refrain of the Christian hymn “Jesus Loves Me.” Protesters carrying signs (Destroy the patriarchy, not the preborn) and wearing buttons (War is not pro-life) stood in the cold listening as a teal-haired atheist with a nose ring addressed the crowd that had gathered: Why, she asked, if it is wrong to kill a person who’d been born already, would it be okay to kill a person who hadn’t yet?

The #ProScienceProLife meet-up, this year’s title for the gathering held annually ahead of the March for Life, served as a summit of sorts for groups such as Rehumanize International, the Consistent Life Network, Secular Pro-life, and Democrats for Life of America. These groups espouse something called the “consistent life” or “whole life” ethic—the belief that human life should be protected from violence and killing from the moment of conception onwards. So while these groups often protest abortion, they also protest police brutality, torture, war, human trafficking, and the separation of immigrant families.

The meet-up brings together some of the nontraditional pro-life groups at the march—that is, the nonconservative and nonreligious organizations—to hear a slate of speeches, many of them from nonreligious or left-leaning pro-life leaders. But Rehumanize International’s communications director, Herb Geraghty, takes care to explain that these aren’t meant to be counterprogramming efforts: “When we host these meet-ups, we’re not protesting the March for Life,” he says. He describes these events and the presentations given at them as supplementary to the main rally.

At the March for Life, and in the pro-life movement generally, Christianity is abundant; at this year’s March for Life Expo, for example, held the day before the march, a majority of the tables set up at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C., belonged to churches or Christian groups. Conservatism, too, runs strong in the pro-life movement, and in recent years, so has support for Donald Trump’s administration: In 2017, Vice President Mike Pence became the first sitting vice president to address the March for Life rally (held annually just before the march begins), and last year President Trump became the first sitting president to do so when he appeared at the event via live-stream. (This year, Pence spoke at both the rally itself and a dinner following.)

But despite what the popular narrative might suggest—that the pro-life side of the abortion debate is conservative and the pro-choice side is liberal, and the two sides don’t like each other—secular and left-leaning pro-lifers I spoke with said they felt welcome at the March for Life, and that most of the time they feel welcome in the pro-life movement in general, too.

They do, of course, know they’re outnumbered. While I spoke with one marcher with a Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) sign, a stranger bedecked in pro-life memorabilia approached him, exclaimed, “You’re a Democrat? Hallelujah!” and demanded a photo of him holding his sign.

“We’re kind of like the counterculture within the movement,” laughed Jongeun Lee, 32, another protester with the DFLA.

But as Aimee Murphy, the executive director of Rehumanize International, explained to me, groups that espouse the consistent-life ethic are the black sheep at just about any rally or protest they attend—and they’re used to it. “We go to anti-war marches, to immigrant- and refugee-rights events like the ones this past summer, and we’re like, ‘Okay, we’re here in support of the mission of this march,’” she says. “There’ll be a group [nearby] that advocates for abortion, or advocates for the right to suicide, and we’re just like, ‘Eh, well. We have common ground on this issue.’”

“Movements are going to be fought with people coming together on one issue and having differences in other places,” Murphy added. “We come together where we can.”

Secular pro-life groups tend to put special emphasis on scientific evidence to support the idea that a human life begins at conception. When I spoke with Murphy last week, she told me she was heartened by the theme chosen for this year’s March for Life, “Unique From Day One: Pro-life Is Pro-science.” At the time, the March for Life had not yet unveiled its full slate of speakers for the pre-march rally, and Murphy was hopeful “that maybe one of our atheist pro-life friends will have the chance to speak from the stage, or at least be up there.” In recent years, the lineup of speakers at the March for Life rally has mostly consisted of politicians (largely Republican), faith leaders, and sports and entertainment personalities. (Ultimately, no speakers on the March for Life stage on Friday publicly professed themselves to be atheists, but Murphy said she was at least pleased to see that a doctor, Kathi Aultman of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, had made it into the mix.)

The lineup of speakers did, however, include an equal number of Republican politicians and Democratic politicians this year (two each)—which Bill Samuel, the former president of the Consistent Life Network, sees as a positive development. Samuel, 71, has been attending the March for Life for more than 15 years, and he credits the march’s current leadership with making nonconservative and nonreligious pro-life groups feel welcome at the event. There was a time, Samuel says, when pro-life Democrats and pro-life feminists were made to feel unwelcome at the march, but that’s changed since 2012, when Jeanne Mancini became its president. “The march is still relatively conservative,” Samuel says, but he believes the organizers “see the need for broadening.” (The march’s official policy, according to Mancini, is that it “unites pro-life groups who wish to stand up for the unborn. We are nonsectarian and nonpartisan, and welcome anyone who peacefully advocates for this cause. We only exclude groups who advocate for violence of any kind, including abortion, which is violence in the womb.”)

The inclusion of Ben Shapiro, the founder of the conservative website The Daily Wire and the host of the podcast The Ben Shapiro Show, on the rally’s lineup angered some left-leaning supporters of the pro-life cause; Shapiro is a popular figure among far-right conservatives, and a recent op-ed in The Washington Post warned that Shapiro’s invitation to the main stage of the March for Life would alienate nonconservatives from the event. (Shapiro also made headlines Friday morning when he proclaimed that if he were given the chance to go back in time and kill baby Hitler, because of his pro-life beliefs, he would not.)

Some secular pro-lifers I spoke with could see the logic of inviting a popular figure with passionate pro-life views to speak at the rally. But others were less than thrilled about Shapiro’s presence. For one thing, they didn’t love that Shapiro, who recorded an episode of his podcast from the main stage, often referred to supporters of abortion rights as “the left.” Geraghty, Rehumanize’s communications director, referred to himself in conversation as a “leftist”; other pro-life protesters I spoke with described themselves as left-leaning or progressive. But as Josh Stanton, a 23-year-old attending the march who also supports causes such as Black Lives Matter, pointed out, derogatorily conflating “the right” and “the left” with “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” respectively, is pretty common now, “on both sides.”

Xavier Bisits, 24, who attended the march with the DFLA, said he had “a problem” with Shapiro’s involvement. “I think we would say that his claim to be pro-life is not consistent with the other things that we support,” Bisits said. For instance, he doesn’t believe Shapiro supports “what I think is necessary intervention to support human life in other contexts. Things like government support for women who are struggling to find housing, which is obviously one of the biggest issues that women in crisis pregnancies are facing.” (Shapiro did not respond to a request for comment.)

Still, most of the secular, left-leaning pro-lifers I spoke with agreed that they felt included and welcome at the March for Life event on Friday. Genevieve Aucoin, a 23-year-old hospice music therapist, especially appreciated the march’s—and the movement’s—recent pivot to science. “I don’t think that abortion will be ended by religious proselytization. I think that it will be ended by making arguments that appeal to everyone,” she said. “If my argument is based on what God says, okay. But not everyone believes in God, and not everyone believes God wants the same things I think God wants. I just think that going back to basic science, to human dignity, that’s what can appeal to everyone—that every human has dignity.”

And Cecilia Cervantes, a 26-year-old wearing two adjacent buttons reading Overturn Roe and Feminism: Equality for All, told me she’s always felt welcome at both the March for Life and the Women’s March—which in recent years she’s attended back-to-back—and believes it’s important to go to both, even though she doesn’t feel her beliefs are perfectly represented by either’s platform. “At the end of the day, you’re trying to build solidarity with other people and put your message out there. Hopefully one day someone with a secular perspective or feminist perspective will be on the [March for Life] stage,” she says. “You have to be at the table to be part of the conversation.”

Cervantes also hopes that if she and other pro-life feminists attend enough Women’s Marches, eventually women who represent pro-life groups might be invited to speak as part of the event. (The official page for the Women’s March lists “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion and birth control for all people, regardless of income, location or education” as one of its foundational principles.)

Around half past 1 p.m. on Friday afternoon, Rehumanize’s Murphy—in purple lipstick and a denim jacket adorned with a cartoon uterus and the words WEAPON-FREE ZONE—led her fellow secular pro-lifers down Constitution Avenue toward the Supreme Court. Cheery pop songs blared from the speaker that she and her fellow organizers rolled behind them on a cart, competing cacophonously with the singing of the black-robed men of the Polish Seminary, who were marching just a few feet away. At any moment their small, colorful crew risked losing one another in the throng. But should they drift apart, no big deal: There were long-standing plans in place to meet up later for karaoke.

As the protesters began to move forward, the marchers from the #ProScienceProLife meet-up stood out within the crowd, certainly, but they also stood squarely within it.