'He’s Chosen This Movement as His Own'

At the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., pro-life activists said the president has a lot to be proud of.

Participants watch as President Trump speaks by satellite from the White House to attendees of the March for Life rally in Washington.
Participants watch as President Trump speaks by satellite from the White House to attendees of the March for Life rally in Washington. (Eric Thayer / Reuters)

Throughout Donald Trump’s first full year as president, his approval rating has plummeted. He’s offended and alarmed some Americans with his controversial tweets and remarks on race and immigration. Others have been dismayed by his response to the Russia investigation. He’s even lost a chunk of support within his own base.

But Trump’s performance has at least one group collectively beaming: the pro-life community.

“He’s gotten a lot right this year,” said Jeanne Mancini, the president of the March for Life rally, in an interview earlier this week. “He has a lot to be proud of in his first year in pro-life policy.”

The March for Life, which started in 1973 as a response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion in all 50 states, is an annual gathering in Washington, D.C., of pro-life leaders and organizations from around the country. On Friday, thousands descended on the National Mall for the event, where for the first time ever a sitting U.S. president made an appearance, albeit virtually. Trump addressed the crowd in a live broadcast from the Rose Garden, his image emanating from a jumbotron at the front of the rally.

“That this is the first time a sitting president is going to be addressing the march in such a way is really exciting,” said Mallory Quigley, the communications director for the Susan B. Anthony List, before the march. According to The Washington Post, two of Trump’s Republican predecessors addressed the rally by phone call. “I think it’s a testament to how far we’ve come in 45 years,” added Quigley, whose organization supports anti-abortion politicians.

The crowd at Friday’s event was loud and animated. Hundreds of student clubs and church groups stomped through the wet grass in herds, holding signs that read “Help Her Be Brave” and “Save the Baby Humans”—and most wearing matching neon hats or t-shirts. Students from St. Michael, a private school in Fredericksburg, Virginia, were cheering and chanting, “We are the pro-life generation!”

Quigley said this year has been an especially energizing one for pro-life Americans. In 2016, then-candidate Trump wrote a letter to pro-life leaders outlining four commitments: to nominate pro-life justices to the U.S. Supreme Court; to sign into law the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act; to defund Planned Parenthood; and to make the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds from being used for abortions, permanent law. This, Quigley told me, has been the movement’s working to-do list throughout the past year.

While Trump has accomplished item No. 1—he put Neil Gorsuch, a staunch conservative, on the bench—the other three tasks remain. But he has advanced a pro-life agenda in other ways. In his first three days in office, Trump reinstated a policy that prohibits foreign organizations that receive U.S. funds from providing or recommending abortions. In April, Trump signed legislation allowing states to deny federal funds to organizations that provide legal abortions, like Planned Parenthood. And this month, the Trump administration created a new office in the Department of Health and Human Services devoted to protecting health-care workers who object to participating in abortion procedures, among others.

These actions, coupled with his address at the march, solidify his commitment to the movement, Quigley said. “It’s not just the vice president that’s leading him,” she told me, referring to Mike Pence’s longtime opposition to abortion. “He’s affirmatively chosen this movement as his own.”

During the speeches portion of the rally, House Speaker Paul Ryan offered similar praise for Trump, after taking to the stage to cheers. “The pro-life movement is on the rise,” he said. “Truth is on our side!” (At almost the same time, a pair of birds—what looked like eagles—flew overhead through the cloudless sky, and everyone around me whipped out their phones to capture the symbolism.) “Can we thank God for putting a pro-life president back in the White House?” Ryan asked the crowd.

But Trump only recently aligned himself with the movement. In 1999, he told Meet the Press he was “very pro-choice” and supported partial-birth abortion. By the 2016 campaign, however, he was suggesting that women who get abortions should be punished—a statement he later retracted. This turnabout was believable for some in the pro-life movement. “Here’s the thing about Trump,” Quigley said. “He says he’s had a pro-life conversion. I don’t know his heart, but it looks to me like he absolutely has, that his position is genuine. But the fact is that at the end of the day, either way, he sees the political saliency of this issue.”

How Trump acts in office is enough for Quigley, and it’s enough for the other attendees I spoke with, too. Near the jumbotron, awaiting Trump’s address to the crowd, I found Tom Venditti, a full-time musician from Ligonier, Pennsylvania, who goes by the stage name Brother Tomasio. Venditti, clad in a tunic bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, was shaking a maraca with one hand and passing out Trump-Pence posters with the other. “We’re very excited about having the president acknowledge our presence,” Venditti told me. “I think he’s very humbled by a lot of the sins he committed that everyone talks about every day. I think he’s trying to pay back America and the unborn children as well.”

Mark Theobald, who works in information technology at Ford Motor Company in the Detroit area, was wearing his Trump button proudly when I asked for an interview Friday morning. “I believe he’s the first president in a long while who’s gonna do something,” Theobald said. “He already is.”

Several people I spoke with at the march acknowledged that the president wasn’t their first choice in the 2016 election, but said they were pleasantly surprised by his first year. Two 19-year-old students, Claire Buede and Lindsey Becker, had traveled to Washington from the University of Mary in North Dakota with 150 of their classmates. “While he’s not my favorite guy out there, I’ve been impressed with quite a few of the things he’s done,” Buede told me. Becker nodded. “It doesn’t really matter who the leader is as long as someone’s doing it,” Becker said. “Even if it’s not the best situation, God can use anyone.”

During his address on Friday, Trump vowed that his administration would continue to promote pro-life policies. “We are with you all the way,” the president said in closing. “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” When he was done, everyone cheered loudly, perhaps in the hopes that Trump, a mile away in the White House, would hear them.