Thousands of bundled-up abortion opponents rallied Monday on the National Mall, encouraged by recent federal and state GOP wins and hopeful about proposed measures that would further tighten bans on federal funding for abortions.
The March for Life, which marks Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision in 1973 that overturned state laws banning abortion, tends to focus on mobilizing the young, and Catholic high schools, youth groups and colleges were out in force.
For the first time, a morning concert and Mass held at Verizon Center were expanded to the D.C. Armory, where a parallel event was held. More than 27,000 young people attended the events, which began after dawn and included readings by youths in hooded sweat shirts and jeans, contemporary praise music and dozens of priests hearing confessions in the sports arena's dining area.
The Rev. Mark Ivany of the Catholic Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, who delivered the homily at Verizon Center, compared attendees with activists from previous eras who fought against slavery and for women's right to vote.
"The greatest difference between other civil rights movements and this one is that most of the people affected by Roe v. Wade can't march on Washington," Ivany said. "They can't give great speeches."
The Verizon Center crowd spilled onto downtown streets to join a pre-march rally on the Mall about noon. Some signs and buttons were evergreen: "De-fund Planned Parenthood," "I was adopted not aborted" and "I regret my abortion." But mixed in were many about President Barack Obama, whom the movement hopes will be challenged by recently elected conservatives. "Stop the Obama abortion agenda," a common sign said.
Advocates on both sides of the debate say the number of governors and legislatures opposing abortion rights grew after last fall's elections. Abortion rights activists say that conservative candidates focused on their economic policies during campaigns and that the wins were not about the public wanting to limit access to abortion.
Political experts say it's unclear how central the issue of abortion will be for new lawmakers in Washington, particularly those with tea party backing.
For the 38th annual march Monday, lawmakers cheered the crowds in temperatures that hovered in the 20s.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said the new Republicans in Congress are the "biggest and the most pro-life freshman class in memory."
In the District of Columbia, officials and abortion rights supporters say they are concerned about the potential impact of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, a measure introduced in the House last week that has more than 160 sponsors.
In addition to strengthening the national ban on using federal funds for abortion services, the bill would bar the district from using its own money to provide abortions for low-income women.
Washington Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, said conservative lawmakers, who normally advocate for state and local governments to have more autonomy, were being hypocritical in supporting the measure.
House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio has called the abortion measure "one of our highest legislative priorities," but it has not been scheduled for a vote in the House, and it may not come up at all in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican, also introduced a measure that supporters say would ensure that the health care reform bill passed last year doesn't allow funding for abortion coverage.
Lawmakers who oppose abortion sought to have an explicit funding ban written into the law, but Obama signed an executive order that he said did the same thing. Abortion foes say it didn't go far enough. In his comments to the crowd Monday, Smith called Obama "the abortion president."
Some attending the events Monday said that more young people appeared to be participating than in previous years. Among them was Sister Marilyn Minter, a nun and youth leader from the Newark, N.J., archdiocese. She stood outside Verizon Center because she couldn't get a ticket for the concert and Mass.
"It's reverence for life," Minter said of the reason for what she saw as more energy among Catholic youths. "It's interesting to me to see young kids want to respect life at every single level — birth to death."