Several thousand New Yorkers, undeterred by distance, icy winds or a blizzard the previous day, traveled to Washington, D.C., Jan. 24 to participate in the 32nd annual March for Life.
Buses departed from more than 30 locations, including parishes and high schools, in the early hours of a brutally cold morning. George Gredell, who chairs the pro-life committee at Sacred Heart parish in Monroe, said that when the bus left at 4:45 a.m., the temperature was around zero.
But if the thermometer hit a low, spirits went the other way. A big reason was the large number of young people who participated. Adults who have been in the pro-life movement for years said they are deeply impressed by the commitment and reverence - for God and for life - of the youngsters who are becoming involved.
The total number of marchers was estimated to be about 100,000.
President George W. Bush, speaking to marchers via telephone from Camp David in Maryland, said that the federal government is "working to promote a culture of life, to promote compassion for women and their unborn babies."
The president spoke for about five minutes at the beginning of the rally. "We know that in a culture that does not protect the most dependent," he said, "the handicapped, the elderly, the unloved or (those who are) simply inconvenient become increasingly vulnerable."
Bush pointed to laws passed during his first term in office, including the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in 2003. Implementation of the law has been held up by three separate federal district courts - in New York, Nebraska and California - which have declared it unconstitutional.
In an allusion to federal funding for cloning and for stem-cell research, Bush added, "We're also moving ahead in terms of medicine and research to make sure that the gifts of science are consistent with our highest values of freedom, equality, family and human dignity. We will not sanction the creation of life only to destroy it."
The March for Life usually takes place on the Jan. 22 anniversary date of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton decisions that legalized abortion virtually on demand. When the anniversary date falls on the weekend, as it did this year, organizers choose the following Monday so participants can lobby their respective legislators on life issues.
On the eve of the March for Life, Cardinal Keeler celebrated a vigil Mass opening the National Prayer Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. He told a capacity congregation of more than 5,500 people not to give up hope in their efforts to change the country's abortion laws. "The evil must end," he said.
Brother Paul O'Donnell, a member of the Franciscan Brothers for Peace, addressed the rally the next day on behalf of Terri Schindler Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court Jan. 24 refused to reinstate a Florida law that permitted her feeding tube to remain in place over her husband's objections. The decision clears the way for the tube to be removed; the woman's parents, who want her on a feeding tube, have been battling her husband over the matter.
"Terri Schiavo has a right to life," Brother O'Donnell said. "Today is not the final word."
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said he and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., would introduce in their respective chambers the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act to require in part that women seeking abortions at 20 weeks' gestation or longer be informed that the child in their womb can "feel excruciating pain, two to four times more pain than you or I would feel from the same type of assault."
Eileen Peterson of Stony Point has seven children; five went to the march with her. She told CNY that through the years she has seen an increase in the the number of children and teens who make the trip.
"But this year," she said, "the ratio of young people to senior citizens was incredible. And their spirit, their love, their energy! The youth are going to win this victory for God."
The young people joined in reciting the Rosary and singing hymns such as "Ave Maria" and "Immaculate Mary." Although marchers were packed tightly together, there was no shoving or rudeness.
"Such respect and reverence and politeness," she said. "The love just touched your heart."
Gredell also was heartened by the sight of young marchers.
"It's encouraging to us who are in our mature years," he said. He added that the youngsters "really seem to understand what they are talking about" on pro-life issues.
Rosemary Tirone was the march organizer for Our Lady of the Rosary parish - known as Holy Rosary - in Port Chester. On board the bus were students from the parish school and St. John the Evangelist School in White Plains. They watched a pro-life video en route to Washington, and they received a printed list of responses to common arguments in support of abortion. The objective, Mrs. Tirone explained, is to drive home the lesson that abortion takes a baby's life.
She said that the children were impressed by the size of the crowd and the number of young people like themselves. But it wasn't only youth who reacted favorably. Mrs. Tirone said that several adults on the bus were marching for the first time.
"They were so enthusiastic," she said. "They said, 'We're going to do this next year.' "
The archdiocesan Family Life/Respect Life Office had distributed a gift for each marcher before the event: a large, kelly green scarf made of soft, warm fleece. Several coordinators told CNY that the scarves not only kept out the cold, but also allowed New Yorkers to spot one another.
"Whenever we saw people wearing the scarves, we said, 'Hey - New York!' " Mrs. Tirone remarked.
Gredell said that the driver on his bus kidded riders, "You can't get back on without your green scarf!"
Inez Niblo, chairman of Rockland Right-to-Life, told CNY that this year's march, like the previous ones, was "very peaceful."
"People associate this issue with confrontation," she said, "but there is none."
Also marching were the Sisters of Life, including Sister Mary Elizabeth, S.V., director of the Family Life/Respect Life Office. She said that the mood was "positive, upbeat and very hopeful." She was particularly moved by the "Silent No More" demonstration by women carrying signs with the message "I Regret My Abortion."
"They gave witness to the devastating and tragic effect their abortion had on their lives and the lives of their families," she said. She added that many of the women said that had been pressured or coerced into having an abortion, and that many had found post-abortion healing through faith, especially in "an encounter with the healing Christ." She also remarked that Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" ("The Gospel of Life") told women who have had abortions that after they find forgiveness and healing, they will become the most eloquent defenders of life.
"We're seeing a real shift in the march and the movement now," Sister Mary Elizabeth said. "Not only are we speaking of the incomparable value of the unborn child, and the tragedy that abortion is. Thirty-two years later (after Roe vs. Wade), we're keenly aware of how abortion hurts women, and of the deep suffering that both men and women experience after an abortion."
Gredell looks forward to the day when "we'll be going down to celebrate the end of Roe vs. Wade."
"I think that will happen eventually," he said.
Catholic News Service contributed to this story.