Washington, DC -- Carrying signs that read "Defend Life" and "Stop Abortion Now," tens of thousands of pro-life people marched to the Supreme Court on Monday in an annual peaceful walk against Roe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion on demand nationwide 28 years ago.
But there was something different this year: President Bush, a pro-life advocate sworn in two days before the ``March for Life,'' welcomed and encouraged the protesters.
"Two days ago, Americans gathered on the Washington Mall to celebrate our nation's ideals. Today, you are gathered to remind our country that one of those ideals is the infinite value of every life," Bush said in a message read by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) a leading pro-life advocate in Congress.
Pro-life advocates hope to take advantage of the new political landscape to prompt a Republican-controlled Congress and White House they expect will be more sympathetic to overturning Roe v. Wade.
Bush told the crowd he appreciated their efforts.
"We share a great goal: to work toward a day when every child is welcomed in life and protected in law," his message said. "We know this will not come easily, or all at once. But the goal leads us onward: to build a culture of life, affirming that every person, at every stage and season of life, is created equally in God's image."
Former President Clinton supported abortion on demand and thwarted pro-life legislation, including a ban on partial-birth abortions. He never addressed the gathering, but two of his Republican predecessors, George Bush and Ronald Reagan, sent pro-life greetings.
Those attending, meeting for a rally on the Ellipse near the White House, were led in prayer by pro-life Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) before walking to the Supreme Court.
"The only way a baby should die is of natural causes," said Lisa Fischer, 12, of Baldwin, Pa., one of many Catholic students whose schools chartered buses for the rally. She and her friends agreed abortion should be banned even in cases of rape and incest.
A big cheer went up when the crowd was told that Bush had signed a memorandum on Monday reversing Clinton's policy of funding groups that promote or perform abortions in foreign countries. Bush's first major policy action since becoming president effectively reinstates the full abortion restrictions on U.S. overseas aid that his father and Reagan had put into place.
"Boy it feels good to say 'former President Clinton,'" said pro-life Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) adding that the country now has a president who believes "human life is sacred."
"I think pro-life people -- and I think that's a majority in the country -- certainly feel better now," said David O'Steen, executive director of National Right to Life.
Twice during his presidency, Clinton vetoed legislation to ban partial-birth abortion. Chabot said the measure would be reintroduced. "He will sign it, not veto it," he said of Bush.
Norma McCorvey, the former "Jane Roe" of Roe v. Wade, who now runs Dallas-based Roe No More Ministry, a speakers' referral service for the pro-life cause. "I think the majority of pro-lifers are really looking forward to President Bush getting into office," McCorvey said. "I think we all have the same dream: Wed like to see Roe v. Wade overturned."
Abortion advocates criticized the march.
"They don't represent the majority of people in this country who are pro-choice and pro-family planning and who voted for the pro-choice candidate," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "George W. Bush has ripped away any remnant of a moderate mask that he wore during the election," Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, told about only 200 people at a candlelight vigil outside the court Monday night.
They held signs such as "Keep Abortion Legal" and "Fight the Radical Right" and chanted against former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, Bush's pro-life choice for attorney general.
Despite some setbacks, pro-life advocates seem energized and expect Bush to move quickly to overturn several pro-abortion Clinton administration policies. Another candidate for reversal is government approval of the dangerous RU-486 abortion pill. Pro-life advocates also want a ban on federal funding for research involving fetal tissue or the destruction of human embryos, including stem cell research.
The March for Life was led by about 100 students from St. Benedict at Auburndale High School in Cordova, Tenn., who were wearing red ponchos and holding a white banner that reads "March for Life" in the center and "Support the Life Principles" on each side. Jimmy Connor, 17, a junior at St. Benedict, said: "We're lucky because we're leading the whole thing. Everyone will see us. Some people may not like it. People have their own opinion, and if they don't like it, they don't like it. We're not worried about it."
People attending had varying comments about the day and the state of the pro-life community and the abortion debate:
Charity Schroeder, 21, of Sterling, Kans., said: "I really appreciated what President Bush had to say. He's definitely a breath of fresh air after eight years."
Irene Scherrman, 47, from Farley, Iowa, who arrived in Washington yesterday after a 20-hour bus ride, said she participated in the march five years ago. "It's so impressive to have 100,000 people marching for the same cause," she said, anticipating the turnout of thousands of protesters.
Scherrman also said that she hopes to see RU-486, the so-called "abortion pill," pulled off the market. "I have read and read about it, and it seems so harmful if it isn't taken correctly, it is a very dangerous pill," she said.
Matt Marrazzo, 41, and his 10-year-old daughter, Megan, both of Fairfax, said they have been coming to the march since Megan was 6.
Megan, a fourth-grader at Willow Springs Elementary School, was holding a sign that said, "My dad was adopted. If he was aborted, I wouldn't be here." She said she enjoyed spending the day with her father. "Some of the kids at school don't even know what abortion is," she said.
Holly Hanson, 17, from Dubuque, Iowa, who was holding a "Defend Life" sign, said, "The new election has given us a lot of hope, just because abortion is legal right now doesn't mean it's right. We'd like to see Roe v. Wade totally overturned, and I think Bush's first step will be to ban partial-birth abortion."
At a pre-march rally, members of Congress and pro-life groups addressed March for Life participants at the Washington Monument. In addition, Archbishop of Washington Theodore E. McCarrick, who was designated by Pope John Paul II to become a cardinal, will attend the rally.
The Gallup Organization said in a poll on Monday that while most Americans feel Roe vs. Wade should stand, the percentage of people who considered themselves "pro-life" rose from 33 percent to 43 percent over the past 5 years. The percentage who saw themselves as "pro-choice" declined from 56 to 48 percent.