The second sign was an interstate billboard-sized display at street level that declared abortion “child sacrifice,” and, for good measure, illustrated this child sacrifice with two creative illustrations of demons torturing babies. An all-male crew worked silently to assemble it, unfurled canvas block by block. It was very circa-1988 heavy metal album cover, those 10-foot-tall prints of horned beasts dangling infants by the legs over a pit of fire. I’d find out why it was so far from the main site of official March for Life events later that day.
Pundits and opinion columnists agree: the 2012 and the 2016 elections were about totally different issues. The former was a referendum on Obama’s first term; this was a “change election.” Four years ago, voters were focused on the “war on women;” this time it was about jobs. Or maybe this time voters were motivated by “economic anxiety.” Perhaps it was about the damn emails! But, by and large, political commentators agreed, this year, things were different.
Or maybe they weren’t. In the last week, two massive marches descended on Washington, each representing an impassioned, highly motivated voting bloc. A week ago, it was a mostly-female crowd of people united by their adherence to a progressive agenda that included abortion access. Today, men and women from all over the country (and world) gathered on the same soil to oppose abortion access. I attended both marches. Their respective success so close in succession tells a story of a much different sort of electorate than the punditry would have you believe.
Freshly in DC, I paused in front of the Abortion Is Child Sacrifice display. It was jarring. I had some questions. Thankfully, a man wearing a blue hoodie that read, succinctly, “I AM PRO LIFE” explained that the display was courtesy of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform. The group’s leader Greg Cunningham had art-directed it, since, you know, there’s not a ton of popular demand for stock art of this nature. That was a joke. The hoodie man did not laugh. Instead, he helpfully offered to introduce me to somebody who could give me Mr. Cunningham’s contact information, so we could chat more about the Center’s work and mission.
I glanced back at the poster, at the part of the mural where a man in a turban offered a throned demon two infants. The demon was pretty excited about this. Yes! Yes, he wanted the infants!
No, I didn’t need to meet Greg Cunningham.
Later, I learned that the extremely metal abortion art group was a bit of a March for Life pariah. Organizers liked to keep them at arm’s length. Something about how the imagery they used to further their point was too extreme for the image that organizers wanted to project. Disappointing. That mural was extremely cool. The photo of dismembered fetuses next to it I could have done without.
Past the initial fiery bath of damnation, the March was much more Hogwarts than hellfire. Pods of teens and young adults wore matching knit caps and sang camp songs or chanted as they made their way to the rally site, just past the National Mall, next to the Washington Monument. The girls wore identically straight long hair, the boys plodded along in that half-embarrassed hands-in-pockets shuffle anybody who ever had a teenage brother would recognize.The march was dominated by young people, high-school kids, college kids. Kids from Indiana, from Maine, from New Hampshire. Lithuania! They were having a great time. It looked like the kind of fun that’s the most fun when it represents a chance to feel important on your own, away from your parents. It looked like the kind of fun a person can have if they’ve never lived on their own and been faced with the prospect of unplanned parenthood, and the real impact it could have on the entire course of their lives. It looked like hopeful fun in the name of a cause many of its participants couldn’t fully understand. They couldn’t possibly know the micro implications of their advocacy.
The march wasn’t entirely young kids. There were plenty of clergy, each in their own order-specific garb. A friend, a devout pro-life Catholic, kept pointing them out. Franciscans! Sisters of Life! It was like spotting license plates on a family road trip. There were also plenty of older adults, families with small children, and adult church groups. But they were overwhelmingly white.
While the variety of signs at the March For Life didn’t compare to the Women’s March, what they lacked in irreverence they made up for in sincerity. Last week, a friend spotted a sign that read “Meryl Streep isn’t overrated, you fucking piece of shit.” I saw no fucks today. Hellfire was mild. Prefab adoption-encouraging signs in a pleasant teal abounded. There was female anatomy, sure, but nothing that would have to be pixelated on the evening news. There were no cartoonishly rendered vagina dentatae. There were cross-section drawings of a pregnant woman. Sometimes her fetus was being aborted. Other times, it was surrounded by a heart, to signify love. Usually, the diagrams were just the female torso.
It was clear that the organizers of the March for Life expected a big crowd, but they didn’t expect the enormity of the crowd that showed up, nor did they expect the security headache that came with a last-minute appearance by the Vice President. Mike Pence’s speaking slot had only been announced yesterday, after Donald Trump went on a tirade against the media for not covering the March for Life adequately in years past. It seems that when Donald Trump lashes out at the media for not covering something, it’s a good indicator that that Donald Trump is just learning that a particular thing exists.
This was as good a year as any to learn that the March for Life is a thing. The weather, only slightly too cold and slightly too bright, meant would-be attendees had no excuse for skipping it. And they showed up in droves. The lines to make it through security crawled at a maddening pace. Eventually, it seemed like the screeners just stopped letting people in. Some attendees didn’t get close enough to the stage to hear the speakers by the time the blockbusters had come and gone. They’d cheer in response to cheering they heard further up, trusting that if they were cheering up there, something good must have happened.
Vice President Pence and Kellyanne Conway, senior advisor to President Trump, both spoke about how deeply important being pro-life was to each of them. Hours after his administration officials’ heartfelt declarations about all life’s preciousness, President Donald Trump signed executive orders temporarily suspending the admission of refugees to the U.S. from all countries with few exceptions. He further barred citizens of several Muslim countries, including Syria, from entering the U.S. on visas. In Syria, an estimated 312,000 to 470,000 people have died as a result of the country’s ongoing civil war since 2011. Trump has batted around the idea of using torture on America’s enemies again. This week, he laid the groundwork for unraveling the Affordable Care Act without a clear plan for replacing it. He considered slashing funds to a UN-affiliated agency that works to prevent child marriages and female genital mutilation. He cheerleader-ed a Russian strongman who has been suspected in the murder of journalists and other enemies. The branding of pro-life to mean anti-abortion always felt like a fast one to me. It especially felt like a fast one this year, on this day.
When I spend time around my friends who are pro-life, we sometimes discuss abortion, but the only way we don’t fight is if we assume that neither of us is going to budge in our views. My friend, the one who knew the orders of clergy by their vestments, was reading a book about Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor who was more a butcher than a medical practitioner. Gosnell’s story is one pro-life adherents often cite in calling for an end to abortion. Pro-choice advocates counter that what Gosnell did was outside of the realm of what anybody thinks should be legal. I was preoccupied with the President’s cruelty. We both acknowledged the legitimacy of the other’s horror and did not get angry. We were very polite, but we did not change our minds.
After the rally, the participants marched singing, chanting, hoisting signs, waving flags. They marched up to the Supreme Court. Women who regretted having abortions testified to the horrors of their abortion experiences. At the Women’s March last week, women were eager to tell me about their abortions, legal and illegal, and weren’t ashamed. The women at the March for Life were telling the truth the March for Life participants wanted to hear. The women at the Women’s March were telling the truth those marchers wanted to hear. The truths did not intersect, because they can’t intersect.
Both sides of the abortion debate are compromise’s worst enemy. Bring up abortion reduction and a progressive risks offending voices on the pro-choice side that insist that abortion should be on demand and without apology or stigma. Bring up birth control on the pro-life side and you risk offending hard-core factions who believe that abortion is a product of an immoral society and that sex is sacred act designed for procreation, and that interfering at all with procreation was akin to interfering with God. Both sides are so reverent to their far edges that there’s no middle, only capitulation to the extremes.
Every election is different. Each has its own mini catastrophes and forgettable narratives that become late-night monologue joke fodder before being discarded from memory like a flyer shoved to the bottom of a tote bag. For people who fall on either end of the choice issue, in every election, there’s only one question to be answered: pro-life or pro-choice? Nothing else— not jobs, the economy, foreign entanglements, pussy grabbing—matters. Abortion is a matter of life and death. It’s the most durable single-issue vote. Until something seismic happens, every political fight will eventually be an abortion fight.