WASHINGTON, DC — On Friday, across from the Supreme Court Building, a middle-aged white man held up a handmade sign: “Make babies great again!”
“Are you saying babies aren’t great now?” I asked him.
His wife laughed as if I’d just told an extremely scandalous joke. The man shrugged and said, “Good point!”
The organizers of the March for Life describe the event as “a peaceful demonstration to share the truth concerning the greatest human rights violation of our time, legalized abortion on demand.” The march has been taking place in some form since a year after the Roe v. Wade decision came down in 1973, but this year’s—held a week after the widely covered Women’s March on Washington—managed to incorporate both President Donald Trump’s now inescapable campaign slogan and social justice messaging. A vendor on the National Mall sold T-shirts reading, “UNBORN LIVES MATTER.” A white child held up a sign that read, “More black babies are aborted than born! #BlackLivesMatter.” (That statistic was true only for New York City in 2012 and 2013.)
Many March for Life attendees in Washington today spoke about “giving a voice to the voiceless” and supporting the most vulnerable among us. But in conversation, those stated values tended to slip away when confronted with the ways human life is already being threatened under the Trump administration.
Charles Price, a security guard in Washington, said he decided to come to the March for Life after reading a news story this week about scientists injecting human stem cells into pig embryos. These human-pig “chimeras” could potentially be used to grow organs that could be used for human transplants. It’s estimated that 22 people die everyday waiting for an organ transplant, but Price said using pig embryos to harvest organs is a bridge too far.
“We need to rein in science. We need to stop these liberals that think that anything is OK,” he wrote in an email.
Outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Carey Helmick held her 3-month-old son Rory in one arm and a homemade cardboard sign in the other: “Pro-health care. Pro-livable wage. Pro-paid maternity leave. Pro-life feminist.”
She said she doesn’t think the Trump administration is pro-life, and added it would be “repulsive” and “inhumane” for Republicans in power to repeal the Affordable Care Act without effectively replacing it. Still, she hopes mainstream feminism will one day grow to oppose legalized abortion.
“Feminism is about standing up for those who are marginalized in society,” she said. “Just as feminism was originally kind of a white, upper-class movement, and then started to include more marginalized communities, I think one day feminism will come to mean protection for the unborn as well.”
Colette Moran, a stay-at-home mother of seven, is a member of the group Feminists For Life who believes “the right to life must take precedence over personal autonomy.” She voted for a third-party presidential candidate in Virginia. When asked if the Trump administration is pro-life, she sighed.
“I don’t know about this president, but he’s been making moves and decisions that I would support,” she said.
Darlene Pawlik, 50, said she was conceived as a result of rape when her mother was 15 years old. She was skeptical of the idea that Trump is pro-life, but voted for the Republican presidential ticket anyway. “I voted for [Vice President] Mike Pence,” she said.
Pence has a long history of pushing anti-abortion policies. Last March, he signed a bill that would have required health care providers in Indiana to have burial or cremation services for the remains of aborted fetuses, and which prohibited the donation of fetal tissue. Pence’s support of the pro-life movement hasn’t waned since taking on his new role; on Friday, he became the highest ranking member of government to address the march in person.
Still, not everyone there was confident in the new administration’s bona fides. Sophie Oriani, 25, said the Trump administration is “certainly not consistently” pro-life.
“Trump just came out in favor of torture, and I don’t think torture is pro-life,” she said. (He walked back this stance slightly on Friday.)
Oriani said being “pro-life” means supporting comprehensive health care and paid parental leave.
“If you just overturn Roe v. Wade and then think that is the end, that’s not really solving the problem,” she said.
The idea that Donald J. Trump is “pro-life” in the literal and not anti-abortion sense is a farce worthy of a Neil Simon production. This is a man who has dismissed undocumented immigrants as “rapists,” implied he doesn’t respect prisoners of war, fantasized about Muslims being killed with bullets “dipped in pig’s blood,” who said in one interview that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions, and who, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, signed an executive order that consigns Syrian refugees, including many Syrian children, to their deaths. Saying Donald Trump is “pro-life” is like saying Jim Bakker is a survival nutritionist.
This mind-bending definition of “pro-life” has long been in effect, but there has been some good news for both abortion rights advocates and detractors: the abortion rate in the U.S. has steadily declined over the past three decades. A recent Guttmacher Institute report found that the abortion rate is the lowest it’s been since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. Both Planned Parenthood and anti-abortion groups have tried to lay claim to these declining numbers.
Only one of those entities, however, can accurately do so: researchers say the increased use of long-acting contraceptives, not abortion restrictions at the state level, have most contributed to the drop in the abortion rate. Between 2007 and 2012, the use of long-acting contraceptive devices—like IUDs and implants—more than tripled. From that perspective, repealing the Affordable Care Act could very well lead to a spike in abortions, as fewer women are able to afford effective birth control. Two scholars have estimated that repealing the Affordable Care Act would lead to the deaths of 43,000 people per year.
Texas is one such state that has restricted, defunded and shut down family planning clinics across the state. As a result, according to a 2016 study in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, Texas has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world. Sometimes, celebrating a “culture of life” can look a lot like someone else’s funeral.
Miguel Cabrera, 17, was marching with a group of Latino Catholics from Boston. He said he thinks Trump is “a little bit pompous,” and disagreed with his call to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It’s going to create this idea that Americans don’t want to be one people with everyone else,” he said. “It’s kind of cringe-y seeing the values of your country being false.”
And on the topic of the day, Cabrera said he opposes abortion because it negates the potential of a human embryo.
“That person you just took away could be our next president,” he said.
Emma Roller (@emmaroller) is a freelance journalist living in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, National Journal, Slate, The New Republic, and elsewhere.