President Donald Trump credited attendees at the 47th annual March for Life for their commitment…
Optimism abounds despite a smaller March for Life
Lower numbers and higher expectations — that, briefly stated, is the story of the March for Life in 2021.
For many years the pro-life march has drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators annually to Washington, D.C., to protest the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion and to advocate laws and court decisions that protect the unborn.
This year, March for Life organizers expect a sharply reduced turnout on Jan. 29 due to pandemic-related regulations limiting crowd size and the hesitance of schools and other groups to pack marchers into crowded buses to make the trip.
But hopes are soaring just the same, thanks to a new majority of Supreme Court justices apparently inclined to approve significant limits on abortion.
Tempering those expectations nonetheless is the declared commitment of incoming president Joe Biden and his administration to press for new pro-choice measures. Much depends on two runoff elections Jan. 5 in Georgia that will determine whether Republicans retain a slim majority in the Senate allowing them to block new abortion initiatives.
Last year, then-president Donald Trump visited the March for Life rally in person and spoke to the crowd — the first time a president has ever done so. There is no chance Biden will do the same this year.
Instead, and however the Georgia vote turns out, Biden is expected to pursue significant elements of his promised pro-choice agenda through executive orders canceling orders by Trump. One likely possibility is an order eliminating the so-called “Mexico City policy” that bars U.S. funding of groups that promote abortion overseas.
As pro-lifers see it, Biden already has confirmed his pro-choice stance by choosing Xavier Becerra as his Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Becerra voted consistently in support of abortion during his 25 years in Congress, while more recently as California attorney general he argued and lost two abortion-related cases in the Supreme Court — one involving a law requiring pro-life pregnancy counseling centers to post notices telling their clients where to get abortions, the other an attempt to make the Little Sisters of the Poor provide contraceptive and abortifacient coverage to their employees.
Although the pro-life movement will have its hands full with the Biden administration, it’s a different story with the Supreme Court, for years the movement’s biggest problem.
Trump’s three picks as justices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — have joined Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito to form what is thought to be a solidly pro-life majority. Chief Justice John Roberts adds a sixth vote, although his concern for preserving court precedents makes it uncertain where he will come down in any particular case. With the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last summer, the pro-choice bloc on the court is reduced to three — Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Abortion is not the only issue where the Supreme Court’s reshaping is becoming evident. On religious liberty, too, the conservative justices may be poised to shift the terms of the debate, with a decision expected soon in a closely watched case in which city officials in Philadelphia forced the local Catholic social services agency out of foster care for refusing to place children with same-sex couples.
The Catholic agency argues that the city’s action violated its constitutionally guaranteed right of religious free exercise. The case (Fulton v. Philadelphia) is considered a major test in the ongoing conflict in courts and legislatures throughout the country pitting LGBTQ interests against religious groups and individuals seeking to operate according to their faith convictions.
And in other contexts, the Supreme Court already has shown a more friendly attitude toward churches pressing free exercise claims. In a 5-4 decision in late November, it lifted restrictions imposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the size of congregations in the Diocese of Brooklyn and two Jewish synagogues. Since then, it has told courts in California, Colorado and New Jersey to take another look at the question in light of its action in New York.
Even so, Justice Alito in November stirred up a hornet’s nest with an address to the conservative Federalist Society charging that “religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.” By way of example, he noted that saying marriage is between one man and one woman is now considered “bigotry” in some quarters, and called protecting free speech “one of the great challenges for the Supreme Court going forward.”
Liberal critics howled, and Washington Post columnist and former Supreme Court reporter Ruth Marcus penned an angry retort: “Justice Alito, your side is winning … that’s the constitutional stress test that should worry us all.”
As always, though, abortion is central to social conservatives’ hopes and fears regarding the Supreme Court. New abortion-related cases are already in the pipeline, making it a virtual certainty that the court will soon address the issue again.
As recently as last term, the court struck down a Louisiana law requiring that abortion clinic doctors have hospital admitting privileges. Chief Justice Roberts joined the majority in that ruling, but he said in his concurring opinion that the court might look favorably on a different kind of law.
Likely soon to be before the court are cases involving new laws in several states setting limits on when and how abortions can be performed, and a decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding Louisiana and Texas in excluding Planned Parenthood from Medicaid funding.
The present situation is a dramatic change from years gone by, when the Supreme Court was commonly — and correctly — regarded as the main obstacle to pro-life efforts at the national level. By contrast, with the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade approaching and plans for a greatly reduced March for Life taking shape in the shadow of what will soon apparently be a pro-choice White House, pro-lifers see a significantly revamped Supreme Court as their best bet.
Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.