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What explains the March for Life’s unparalleled longevity?

It’s a challenge to get people to do anything.  If the task at hand is any less convenient than queuing up the latest dystopian sci-fi miniseries on Netflix, then many would rather sit it out.  Our society’s seemingly never-ending supply of stimulation and entertainment has an isolating and tranquilizing effect that would make the World Controllers of Aldous Huxley’s prescient vision green with envy.

I can barely think of the last time I was bored.  Whenever I have even a meager moment of silence or solitude I invariably pull out the high-resolution screen in my pocket and turn on a podcast to fill the silence and start up a game of 2048 to fill my field of vision. These compounding factors of stimulation and isolation increasingly inhibit us from taking active roles in our community, civil society and body politic.  Who has time to protest some ephemeral injustice when TV is so good and Postmates can get you sushi in 30 minutes?

The easiest way to get the youth off their phone and on the street is some sort of high-profile, galvanizing moment.  We have seen successful examples of these “of the moment movements” in our recent history.  The “Women’s March” of 2017 drew an impressive crowd of over 400,000 attendees to the nation’s capital to protest the policies and character of the recently elected President. The “March for Our Lives” in 2018 drew a large amount of participants who descended on Washington, organized by the survivors of the deadly Parkland school shooting, in pursuit of more stringent gun regulation.  Both of these zeitgeist-inspired events followed in the footsteps of most noteworthy marches of modern America, from 1995’s Million Man March to the March on Washington in 1963.  They are predicated on one event or idea, an immense amount of work and resources are devoted to the singular march, and then: it’s over.  Like a beautiful firework display they burn bright, come off with an ear-piercing boom, then you move on.

This standard format for gigantic rallies and marches is hard to stray from because the alternative requires so much hard work and dedication that it appears unachievable.  That alternative model is, of course, the example set by the March for Life. 

What is so significant about the March for Life, apart from its holistically life-affirming purpose, is its incredible longevity. Following the radical Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade in 1973, which mandated legal abortion across the country, the March for Life has occurred every single year. Through government shutdowns and snow storms; through friendly and antagonistic presidential administrations, the one constant about January in Washington is that thousands will gather seeking the overturn of Roe. v. Wade.  As threats to the dignity of human life have increased beyond the issue of abortion, encompassing the whole spectrum of life, so too has the March for Life come to stand for a recovery of a life-affirming law in the most capacious sense.

Each year the March for Life attracts around a half a million people.  Every. Single. Year. For more than thirty years!  In its second year, the Women’s March attracted less than half of the crowd of their first go around.  This year they are expecting fewer than 6,000 people—from 400,000 to 6,000 in only three years. That shouldn’t be surprising.  One big event followed by years of either nothing or very little is the story of almost all large scale marches.  What is unique and surprising is that the March for Life continues to draw huge, passionate crowds each and every year.  In the immortal poetry of Animal House, sometimes the most impressive thing about an organization is its, “long tradition of existence.”

What is it that compels normal people from all around the nation to come to the Washington each year (in its least pleasant season) to march down an often frigid Constitution Avenue and rally for human life? In-person civil and political engagement has been on a downward trend, with only 4% of Americans claiming to have attended an organized protest in the preceding year.  In the jargon of Shark Tank, what is the March for Life’s “unfair advantage”?  Fostering a respect for life in our current climate of indifference-to-hostility lights a fire in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of Americans.  The March for Life has a concrete mission and a record of demonstrated success, indicating an essential moral claim on the conscience on the nation.

The March for Life has turned passion into policy change, increasingly winning an argument and often moving onto offense in the cause for life in a way that respects the essential human rights of all persons. So, instead of supposing that it is simply the March’s “long tradition of existence” that explains its success, it is, in fact, the impressive success of the cause for a more life-affirming America itself that has provided for the march’s unparalleled longevity.

Noah Brandt serves Americans United for Life as Legal Assistant.