Whenever I think of the March for Life, I think of my oldest son. I think of him as a miniature boy about 17 months old, walking along the double-yellow line that runs down Washington D.C.’s Constitution Avenue, wearing a giant woolen hat and snow boots that nearly covered his knees. Sometimes out of habit he would rocket his mittened hand upward to find his pregnant mother’s gloved one. But mostly he looked straight ahead and walked fast, arms at his sides, refusing the seat in the red umbrella stroller he was offered.
On that day in January 2002 that small, sturdy, unselfconscious boy walked without stopping from the Ellipse behind the White House to the top of Capitol Hill and then south a few hundred extra steps to the Supreme Court. He caught people’s attention. Nuns encouraged him. Teenagers high-fived him. We introduced him by his baby nickname, and he bobbed along the stream of marching, talking, singing people who had come from all over the United States to protest abortion laws and pray for better answers to the profound and complex problem of unwanted and crisis pregnancies.
Last Thursday that image surfaced anew as I found myself back in Washington, D.C., to mark the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision with the Notre Dame delegation.
This time it would just be me and my son, who now introduces himself to adults using his Christian name in a voice as deep as mine. He doesn’t remember being that little boy.
I love the March for Life. I love its riverine size and flow. I’m moved by the hopeful civic spirit of the annual protest, the nation’s largest, and I wanted to share the experience with my son as he sorts through his own convictions.
If the march was just about taking something away by battling abortion’s political and legal underpinnings, it wouldn’t attract so many people. I don’t know anyone who wants merely to suppress abortion and get on with their life. Instead, the marchers I know are already working to build something better — a culture in which people make sacrifices to embrace new life with their time and their love.
Mainstream news reporters tend to overlook the remarkable qualities I see in the march. They seem more compelled to search along the fringes for signs of confrontation with the few dozen counterdemonstrators who turn out to keep abortion legal. And while I may not like the message or style of our opponents, I may at least admire their courage. At the march, I’d bet they’re outnumbered 10,000 to 1.
We left South Bend at 5:30 the night before the march, hours ahead of the 14 buses that would transport some 700 people from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross to the capital. We drove alone through snow and fog feeling far from home and anxious about our exhaustion. But when we met up with the ND crowd for Mass the next morning, it felt more like I hadn’t left campus. Familiar faces appeared in all directions; professors and students I know well scattered among the sea of sweatshirts and fleeces. A few pews over I spotted the chemical engineering major who teaches my kids piano. Behind us, working the breadth of the church to find better angles, was my colleague, one of the University’s photographers.
Next to the altar, leading our prayer among other priests I didn’t know, were Notre Dame leaders of various stripes. I thought about the very public disagreements that have divided the University’s founding order at times and the power of deeper things that even now united them in front of us. And I considered Father John Jenkins’ energetic homily: if the reasons why we marched were important, the spirit of how we marched was important, too.
So we went downtown and rallied. After a better night’s sleep, we went home.
This morning, I returned to my cube with no intention of writing about any of this. I woke up early, anxious about neglected projects and looming deadlines. Plus, I hadn’t gone to D.C. to report or comment. I went to see old friends and witness to something I consider important. The small part my son and I played struck me as personal, not something to bring back with me to work where teamwork is essential and this stuff only makes people uncomfortable — even at Notre Dame. One speaks up, another feels silenced. And minds and hearts are rarely changed.
Then I opened an email from an editor who I’d wager doesn’t see eye to eye with me on this issue. “John, your D.C. trip sounds like the perfect out of [the] office event,” my colleague wrote, referring to the title of our collective blog about life on campus.
We try not to shy from tough topics at this magazine, but to write about Notre Dame values for Notre Dame people. We take the spectrum of opinions represented by the magazine staff as a modest barometer of possible reader reactions. But few issues today are as polarizing as abortion, and we don’t talk about it much. So who are my readers for this kind of post? Write too much to one group and you lose the other. (And I wonder if anyone who disagrees with me is still reading, or will read me ever again.) On the other hand, stay in the middle and you say nothing of value to anyone.
So I’ll just say that I’m thinking about my son. Not the little boy this time, but the young man who traveled to Washington, D.C. I think about how I want him to value life and live from his heart, how I hope he becomes the kind of man who isn’t content simply to speak up and go back to his desk. I want him to understand that to march for life is to accompany mothers and families and help them carry their children, to walk alongside them every step of the way.
Something tells me he gets that.
John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.