The Walk for Life West Coast, held on Saturday, January 21, was full of familiar sights for the approximately 50,000 pro-lifers who gathered in San Francisco from around the Bay Area and from elsewhere in California and across the country. Lots of up-beat pro-life signage, lots of babies in strollers, lots of Catholic religious in clerical garb and habits (Dominicans in their striking black and white were particularly well-represented). The rally at the Civic Center before the Walk itself featured a slate of prominent pro-life activists and speakers, and San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone read a special message to the Walk from Pope Francis.
But in addition to the familiar, the 13th annual Walk for Life took place in the context of two new, and related, elements—the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump the day before in Washington, DC, and the Women’s March taking place later that day along the very same route the as the pro-life walk.
The Walk for Life was, as always, a non-partisan event. International pro-life activist Reggie Littlejohn, one of the speakers at the Civic Center rally, reported that President Trump was expected to sign an executive order banning federal funds from going to Planned Parenthood, and the crowd roared its approval. But other references to the new president or current political battles were sparse, if not non-existent; the focus of the rally was squarely on the value of unborn lives and the importance of supporting and empowering women to choose life. I saw one red “Make America Great Again” cap; a friend said he saw a single “Trump-Pence” t-shirt.
Several Walk participants I spoke with said they were hopeful for the future of pro-life efforts in today’s political climate; Victor from San Jose said he was encouraged by the solid turn-out and enthusiasm of the Walk, despite divisive politics.
“Of course politics are a big factor—but I think we’re hearing lots of good news,” he said.
“There’s the same good vibe as other years; maybe it feels a little more victorious this time,” said another Walk participant, a woman with sparkly purple eyeshadow who said she came San Francisco via public transit.
“A bunch of people just assumed because I’m a woman in my 30s and I have glitter on my face, that I was going to the Women’s March. That was amusing…” she said, motioning toward her home-made sign, which read, “Thank you, Debbie S., for your gutsy decision in 1979 not to abort my husband.”
One man with a bandanna covering his face carried a cardboard sign through the rally crowd; one side read, “Abortion on demand without apology,” and the other, “Abort Mike Pence.” He was largely ignored by attendees.
The Women’s March and its unmistakably political bent became more of a factor after the rally, once the Walk for Life itself got underway. While the Walk’s early years drew very angry and very voluble counter-protesters, in recent years the number of abortion supporters who showed up with pro-choice signs and chants had dropped off significantly. This year saw rather more—my personal estimate was around 200; a local radio station reported half that number. Given the prevalence of bright-pink “pussy hats,” it seems likely that many of these were protesters on their way to the Women’s March who may or may not have showed up planning to heckle the pro-life presence making its way down Market Street.
In addition to pink hats, there were “My body, my choice” chants and signs featuring fallopian tubes and ovaries liberated of rosaries; there were middle-fingers and F-bombs and a couple coat-hangers. At one intersection, a woman with a loud-speaker recited a hackneyed re-write of the Ten Commandments, which included lines like “Thou shalt give a sh*t about postpartum life,” as well as a reminder that “human beings never rode dinosaurs—though it sounds fun.” Good to know.
What was most striking to me about the counter-protesters was how little they seemed to know about the positions of the people they were protesting. Time and again, their chants and signs were met with somewhat bewildered smiles from the pro-lifers. One sign read, “Would you want to save that fetus if it turned out to be gay?” “Of course!” was the response of those around me as we walked by.
The counter-protesters also seemed to assume blanket support for President Trump’s various statements among the pro-lifers; there were several references to his proposed wall along the Mexican border. Making that assumption about this particular crowd—a huge percentage of which was Latino and in which “Yo soy la generacion pro-vida” was by far the most common sign—seemed misguided, at the very least.
For the most part, the pro-lifers were unfazed by the signs and taunts. Interestingly, I observed a much more vocal reaction to the behavior of an anti-abortion group not affiliated with the Walk for Life or its organizers. The group set up a Jumbotron on the sidewalk with a loop of images of the bodies of aborted babies; a small cadre of young women with balloons attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to block the images from the view of the numerous families with small children walking past. The disapproval from the marching crowd was audible. “You’re not helping,” one young man near me muttered.
But as the sparkly-eyeshadow lady at the rally had observed, the vibe at the Walk was overwhelmingly positive. Young people beat drums and played guitars, and led various pro-life chants. A sense of camaraderie pervaded the multi-generational crowd and, despite whatever characterizations may prevail in headlines and media reports, this was definitely an event that was for something, rather than merely against.
I was chatting with a group of college students at the end of the route near the Ferry Building, when an older woman in a pink hat, with hair to match, angrily knocked a “Pro-Life Generation” sign out of the backpack of one of the girls. This was a lively group of young people, and you might have expected them to say something to the woman, but they just laughed a little and shrugged, and picked the sign up from the ground. “You people disgust me,” another woman sneered as she wove in and out of the marching crowd. It was impossible not to see the contrast between her bitter remark and the sign carried by a young man not far from her: “Jesus loves you.”