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At March for Life, a pivot away from Trump and toward ‘unity’

Unlike last year's event, 2021's virtual version of March for Life featured few mentions of former President Trump.

Athlete Tim Tebow addresses the virtual 48th Annual March for Life, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Video screengrab

WASHINGTON (RNS) — A mostly virtual version of a major annual anti-abortion gathering convened in Washington, D.C., on Friday (Jan. 29) featuring pre-recorded speeches from lawmakers, faith leaders and former football star Tim Tebow who pushed for unity and made appeals to President Biden to enact anti-abortion legislation.

March for Life Director Jeanne Mancini kicked off the event by announcing its theme: “Together strong, life unites.”

“With all of the division and unrest, with the fear in our country, we felt strongly that this year’s theme should call for a time of coming together,” she said.

What followed was an unusual iteration of the gathering that contrasted sharply with recent years when references to former President Trump, his policies and his rhetoric were commonplace — some voiced by Trump himself, who spoke at the event in 2020.

But in the wake of this month’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, perpetrated by supporters of the former president — including some anti-abortion activists — speakers at the March for Life tended to avoid his name altogether. Instead, many made calls for unity, stressed the diversity of the movement and appealed to President Biden directly.

Mancini warned that Biden’s administration was poised to make “divisive, pro-abortion, pro-death” policy decisions but urged the president to “consider unifying, pro-life policy decisions.”

As always at the unabashedly religious event, references to faith filled the proceedings. Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey invoked faith while arguing that anti-abortion activists should remain respectful in their debates with opponents.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) addresses the virtual 48th Annual March for Life, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Video screengrab

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) addresses the virtual 48th Annual March for Life, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Video screengrab

“Today we again face enormous challenges and recommit to persevere through prayer, fasting and good works, and respect — including those with whom we fundamentally disagree, even when it’s not reciprocated,” he said.

He later added: “These children need the president of the United States to be their friend and advocate, not another powerful adversary.”

At least two of the speakers were Democrats. Angie Hatton, the minority whip in the Kentucky House of Representatives, said her Christian faith guides her votes to “protect unborn life” but suggested the movement needs support from both parties.

“I believe in this year’s theme: together strong, life unites,” said Hatton, who serves on the national advisory board for Democrats for Life. “I believe we need a bipartisan effort to end abortion, but not just by outlawing it, but also by eliminating the reasons women seek abortions in the first place.”

Hatton argued that the anti-abortion movement should embrace policies that are “pro-life for all life,” such as making healthcare more accessible to impoverished people, paying working mothers a living wage, helping to make childcare and preschool affordable and funding foster care and adoption services.

“In the same way that I found the political courage to speak the pro-life message as a Democrat, I’m asking pro-life Republican legislators to find the courage to support not only anti-abortion legislation, but also pro-babies and moms legislation,” she said.

The lineup also featured several prominent conservative religious figures. Joseph F. Naumann, Catholic Archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, and Cissie Graham Lynch, a senior adviser to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, both offered prayers. J.D. Greear,  president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told a story of how a college student decided not to have an abortion after hearing him speak.

“I march because actual lives are at stake,” he said.

Athlete Tim Tebow addresses the virtual 48th Annual March for Life, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Video screengrab

Athlete Tim Tebow addresses the virtual 48th Annual March for Life, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Video screengrab

The headliner of the event was the former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow. A vocal evangelical Christian, Tebow told how his mother, a missionary, decided to give birth to him despite difficulties with his pregnancy and advice from doctors suggesting she have an abortion.

“I’m so grateful that my mom gave me a chance at life,” he said, before adding, “You know who else I believe stood and stands for life? Our savior, Jesus.”

Tebow then gave a lengthy, faith-filled talk in which he repeatedly cited Scripture.

“I’ve given so much of my life for sports,” he said. “People might say I was passionate about that, but that’s for trophies that rust and for praise of people that are going to forget your name. Does that really matter? I don’t think so. But you see, being passionate about Jesus, and passionate about life, and passionate about people and passionate about those that have been thrown away and neglected and forgotten — that is worthy, that is meaningful, that is real significance.”

After he finished, a gaggle of speakers and representatives of the movement wearing red March for Life masks led a small in-person march in downtown Washington that concluded at the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This year we just sensed we needed to talk about unity and diversity creating unity,” Mancini told a reporter from EWTN as she marched.

People participate in the 48th Annual March for Life in Washington, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. The annual event was mostly virtual this year. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

People participate in the 48th Annual March for Life in Washington, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. The annual event was mostly virtual this year. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Although not listed as a speaker, the event also included two short videos featuring a more divisive figure in Abby Johnson, a prominent anti-abortion activist and Catholic who spoke at the 2019 March for Life. Johnson also delivered a speech at the “Jericho March” in December, a large conservative gathering in Washington convened to protest Joe Biden’s victory, in which she characterized Biden’s presidency as “fake.”

The activist gave a speech about the anti-abortion movement the day before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, in which she said, “If you are not standing out in front of abortion clinics demanding justice for these unborn babies, then you are part of the problem.”

She added: “It is time, patriots, to stop worrying about offending your neighbor and start worrying about offending the heart of God. It’s time to rise up. It is time to fight back.”

According to VICE News, Johnson also posted on Facebook the day of the insurrection saying that she “got a little bit of pepper spray” in her lungs after being “mildly in the fray,” although her publicist contended she arrived at the Capitol steps after the “trespassing incident.”

Her video appearance at the March for Life mostly promoted ministries she’s attached to, and she had little to say to the crowd.