Dates have a way of taking on powerful symbolic meaning. Such is their power that in Europe some street names, such as Rome’s Via 4 Novembre, consist of nothing more than a noteworthy date (Via 4 Novembre commemorates Austria’s surrender to Italy in the First World War). In the United States, symbolic dates include July 4, 1776 (Independence Day), December 7, 1941 (the attack on Pearl Harbour) and, now, September 11, 2001 (no explanation needed).
In the US the so-called “culture war” has charged another date with meaning: January 22, 1973. This was the day on which the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade, which forced the legalisation of abortion in the United States. Since Roe was decided, each January 22 Americans have commemorated – some by protest, some by celebration — legalised abortion with marches, demonstrations, rallies, candle light vigils, seminars, dinners and church services.
Obviously the meaning of January 22 depends on whom you talk to. For blogger Barbara Nicolosi, it is “the high holy day of the of the culture of death”. For abortion supporters, it is a day of celebration, the day when women were liberated from the “enslavement” of their fertility and guaranteed the right to live like men. (1) For pro-lifers, it marks the date when an Orwellian nightmare became a reality: an unspeakable evil was elevated to the status of a constitutional right, and a wrong was declared to be a right. Right or wrong, it is indisputable that Roe legalised the killing of more than 40 million innocent unborn children.
There are countless events that commemorate Roe on January 22 or on the weekend before January 22. On the pro-life side, the longest running, best known, and most important is the national March for Life in Washington DC. It has been held every year since Roe and now draws more than 100,000 protesters, often in freezing weather. Organisers estimated last year’s crowd at 250,000. The march starts on Washington’s National Mall and ends at the Supreme Court.
On the West Coast the San Francisco Walk for Life rapidly has become a major event even though it is only in its third year. It has gained a high profile in large part due to San Francisco’s emphatically pro-abortion culture. Many anti-abortion activists see the San Francisco Walk for Life as an important way of making the truth heard among the hardest of hearing. Many pro-choice San Franciscans see it as nothing more than a provocation.
On the US Catholic calendar, January 22 is a day of penance for violations of the dignity of the human person. Some parishes have special Masses for the unborn on the Roe v. Wade weekend. In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles a special evening Requiem Mass for the Unborn celebrated by Cardinal Roger Mahoney has become an annual event. Some Protestant clergy (primarily from Assemblies of God churches) and leading Orthodox, Mormon and Muslim clergy attend in a showing of interfaith unity on the issue of abortion.
Supporters of legalised abortion have their special events, too. This year Planned Parenthood events include a candlelight vigil in front of the federal courthouse in Fresno, California; a “Roe Anniversary Honk and Wave” in Princeton, New Jersey; a “Honk and Wave” in Sacramento, California; and “The United States of Roe Benefit Concert” in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Planned Parenthood chapters in many other cities have organised events dedicated to commemorating Roe.
But it would not be right to say that the supporters of legalised abortion and their opponents commemorate the anniversary with equal vigour and persistence. The fact of the matter is that on January 22 much more is done on the pro-life side. Over the years far more people have attended the annual pro-life March for Life than the counter-rallies organised by pro-abortion forces. And there is nothing on the pro-choice side that corresponds to the observances that take place in churches.
However, the higher level of pro-life participation is not due to greater public sympathy for the pro-life position. The disparity reflects the greater need that the pro-life side has for public protest. The pro-abortion forces are sated by victory. They have achieved abortion on demand and their ideology has sunk deep roots in the judiciary, the universities, the press, and the major philanthropic institutions. The pro-life movement, by contrast, is silenced by an overwhelmingly pro-abortion media and entertainment industry and closed off by Roe from enacting anti-abortion legislation. January 22 thus gives the pro-life movement one of its few available avenues of public expression.
January 22 also provides pro-life advocates with an opportunity to communicate directly with the Supreme Court, which in Roe seized control of abortion law (ordinarily things such as abortion are governed through legislation at the state level). In an infamous passage from Justice Sandra O’Connor’s opinion in the Supreme Court’s 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision she and two other justices called on the pro-life movement to end the national abortion controversy by “accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution.” (2) In other words: give up, accept Roe and go home. On January 22 the pro-life movement responds: “No, we will not give up and we will not go home. We do not accept Roe and we will never accept Roe.“
But above all, those in the pro-life movement use January 22 to “protest” in the deepest sense of the word. The word “protest” derives from the Latin protestari, which means to favour (“pro”) testifying (“testari”). “Pro-test” thus conveys the sense of taking action for the purpose of testifying — testifying to the truth. Pro-life leader Father Frank Pavone captured this sense when he observed that by taking part in a January 22 protest one “can stand before God and say ‘I did speak out; I was not passive in the face of the greatest injustice of our day.’”
January 22 in its conflicting commemorations is also, in a way, a commemoration of division itself. But the division cannot last. Because no lie can live forever, we can confidently hope that the time will come when the whole nation will recognise abortion as the evil it truly is. No one can say when that day will come. But when it does, it would be right to continue to observe January 22, celebrating not only Roe’s demise but also all the past January 22s when, in the darkness of the Roe era, a light on the truth was kept lit.
Daniel Mansueto is an attorney and the President of the Board of Directors of the East Los Angeles Pregnancy Center.
(1) See Rickie Solinger. Pregnancy and Power Before Roe v. Wade: 1950-1970 (published in Abortion Wars, edited by Rickie Solinger). This describes efforts to re-establish anti-abortion laws as “efforts to reenslave girls and women to their fertility”.
(2) Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992). Opinion of Justice O’Connor.