If it weren’t for the hundreds of “Defund Planned Parenthood” signs scattered everywhere, the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., could have been mistaken for a family-friendly country music festival. Thousands of people, mostly families and church and school groups, gathered by the base of the Washington Monument on Friday as a DJ blasted pop-country songs onstage and guest speakers discussed the importance of the fight against abortion.
For the past 44 years, the March for Life has taken place in D.C. on or near the anniversary of the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. The event, organized by the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, has had a steady attendance over the decades, but this year there was an added feeling of excitement. President Donald Trump earlier this week promised to name his nominee for Supreme Court justice next week, someone dedicated to overturning Roe v. Wade, and the administration’s commitment to the cause was demonstrated by an appearance by Vice President Mike Pence, a longtime abortion foe who as governor of Indiana signed some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation.
“It’s the best day I’ve ever seen for the March for Life, in more ways than one,” Pence told the crowd. “I am humbled to stand before you today to be the first vice president of the United States to attend. Today, because of all of you and the many thousands who stand with us in marches like this all across the nation, life is winning again in America.”
Pence’s appearance was a major coup for the March for Life, since it marked the first time a senior White House figure attended the march (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush delivered remarks to the march but remotely). That significance was not lost on the people there.
Pence “gives us optimism. It gives us hope that maybe [Roe v. Wade] will change,” said Jake Rosenmeyer, a 24-year-old Catholic high school teacher from Iowa. “It’s historic. This is the first time a sitting vice president has spoken to the March for Life, even though the last one was Catholic.”
Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser to Trump and his former campaign manager, also spoke at the march, saying, “This is a new day. A new dawn for life. All women who face unplanned pregnancies, they should know they are not alone.” Many of the attendees said having such prominent figures in the Trump administration at the march, one week after the inauguration, is a signal that the anti-abortion crusade will be taken seriously by the new administration.
“I’m really extremely encouraged that we have this historic moment to have the VP speak at the March for Life,” said Rebecca Kiessling, an anti-abortion activist from Michigan. “That’s phenomenal.”
This nod of support from the White House comes at a critical time in the country’s ongoing debate over abortion. Public support for legal abortion is at an all-time high right now, according to the Pew Research Center. This sentiment has been relatively unwavering in the four decades since Roe v. Wade was passed, with the majority of Americans opposed to overturning the landmark ruling.
But even though the majority of the country is in favor of keeping abortion legal, the issue is being fought in courts, statehouses and Congress every day. This month, state lawmakers introduced dozens of anti-abortion bills across the country in the first weeks of the legislative session. In some states, like Kentucky, strict anti-abortion bills were rushed through the state house in the first hours of the session and quickly signed into law by the governor. Last week, West Virginia’s second-to-last abortion provider closed, leaving the state with only one left.
These legislative victories weren’t the only reason for the decidedly joyful energy on the national mall Friday. The sheer amount of young people there added to the excitement; almost half of the attendees looked like they were high school or college-aged. Many had come in buses organized by their schools.
Michael Lis-Planelis, a 17-year-old high school student from Florida, has been coming to the march for the last three years. “It’s always just so much fun,” he said, grinning.
In one section on the mall was a massive crowd of college students wearing matching bright orange and blue hats. They were all from University of Mary, a private Catholic college in Bismarck, North Dakota. “There’s about 500 of us,” said 22-year-old Elizabeth Wagner. “We all came in on buses last night.” The University of Notre Dame, the legendary Catholic school in Indiana, sent 700 students in 13 buses to the march, according to the New York Times.
At one point the University of Mary crowd started whooping, which quickly caught on to the other surrounding clusters of millennials, who responded with cheers.
The organizers of the march did not respond to VICE News’ inquiry about the size of the crowd, but they did tell the New York Times there was no way to gauge the number of attendees this time.
Regardless of official numbers, the crowd was considerably more sparse than other large rallies on the mall. Last week’s Women’s March, for instance, dominated Constitution Avenue and the entire mall, with some 500,000 people. The March for Life rally barely filled the three-block radius by the Washington Monument.
This year’s March for Life comes at an auspicious time in the abortion debate. The president worked hard to win the votes of anti-abortion advocates during the campaign and wrote a letter to leaders promising to carry out a series of decisions in their favor, including defunding Planned Parenthood, making the Hyde Amendment (which bans federal funds from being used to pay for abortions) permanent, and signing a so-called “fetal pain” protection bill into law.
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