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Marching for Life: A New Generation of Pro-Life Activists Seeks to Change the Terms of Debate

Four days following the inauguration of President Barack Obama, thousands of Western Pennsylvanians will board buses and set off for the nation's capital to commemorate an entirely different occasion. Forty years following the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, Washington, D.C., will host the annual March for Life at an important juncture for the pro-life cause.

Noticeably absent will be Nellie Gray, founder of the event, who passed away in August. She spearheaded the movement by organizing the first march in 1974, which drew an estimated 20,000 pro-lifers. The event has since grown under her guidance, with coordinators predicting that more than 400,000 marchers will take part this year.

A Texas native, Gray took a hard-line stance on abortion, using the phrase "no exceptions, no compromise" as she advised against pursuing common ground. With respect for Gray's tireless dedication to the unborn, pro-life advocates must begin to chart a new course as the tide of public sentiment drifts away from them.

This year's marchers face an uphill challenge as a result of the November elections. Pro-life contenders across the country struggled to hold office or unseat incumbents after being put on the defensive when Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock made statements regarding rape that were widely perceived as irresponsible. Their damaging comments fueled the Obama administration's "Republican war on women" concept, legitimizing the idea that women's rights are being restricted by abortion opponents. Still, exit polling revealed that views are still largely mixed when it comes to access to abortion, and the next elections may just as easily swing the other way.

The Pittsburgh region has played a large role in the debate, with local abortion clinics attracting national media attention by stirring up controversy. The city serves as a battleground for those for and against legalized abortion. As local groups claiming pro-life virtues continue to test the limits of the 1973 decision by promoting restrictions to the procedure, those considered pro-choice fight to expand what they consider to be necessary reproductive options.

Activism on both sides has become more rigid, more heated and more ruthless since Roe was handed down. The basic principles involved -- public morality and individual freedom -- have become lost in the harsh tone. Each year brings increasingly destructive rhetoric in the form of shortsighted attempts to persuade the ambivalent middle. Ultimately, selfish desires for power and profit have superseded the goal of finding workable solutions.

Answers may instead be found within the hundreds of student organizations, including many from Pennsylvania, that return each year to march in Washington. As part of the next generation of pro-life activists, I predict we will discover approaches more likely to serve the interests of all parties. Being more tolerant and less ideological than our predecessors, we can focus on finding ways to prevent teen pregnancy, make adoption more accessible and reduce conditions that lead to a high rate of abortion.

The pro-life platform can be more effective if public officials acknowledge that there are no easy answers. Lacking in our political discourse is an ethic of respect for people with beliefs that differ from our own. This involves the recognition that abortion is more than simply a rhetorical tool for political gain -- that whether to have an abortion is an often-wrenching personal decision that faces women all over the country.

It was particularly galling to watch the Republicans parade to the front of the Senate to denounce all the spending in the stimulus bill as a burden on our children. These are the same people who pushed us to go into an unnecessary war that has cost us nearly a trillion dollars, while cutting taxes that has reduced revenue by more than a trillion dollars.

The only economic stimulation this led to was the imaginary economy in toxic securities, which have now been recognized as a massive fraud perpetrated by people whose activities were left unregulated by a Congress in love with the “free market.”

Let us reframe the issue to address both the limits of current circumstances and the possibilities for change. That's something we can all march for.

Ryan Navarro graduated from Duquesne University in 2011 and now works in student affairs at Juniata College in Huntingdon.