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Trump to anti-abortion marchers: 'We are with you all the way. May God bless you.'

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence signaled their support as thousands of anti-abortion activists rallied on the National Mall at the annual March for Life on Friday."Under my administration, we will always defend t...

Thousands of people gather on the National Mall during the March for Life on January 19 in Washington. Washington Post photo by Carolyn Van Houten.

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence signaled their support as thousands of anti-abortion activists rallied on the National Mall at the annual March for Life on Friday.

"Under my administration, we will always defend the very first right in the Declaration of Independence, and that is the right to life," Trump said in the White House Rose Garden, in a speech that was broadcast to the marchers gathered near the Washington Monument.

The march - which typically draws busloads of Catholic school students, a large contingent of evangelical Christians and poster-toting protesters of many persuasions - falls each year around the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized a legal right to abortion and intends to pressure Congress and the White House to limit legal access to the procedure.

Trump said he was "really proud to be the first president to stand with you here at the White House;" Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush addressed the march by telephone when they were in office.


Megan Ensor, who came from Atlanta to attend her first March for Life, expressed her enthusiasm that Trump took the time to speak to the marchers. "When it comes to the greatest moral evil of our time, the question that is most important is that he cares. . . . When he comes today, that's a good thing. We don't have to agree with him on everything," she said.

Trump touted his administration's anti-abortion policies, including new orders on Thursday and Friday establishing an office to support medical professionals who do not want to perform abortions and making it easier for states to direct funding away from Planned Parenthood.

Yet many marchers say Republicans haven't done enough in the past year on the issue.

Most leaders of the anti-abortion movement don't blame Trump for what they perceive as a lack of progress; they fault Republicans in Congress for inaction.

"It's because of the Senate. I put the blame with the Senate," said Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life. "I think that some of our members of Congress are afraid to be courageous on these issues."

Last year, the march fell just days after Trump's inauguration, and the tone was ebullient. Marchers believed they were heralding a new administration that would prioritize limiting abortion. Mancini said then that she had four goals for policy in the president's first year in office: Appointing an apparently anti-abortion Supreme Court justice, defunding Planned Parenthood, codifying the annual Hyde Amendment that restricts federal money from funding abortions and passing a law banning abortion in many cases after 20 weeks.

A year later, only the first of those four goals has been accomplished.

Bills to make the Hyde Amendment permanent and to ban certain late-term abortions passed in the House but are unlikely to pass the Senate. Both chambers of Congress tried to defund Planned Parenthood in their unsuccessful efforts to pass a health-care bill.


Even abortion rights supporters are surprised that anti-abortion policies haven't made more headway in the past year.

"It seemed a year ago that Trump, with the leadership of the GOP in Congress, had the momentum to repeal and replace Obamacare, and certainly that also included the abortion provisions," said Heather Boonstra, director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute. "That also included the defunding of Planned Parenthood. This was a very real item and real concern for us. I think it goes to show how the Republicans just didn't have a plan, in many ways."

The White House has advanced several policies through executive orders rather than legislation, starting with an expanded version of the Bush-era Mexico City policy, which bars U.S. funding to public health organizations that promote abortion overseas and which Trump reinstated upon taking office. On Thursday, the day before the march, Trump announced another policy that pleased anti-abortion activists - a new office meant to protect the rights of medical professionals who don't want to participate in abortions because of their religious beliefs.

In his speech Friday, Trump noted those actions, and boasted about the stock market and unemployment rates as well. He called to the podium a mother who became pregnant at 17 and later went on to help establish a facility to support homeless pregnant women. "Most important of all, it is the gift of life itself. That is why we march and that is why we pray," he said.

Pence mentioned the Roe v. Wade anniversary, saying, "Forty-five years ago, the Supreme Court turned its back on the inalienable right to life. But in that moment, our movement began." He praised Trump as "the most pro-life president in American history" and vowed, "With God's help, we will restore the sanctity of life to the center of American law."

At the marchers' noon rally east of the Washington Monument, the White House satellite appearance was among a slate of speakers, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. The crowd gave the rock star treatment to Ryan, greeting him with whoops and applause. "How grateful are we to have a pro life president back in the White House!" Ryan said.

"One thing that gets lost is how compassionate the pro-life movement is," he said. "To help women who have gone through the pain of abortion, to help single mothers, to give them resources through thousands of pregnancy centers: This is the face of the pro-life movement."

After the speeches, the group will march to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Ahead of the march, anti-abortion groups around the region hosted events on Friday morning - huge youth Masses full of teenagers, a meeting on legal strategies to limit abortion and a conference in the basement of a downtown hotel where the emphasis was on expanding the idea of "pro-life."

Hundreds of people at the Evangelicals for Life conference wandered among booths about prison ministries and health care and heard speakers talk about the importance of adoption and serving refugees.

Popular evangelical author and speaker Ann Voskamp talked to a crowd of largely young white listeners about a "robust pro-life ethic. . . . We are for both humans in utero and humans in crisis. This is us."

The message echoed a talk on Capitol Hill Thursday, where the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, one of Trump's evangelical advisers, stood with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urging Congress to protect undocumented young adults. Noting that the March for Life would be the next day, Rodriguez said the two topics were linked as "life" issues.

Trump remains a divisive figure among anti-abortion activists. Some attendees at the evangelical conference said they would not attend the march in the afternoon, because they didn't even want to hear the president address the crowd.

About 50 demonstrators staged their own rally outside the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum rather than joining the main rally on the National Mall, to protest Trump's address. They said their belief that life begins at conception comes from scientific research on fetal development, not from faith, and they wanted their "I am a pro-life feminist" signs to indicate that the anti-abortion movement is not just "a bunch of priests," as Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa put it.

"Let's put some secular, pro-life, bad-ass feminists up front," she said.

Most leaders of the movement, though, embrace Trump. Mancini said she thinks the marchers, most of them young because of the prevalence of school groups in attendance, should send a message of support to the president. "For Trump, hopefully, he feels thanked and strengthened for his perspective," she said.


As for Congress, activists said they hope legislators also see the size of the march and take it as a reminder that these voters will continue to agitate for more antiabortion legislation.

"I think that one of my charges this year is making sure pro-lifers don't get complacent and say: 'We've elected them. They'll do what they say,' " said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life. "No, they're not doing what they said. You need to push them."


Story by Julie Zauzmer and Michelle Boorstein. Michael Allison Chandler contributed to this report.


The annual March for Life falls each January in Washington. Here, students gather at the 2016 March for Life. Washington Post photo by Marvin Joseph.

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