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Buses set to roll to 30th anti-abortion march

Monday, January 20, 2003

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

An odd consequence of the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion 30 years ago has been an annual boon to bus rentals.

Ann Scanlon, 45, who has cerebral palsy, and her mother Catherine, 71, right, will be participating in the 30th March for Life. (Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette)

The March for Life held each year in Washington, D.C., on the Jan. 22 anniversary of Roe v. Wade has drawn 15,000 to 250,000 abortion opponents, depending on the weather, the political climate, and who gives the much-disputed crowd count. Some of those who first marched in 1974 now do so with their children and grandchildren.

Typically, about 5,000 go from southwestern Pennsylvania, most of them traveling by bus in what one local transit company owner calls "the biggest annual motorcoach event" originating in the region. More than 120 area buses are booked for this year's march. For the federal permit, organizers have predicted 50,000 marchers.

Their numbers would likely rise on a warm-weather Saturday. But Nellie Gray, 78, the feisty force behind the March for Life, has little use for fair-weather protesters.

"The Supreme Court set the date for this -- Jan. 22, 1973. It's an infamous date. We are trying to protect the pre-born from that decision. We are not out here for a concert or for comfort," Gray said.

Many marchers say that leaving work or school to shiver in the January chill impresses the legislators who they visit after the march. Veterans recall a blizzard 20 years ago when many buses never arrived.

Helen Cindrich, president of People Concerned for the Unborn Child, was stranded on the beltway. Mary Catherine Scanlon, a bus captain from Aspinwall, convinced her driver to keep going, but arrived hours too late. Many buses turned back.

That night one network called it a dying movement because only a few thousand marched. Cindrich, of North Versailles, wondered what other group could have produced so many under the same conditions.

In a movement that has scored few legislative victories, the march is a time for renewal, she said.

"We tell ourselves that if things are this bad now, they'd be a whole lot worse if we weren't there," she said. "It gets people energized to do things for the rest of the year, and that's good. There are more and more young people going, and that's good."

Scanlon, 71, has marched nearly every year since 1974, when 20,000 circled the U.S. Capitol. Each of her 11 children has marched at least once. Four of her daughters and two grandchildren are regulars.

She organized the first wheelchair-accessible bus because one daughter, Ann Scanlon, 45, goes nearly every year despite and because of cerebral palsy. She protests the abortion of fetuses because they carry medical problems.

"Everybody has the right to live, no matter if they have a disability or not," Ann Scanlon said.

She uses a manual wheelchair because her electric one dies in snow. Last year was one of three she has missed. She was recovering from a hip replacement and broken leg, but wanted to go. Her physical therapist dissuaded her.

The march agenda is set by Gray, an unlikely activist. In October 1973, she had just retired from the U.S. Department of Labor when friends asked to meet in her dining room to plan a protest against Roe. vs. Wade.

After that march, "we thought it was so big and so good and there were so many of us that it was all it would take for the members of Congress to act," she said.

But soon they realized the political battle hadn't begun. The March for Life incorporated, with Gray as president.

"The purpose of this story is to say be careful who you let into your dining room," she said.

That 30 years of marching has changed little doesn't faze Gray.

"What we have accomplished is to say to America and the world that here are a group of people who are going to stand up to this decision and we shall overturn it," she said.

Within the anti-abortion movement, Gray is respected for her single-minded labor. But there is off-the-record grumbling that her march promotes an uncompromising approach to abortion politics that some major anti-abortion lobbies do not share.

The March for Life calls for a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions, but groups such as the National Right to Life Committee have put an amendment on the back burner and accept limited exceptions, particularly to save the mother's life.

Cathy Cleaver, director of information and planning for the Pro-life Secretariat of the U.S. Catholic bishops, won't discuss differences with the March for Life. The bishops promote the march. Their all-night pre-march vigil at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception draws up to 10,000 people.

That makes it "the largest annual Catholic Mass in the country," said Cleaver, 39, who first marched 16 years ago as a law student at Georgetown University.

But there is more than one legal way to stop abortion, she said.

"The church, of course, allows and supports incremental legislation. There is no question about that. ... If someone tells you something different about the church's position, that person is misinformed," she said.

There are other tensions in the ranks. Young Republicans may march next to Democrats for Life or even Anarchists for Life. Fundamentalist Protestants may pray for the salvation of the handful of Wiccans for Life, and even the Catholics who have long been the backbone of the march.

Last year, the tension snapped with the arrest of two members of the Pro-life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. Gray and the park police said it was because their banner promoted a cause other than opposition to abortion. Gray permits no off-topic signs in her demonstration.

"All persons are welcome, all messages are not," Gray said.

One of those arrested, Cecilia Brown, 39, of Cleveland, said the banner bore only the group's name and the slogan: "Human rights start when human life begins."

Group members had marched since 1991. Reactions from other marchers usually ranged from "We're glad you're here, but we don't approve of your lifestyle" to "Remember Sodom and Gomorra," Brown said.

Many members were anti-abortion activists before they came out of the closet. One had spoken at the March for Life as a representative of Collegians for Life. They don't promote gay rights at the march, Brown said. The alliance's goal is to promote the anti-abortion cause at gay pride events.

They also have an outreach to employees of abortion clinics, she said.

"We bring the [anti-abortion] message to people [conservative Christians] could never get near. But they don't look at it as a gift. They think we have this other agenda," she said.

Gray has said alliance members can march without their banner. Brown plans to carry it.

"I will lower my banner when all the other groups lower their banner," she said.

Most marchers come from within a day's drive. But George DeBolt, owner of DeBolt Unlimited Travel Services Inc. of Homestead and a veteran of the trips, has met bus drivers from as far away as Texas, Iowa and Florida. Though fewer buses come such distances, the March for Life is a major job because of the many relief drivers who must be posted along a 36-hour route from places such as Minneapolis. The plus side is that the driver doesn't have to worry about rowdy passengers.

"It's a wonderful trip. The people sing songs and they pray," DeBolt said.

Scanlon began chartering an Aspinwall bus more than 20 years ago. It now costs $975 for one that will carry up to 55 passengers -- fewer with wheelchairs. With subsidies from the St. Scholastica Respect Life committee and individuals from that Aspinwall parish, the fare is $15 per adult or $10 each for students. Any eighth-grader from Christ the Divine Teacher Academy, which serves St. Scholastica and other area parishes, who opts to go can ride free.

Organizers provide excused absence forms for students. Scanlon serves free coffee and doughnuts before the 6 a.m. departure.

As the bus approaches Washington, she briefs marchers on legislation, assigns legislative visits and makes sure everyone signs petitions to their own representatives.

She also explains how to get back to the bus.

"We have never lost anyone," she said.

The march begins at the ellipse with a rally, "which is always too long. It takes forever to get moving when you have 80,000 people," Cindrich said.

"You feel sorry for the people who go for the first time and rush home and think they will see themselves on TV," she said.

The march makes its way, for 2 1/2 hours, along Constitution Avenue, past the U.S. Capitol to the Supreme Court.

Afterward, marchers stand in more long lines to visit legislators.

Of Pennsylvania's two senators, Rick Santorum is one of the movement's most avid allies, while Arlen Specter supports abortion rights. Specter rarely commits to an appointment, Cindrich said, while Santorum books the largest meeting room.

"But all of a sudden, when we go to meet with Sen. Santorum, Sen. Specter just happens to be there. And Sen. Santorum always lets him speak first. So we take it for granted that we will see Sen. Specter before we see Sen. Santorum," Cindrich said, chuckling.

"Sen. Specter is gracious enough to come see us, but he would probably be glad if we would. ... " Her voice faded away as if by illustration.

Several area representatives have reserved one large room to serve coffee and cookies to their marching constituents.

"This is less a time for making speeches than for saying, 'Hello. How are you? How's your mother?' " Cindrich said. "People like to know they can go straight to their representative in Washington. It makes a big impression on the young people."

Then it's back to the buses. Scanlon's usually returns to Aspinwall near 11 p.m.

She never dreamed 30 years ago that she would still be marching. Abortion seemed so wrong that she was sure the nation would reject it. Her late husband once asked when she would stop marching.

"I said, 'When we win.' I guess that's in God's hands," she said.

Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at arodgersmelnick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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