Like many others, I failed the Covington Catholic test. I let myself be manipulated (apparently at the hands of anonymous internet bots operating with precise coordination to unleash maximum mayhem) by the original video and castigated these boys without pausing to think about whether there might be more to the story. I was all ready to pitch an op-ed calling out the March for Life’s cozying up the “Make America Great Again” crowd—when, much to my surprise, more videos were released that caused me to revisit what I thought I had just seen. These boys, though not 100% innocent, were far from the villains in the affair. The rush to publicly ruin their lives, and even threaten their school with violence, was absolutely sickening.
But even in the face of direct evidence to the contrary, many simply could not let go of the original narrative and went looking for more evidence in support of it. They were partially successful. In response to a Native American’s claim that whites stole their land, a boy who attended the March for Life was shown on video saying “Land gets stolen. That’s how it works. That’s the way of the world.” Another group of March attendees could be seen harassing young women and saying “It’s not rape if you enjoy it.”
Though these students apparently did not attend Covington, and thus their words do not speak to the original controversy, they do offer us a window into a problem for the March for Life. It is too uniform in its politics—and in ways which pave the way for the worst parts of MAGA to infect the culture of the March. And the March’s leadership has no one to blame but themselves. You do not feature Donald Trump and Ben Shapiro in back to back years if you are concerned with making sure people with differing political views feel comfortable. Both of these men make a living harshly attacking their political and ideological opponents.
Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, used an op-ed in the Washington Post on the day of the March to blame the lack of political diversity at the March on the Democratic party. She rightly points out that the platform and leadership are incredibly extreme and in most situations try to stifle the voice of pro-life Democrats. But she leaves out much important context for this sorry state of affairs, including the fact that the pro-life Susan B. Anthony list works tirelessly to defeat pro-life Democrats who do not meet their threshold for anti-abortion purity. In a very real sense, the traditional pro-life movement is responsible for the lack of diversity that Mancini criticizes.
Furthermore, as Fr. James Martin pointed out, the March has been too reliant on political figures for its speakers and for creating its pro-life ethos and energy. They should focus more on activists. In an article titled “What It’s Like for Secular, Liberal Pro-Lifers at the March for Life,” The Atlantic gave terrific coverage of the political and ideological diversity that does exist in the rank and file of the March. They featured details on activist groups like Secular Pro-life, Rehumanize International, New Wave Feminists, Democrats for Life, and the Consistent Life Network. Many of them, the article says:
Espouse something called the “consistent life” or “whole life” ethic—the belief that human life should be protected from violence and killing from the moment of conception onwards. So while these groups often protest abortion, they also protest police brutality, torture, war, human trafficking, and the separation of immigrant families.
The leaders of these organizations would be wonderful speakers at the March and would give it a very different ethos and feel. In an ideal world Mancini—given her frustration with the political and ideological uniformity of the March—presumably would have read The Atlantic piece with great interest and set up lunches with members of these Consistent Life organizations in an attempt to, as she said in the Post op-ed, “unite our voices in defense of the unborn.”
Except that on the very same day her Post piece appeared, she wrote a piece for the Washington Examiner with the headline, “Being Pro-Life isn’t About Immigration, Healthcare, or the Environment.” In the piece, she claims that those who have a Consistent Life ethic are guilty of conflation and risk losing the momentum around our anti-abortion goals. In the Post Mancini laments the lack of political and ideological diversity at the March, while in the Examiner she publicly criticized the central idea of the very people she just said she wanted to welcome to the March.
The central problem of the U.S. pro-life movement is not that we are not concerned enough about abortion. On the contrary, it is that those who stand outside our ranks find our singular focus on passing abortion laws so hypocritical that they cannot take us seriously. Much like climate change activists who talk about passing Green New Deals while regularly flying around the world and eating meat from factory farms, pro-lifers are viewed by millions as abandoning their supposed principles once the issue is not about banning abortion. That is how it becomes plausible to reduce our movement to a focus on controlling women or the consequences of sex. Far from diluting our message on abortion, applying our pro-life principles beyond a single issue gives us precisely the kind of witness we need to win new hearts and minds to our cause, especially with younger people.
This would not be a new thing. The movement already sees euthanasia—quite a different issue from abortion—as naturally a pro-life issue as well. And the history of our movement demonstrates that our earliest leaders, though being anti-war, went hand-in-hand with being anti-abortion. The greatest pro-lifer who ever lived, Pope St. John Paul II, insisted that the Gospel of Life was inherently concerned with issues well beyond abortion.
Most U.S. Americans share the pro-life movement’s goals of changing our extreme abortion laws. And yet the bias against the movement is so strong that it undoubtedly played a role in how so many came to be certain in their mistaken judgement of Covington Catholic boys. The leadership of the traditional pro-life movement must make a commitment to forging the kind of ethos and energy that would make the public skeptical that someone they believe to be mocking a Native American could have also been a participant at the March for Life. Tragically, the public’s learning that these boys were at the March made it more likely that they were guilty of such mockery. No amount of single-issue unity is going to solve that structural problem for our movement.
Editorial Notes: Charles C. Camosy is a Life and Dignity Writing Fellow with the Notre Dame Office of Human Dignity & Life Initiatives. Life and Dignity Writing Fellows are leading experts who contribute regularly to Church Life Journal on pro-life and human dignity issues. This essay is also part of a developing series on media studies.