Friday, January 26, 2018

The Sights and Sounds of the 2018 Georgia March For Life Demonstration

Uncommon Journalism speaks with anti-abortion proponents at Atlanta's largest pro-life demonstration of the year. How do they respond to accusations the movement is anti-women, and how do they feel about the prospects of abortion law reversals under the Trump Administration?

More than 1,000 demonstrators turned out for the 2018 Georgia March For Life in Atlanta. And they had plenty to say about what they believe are media-propagated misconceptions and allegations their cause is intrinsically misogynistic.

By: James Swift

It sounds like the whirring of a helicopter blade, but the loud "whooshing" emanating from the speakers at Liberty Plaza is actually the sound of a 12-week-old fetus' slowly thumping heart. 

After a few moments of silence, a lone bugler performs "Taps." That's the cue for the thousand-plus pro-life demonstrators who gathered outside the Georgia Capitol Building on Jan. 19 to line up for the annual March For Life. The 2018 event marked the 45th anniversary of the initial anti-abortion demonstration in Washington, D.C., held roughly a year after the Supreme Court of the United States decided Roe v. Wade. The demonstration in the nation's capital remains the country's largest (indeed, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people gathered to hear President Donald Trump give the keynote address before the National Mall), but many more anti-abortion advocates marched at more than 50 simultaneous locally-orchestrated events across America that same afternoon.

Georgia Right to Life (GRTL) Executive Director Zemmie Fleck coordinated the demonstration in Atlanta. She tabbed the estimated attendance at the event around 1,500 people.

"My No. 1 reason for being pro-life is that God gave me life and he saw fit to sustain my life [and] provide an adoptive family for me," the 53-year-old Cumming, Ga. native said. "My mother died when I was about five months old ... I understand from God’s word that he loves life and he creates life. No one should take it."

Demonstrators - many carrying signs with slogans like "Women Do Regret Abortions" and "Planned Parenthood, America's Shame" - looped around the Georgia State Capitol. The symbolically silent, one-mile march began on Piedmont Ave., with a police escort leading the way towards the rally's terminus down Martin Luther King, Jr., Drive.

There isn't a cloud in sight, and for mid-January in Georgia, the 60 degree weather is downright balmy. There's still a giant "G," representing the Georgia Bulldogs logo, painted on the middle of the plaza lawn - no doubt a holdover from the NCAA College Football National Championship  festivities from two weeks earlier.

Prior to the march, teenagers in bright orange vests collected signatures for a state constitutional amendment that would recognize "personhood" at the moment of fertilization. One by one, a  series of speakers took turns standing in front of a Georgia Right to Life banner, delivering sermons while keyboardist Kurt Scobie conducted a dirge.

Many of the speakers led prayer sessions, with some condemning the estimated 60 million abortions that have taken place in the United States over the last 45 years as another Holocaust.

"It's not, oh God, a political issue," stated Georgia Right to Life President Ricardo Davis. "It is a heart issue of man."

More than one presenter brought up Jeremiah 1:15 as the ultimate raison d'etre for the pro-life movement. "Before I formed you in the womb," keynote speaker Dr. James Merritt - former Southern Baptist Convention president and star of the weekly televangelist program Touching Lives - reiterated the gospels, "I loved you ... Jesus is so pro-life, he gave his life."

Then there was the speech by 26-year-old Davis Posey. 

"I was conceived in rape - my birth mother was raped at just 13-years-old," she told the somber crowd. "Having rape exceptions in laws tells me personally and people like Rebecca Keasling, Ralph Davis and Trayvon Clifton that our lives hold less value and less worth. We need to be punishing the rapists, not these innocent babies."

And the audience - nearly half of them children and teenagers, with some holding cardboard signs scrawled  with messages like "a person is a person, no matter how small" and "protect the tiny humans, love the moms" - mournfully nodded their heads in approval.

REPRESENTING State lawmakers Sam Teasley (R-Marietta) and Scott Hilton (R-Peachtree Corners) were among the dozen or so legislators to make an appearance at the 2018 Georgia March For Life. (Photo credit James Swift)

Church and state

Underneath the gold dome of the state legislature, about a dozen elected officials and agency spokespeople gathered for a reading of Gov. Nathan Deal's proclamation declaring Jan. 19 "Respect for Human Life Day" in Georgia.

"An individual's value is not contingent upon age, race, gender, ethnicity, ability or level of development," Karen LaBarr, GRTL Director to Personhood Alliance, read the official declaration. "It is imperative to preserve the rights of of all Georgians, including the elderly, those with disabilities and those who are not yet born."

Count State Rep. Scott Hilton, a Republican representing Georgia's 95th District, among the true believers. 

“For me, the issue is really personal," he told Uncommon Journalism. "We have a child with a disability and there are so many in that community that receive a diagnosis like that and children, unfortunately, are aborted at that stage. As a parent of a child with a disability, it has been such an incredible blessing in our life, and he really means so much to us.”

Hilton, whose district largely comprises Peachtree Corners and parts of Duluth, Norcross and Johns Creek, explained his rationale for being pro-life.

"I think science has shown from the moment it all comes together there at conception it is a life, it can feel pain," he said. "Life, God says, is precious, so that life is precious, and that’s kind of what I believe.”

He said he believes the pro-life cause will make "some strides" under the Trump Administration. "I don't think we'll see a full repeal of Roe v. Wade," he said, "but there's a lot of things that we can do incrementally to make some changes and move the ball down the field."

Hilton disagrees with pro-choice activists who declare pro-lifers to be anti-women.

"People say that women have a choice, but when it comes to sort of life or death, I think an unborn life matters," he said. "So I think you can’t throw that aside - I think it’s important we value that life that hasn’t been born yet.”

However, Hilton said he has no animosity towards women who have abortions. "It's a difficult decision to make, it's traumatic," he said. "So I think they deserve all the love and support that we can possibly give them to kind of get over that and move on with a positive life from there."

NOT INTERESTED IN POLITICS "You can regulate laws all day," said demonstrator Pivotal Sales, "but it does not give credence to the change of heart." (Photo credit James Swift) 

A black and white issue

According to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health, an estimated 29,551 abortions involving in-state residents transpired in 2016. The overwhelming majority - at about 18,000, representing 62 percent of all abortions in Georgia - involved black mothers.

While the majority of the marchers in Atlanta were Caucasian, a sizable contingent of black demonstrators - perhaps representing as much as a third of the total turnout - also made their voices heard.

"I think the biggest misconception is that it's a white movement," said 41-year-old South Fulton, Ga. rally attendee Pivotal Sales. "And that there's no space for the African-American voice in it."

Another misconception about pro-lifers, she said, is that the cause isn't concerned about the well-being of children after they're born.

"Often times, those who will take care of the life before the child gets here don't necessarily advocate for the life once it's here," she said. "We have the school to prison pipeline, and we have the miseducation system and just the way that people are disenfranchised, I think it's important to understand that it's not a before-the-womb issue and then discard the life afterwards."

Sales said her anti-abortion stance is a "salvation issue," not a matter of politics. "I don’t think that man has a right to determine life or death," she said, "that comes from God.”

Nor does she think the abortion dilemma can be solved entirely through legislative means.

"You can regulate laws all day, but it does not give credence to the change of heart," she said. "So laws can change, but you cannot change hearts. Left-wing, right-wing, until the heart of man is converted, until man takes on the heart of God, that won't necessarily shift."

She said God is forgiving of women who have abortions. "His grace is more than enough, that there are those praying for you and that the future will hold something brighter," Sales said. "The child has returned to the creator of its soul ... we understand the pain that comes along with it, to make different decisions next time."

As to whether the contemporary pro-life movement has a pronounced anti-woman bent, however, Sales put it thus.

"You have the #MeToo movement, #ItStopsHere, all of those things, #TimeIsUp, that are right now pro-women," she said. "I think that's a very delicate topic and I think that any time you deal with pro-women or anti-women, you have to be careful as Christians because we have to be pro-Christ first."

NO EXCEPTIONS "While a lot of the circumstances surrounding the life of a woman who is going to have an abortion are very sad and very tragic," said marcher Abigail Cochran, "it doesn’t justify killing an innocent human being.” (Photo credit James Swift)

The youth vote

"I believe that all human life is sacred and should be respected," said Royston, Ga. resident Ava Brown. The 18-year-old was mum when it came to politics - although she did say she believes a Roe v. Wade reversal is possible under Trump - but she definitely had plenty to say to those who accuse the pro-life movement of being misogynistic. 

"They think it does not give them a choice in whether or not to keep the baby," she said. "I say it is very pro-woman, because cases have shown women usually regret having an abortion, anyway."

Those sentiments were shared by 23-year-old Abigail Cochran.

“A lot of the misconceptions are that we’re anti-woman and we’re not," said the Tunnel Hill, Ga. native. "We’re very pro-woman and we don’t want any woman to live with the regret that she has killed an innocent human being. And while a lot of the circumstances surrounding the life of a woman who is going to have an abortion are very sad and very tragic, it doesn’t justify killing an innocent human being.”

However, Cochran said she doubts federal abortion laws will be overturned anytime soon.

“I’m quite a skeptic, especially about the Republican Party in general," she said. "But I’m hopeful that we’re seeing a change from the grassroots, that more people are becoming pro-life and recognizing the truth about abortion.”

Nor does Cochran believe women who have abortions are eternally forsaken.

“There is hope and forgiveness from that sin," she said, "all they have to do is repent and trust Christ.”

A MINORITY MATTER? Georgia Department of Public Health data indicates black mothers represented two-thirds of those who underwent abortion procedures in the state in 2016. (Photo credit James Swift)

A different kind of women's march

Misconceptions abound about the pro-life movement in America, said Patty Varner, 66, of Duluth, Ga.

“They don’t think that we’re loving and concerned about everybody," she said. "We do. We care about babies as well as the mothers who are carrying the babies. Our faith tells us to love one another, so we want to extend that love to everybody.”

Varner strongly disagrees that being anti-abortion is intrinsically anti-women.

“It seems like everybody is anti-woman today, not only the pro-life movement, but everybody, everything else,” she said. “Women have gone crazy thinking that everything is against them, which on some points, that’s true. I don’t think, once again, that it’s anti-women - I think we’re concerned about all women ... we’re trying to give them a choice other than killing a baby - to keep a baby, to adopt it out. We’re for women, we believe the Lord made us all."

March coordinator Fleck had a similar opinion on the matter.

“We are highly misunderstood in the fact that women say we are not promoting their rights, but we are taking them away,” she said. “That’s absolutely not the truth. We are working to protect women in various areas - we, ourselves, work in the area of legal protection.”

Fleck and Varner both said they are optimistic about the chances of abortion laws - on both the state and federal level - being overturned.

"I believe that the federal abortion laws were created under false pretenses  and that there was a lot of legal recognition with the abortion situation that was false," Fleck said. "I am very hopeful about changes."

Varner said she was even more assured of abortion legislation repeals.

“I think we have a president now who is pro-life, which is a big deal right now in Washington, D.C.," she said. “With his support and a lot of other people in Congress who are Christians [who] believe in pro-life, and with the appointment of the right Supreme Court justices, I think we have a good chance of changing things."

TAKING THE STREETS An estimated 1,500 people participated in the 2018 Georgia March For Life - a sum about seven times larger than the turnout for the following day's March for Social Justice and Women in Woodruff Park. (Photo credit James Swift)


The demonstration concluded a little before 3 p.m. A half hour later Liberty Plaza - despite the abnormally warm weather, still speckled with mounds of snow and sheets of ice from a winter storm earlier in the week - was virtually deserted.

Media penetration at the event was practically nil. A few local TV stations sent solo cameramen to capture some B-roll, yet hardly any of the major Atlanta print publications even bothered covering it - the Atlanta Journal-Constitution not withstanding, whose write-up reduced the 1,500 attendees to a suspiciously vague "over 200" and featured two extensive quotes from pro-abortion onlookers but only a single, sentence-long proprietary quote from a lone anti-abortion marcher.

Meanwhile, the next day's Atlanta March for Social Justice and Women in Woodruff Park - which did only draw a scant 200 people, representing barely one-seventh of the turnout for the Georgia March for Life - received significant ink from legacy media like the aforementioned AJC and The Atlanta Voice.

Nor did the Power to the Polls gathering later that evening draw a larger crowd than the Georgia March For Life. According to one estimated headcount for the event - headlined by keynote speeches by Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and #MeToo progenitor Alyssa Milano - the attendance was barely two-thirds that of the anti-abortion demonstration the day before.

A cursory glance at the reader comments on the AJC write-up demonstrates the rancor many feel towards Atlanta's pro-life community.

"Abortion, Republicans' favorite tool to get the one issue sheep to the polls," wrote an especially acerbic commentator under the moniker Buttercup23, "all while voting against every bill that comes forward helping children."

Anonymous online detractor curt49 wasn't any softer on the anti-abortion crowd.

"Great they care for the unborn. That's the easy part," the keyboard critic wrote. "What are they doing for the ones they made sure came into this world? Education? Healthcare? Daycare when mom goes to work?"

Alas, despite the acidity directed towards pro-lifers - almost always depicted in film and television as foaming-at-the-mouth religious zealots - those same anti-abortion crusaders are hesitant to belittle or degrade those who not only support abortion, but actually undergo the procedure.

“I want them to know they are loved," Fleck said. "God does not condemn them, he loves them. Because we’re all sinners, we all make mistakes. And there’s healing, emotional healing, if you accept the fact Jesus loves you and forgives you for taking a baby’s life.”

The GRTL executive director said she was equally nonjudgmental.

“I personally pray for them every single day, because I can only imagine the difficulty that they have in living with that in their past," Fleck said. "But there is hope for them and they are welcome through many of the pregnancy resource centers and other organizations who will minister to them, give them counseling. There are many, many women who have lived with the fact that they did abort their child, but they have come through that and they are here today, supporting our efforts.”

And under the bright, azure skies of Atlanta, a peculiar silence fills the air where, just 30 minutes earlier, more than a thousand people had gathered. Not a single discarded pro-life poster remains in Liberty Plaza; in fact, it almost seems like no one had been there at all.

Image Gallery
(All photo credits James Swift)

Uncommon Journalism, 2018

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