During his Sunday Regina Caeli address, Pope Francis welcomed the tens of thousands of people who had gathered from around the world to take part in the city’s annual March for Life, which this year is celebrating the theme: For Life Without Compromise.
As many as 50,000 people staged a peaceful protest through the streets of Rome, which went from Piazza della Republica to Saint Peter’s Square.
Although this is only the third March for Life to take place in the city of Rome, and the fourth in the nation, organizers say the annual event is already having an impact.
Virginia Nunziante, who is the main spokesperson for the event, told ZENIT that she often hears young women saying that they never thought about what abortion meant. Taking the issue to the streets, as it were, “has helped them consider what abortion really is.”
Italy’s low birthrate, moreover, which has dropped below the replacement rate, is causing concern for the Italian people. “Young people are interested in this issue and understand that it is also something that concerns their future,” she said.
Although there are many pro-life initiatives working to address the issue of abortion, Nunziante added, more still needs to be done. “In the 40 years since we’ve had abortion in Italy, it is time to have something that can have an impact on a public level”.
Those attending the March for Life hailed from various walks of life, from priests, religious, pro-life leaders and activists, families, and lay people.
At the Heart of the Pro-life Movement
Two notable participants in this year’s March were Mary Rathke and Rebecca Kiesslingy, two women who had been conceived in rape.
Rathke recounted that she was conceived when her mother, who suffers from schizophrenia, was raped while on her way home from work one night. She was told that her mother’s mentally handicapped husband was her father. At the age of five, she was adopted. “I found out after his funeral that he had been covering for the fact that she had been raped. Now, I speak out and let everyone know that when legislations pass, we need to save all life, all babies, that we should not compromise or make exceptions based on what the conception.”
“When I’m in the marches in the US,” she said, “women come up to us crying and weeping, and saying how they had been forced to have abortions, or told it was the only way to make the rape go away. They say it just added to their pain and it didn’t make the pain go away." She said they wanted to be present to support the theme “pro-life without compromise” and "let people know that we’re real, that we have a face, and that we have productive lives, right at the conception means a lot.”
Rathke went on to say that a person cannot be judged according to their mental capacity or the way in which they were conceived, or what kind of life such a child will lead. “I’m a minister,” she said. “I volunteer in homeless shelters. I help people all the time. If I wasn’t here because I was an ‘exception,’ then so many people’s lives would be different. Make sure you’re not pro-life except in the case of Mary Rathke: be pro-life for all.”
For her part, Rebecca Kiessling learned at 18 she was conceived when her birth mother was abducted at knifepoint by a serial rapist. “She went to two illegal abortions and I was almost aborted but she backed out because of the illegal conditions,” she said. “I owe my life to the law being there to protect me”.
Taking part in the Rome March for Life, she said, is “a wonderful opportunity to be a witness that all life has value.”
Kiessling said that theme, which is “Per la vita senza compromessa” – “For Life Without Compromise” -- is the message that they themselves bring to the March for Life. “We put a face to the issue,” she said, “and I hope that it encourages others to now come forward”.
After first telling her story in 1995, she told ZENIT that for years she was the only one speaking out. “Now, I’ve trained dozens of others who are speaking out on this issue, and we have hundreds who are connected together so that they no longer have to feel alone. I hope that our presence here will give courage to others in Italy and in Europe who share the same story, but felt stigmatized and never had the courage to speak up”.
Standing Up for The Innocent
Regardless of the legal status of abortion in a given countries, pro-life advocates are working tirelessly to ensure the safety of the unborn.
Bernadette Smith, director of Precious Life in Ireland, explained that while the Republic of Ireland legalized abortion last July, the bill has yet to be implemented. “They’re considering a legal challenge because of the many flaws and constitutional concerns,” she said, “So the battle isn’t over yet. There’s still a major battle being waged to prevent that bill from being implemented”.
Although abortion is still against the law in Northern Ireland, which Smith’s pro-life initiative represents, she explained that they are “facing the same challenges that the Republic of Ireland faced [and] also other parts of the world”.
“We’re really fighting in the political realm, we’re fighting in the streets by petitioning, raising awareness, and if need be we’re always open to taking a legal challenge. The battle is never over when people gather at events like this," she said.
“This is the greatest human rights battle of our day. It’s vitally important that people from throughout the world unify at these events, that they come together and rub off on each other ideas and support. After all, if they kill a child in Rome, if they kill a child in the UK or America, those children are our brothers and sisters. It’s a vitally important human rights battle, but it’s a vitally important spiritual battle. So for me, the battle has to be fought by prayer and action.”
She said that Ireland will be holding a pro-life rally of its own on July 5 in Belfast. “We’re really challenging, and really rallying for people to come out and make a stand for life”.
“These events are vitally important for the pro-life movement: to be fired up for one day, and then get up the next day and continue to fight to protect unborn children,” she said.
One of the many priests taking part in the March for Life was Fr. George Adimike from Nigeria, who remarked on the diversity of people who had come together for a common purpose.
“I am edified that Italy and Europe for once can come together to stand for life,” he said. “In a world of today, there is so much attack on the family, on life, on issues of morality. There is absence of God in the public square. And the Christians, and all men of good will, are coming back to the public square, bringing back the debate to the public square, witnessing to the Gospel in the public square”.
With the event taking place just one week after the Canonization of Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, Geoffrey Strickland, who works as the international associate for Priests for Life, told ZENIT that in this March for Life, “we’re seeing the fruit of the extraordinary two new saints, especially the work of JPII, and really bringing the international pro-life efforts to the front forum of the cultural battle”.
“The beautiful thing,” he said, “is that we see sort of efforts that mirror each other back in the United States and then here in Rome. The unique thing about here in Rome is that it is an Italian March, but yet we have people from all over the world”.
“It’s a day of prayer," he said. "It’s a day of witness, and it’s a day of life”.