40th annual March for Life will draw crowd to Mall

Editor’s Note: The March for Life event is scheduled to close streets from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. around the District on Friday. Click here for street closures.

Natalie Plumb, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON – The streets are clear of inaugural participants, but thousands of visitors are heading back to the National Mall Friday for an entirely different event.

Anti-abortion activists from across the nation will take to D.C.’s streets for the 40th annual March for Life, a march that commemorates the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Organizers say they hope the crowd will surpass the march’s record of 400,000 demonstrators, and even the attendance of 1 million people at the inauguration.

“It would be fantastic if the numbers topped those of the inauguration,” says Jeanne Monahan, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund. “However, it would be an act of God — it would be a miracle if that happened.”

The National Park Service used to estimate an official count of march participants, but stopped giving estimates after Million Man March organizers threatened to sue in 1995 for what they claimed was an underestimate.

“(How many marchers will be there) is the million-dollar question, and we don’t have a formal or really an informal estimate,” Monahan says, adding that an unaffiliated group plans to oversee a formal estimate this year.

Monahan says she expects large crowds because hotel rooms that organizers reserved downtown sold out a month in advance — something that has never happened before.

The march is also expected to draw crowds because the march’s founder, Nellie Gray, died in August at age 88, and supporters may attend in her honor.

“We are anticipating a somewhat larger crowd not only because it’s the 40th anniversary, but because Nellie Gray died last year,” says National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson.

On Saturday, the National LIFE Runners, Vitae Foundation and the March for Life are co-sponsoring the Inaugural Nellie Gray 5K Run/Walk, with a Kids’ 1K Fun Run. Runners from 28 states will run along the Potomac River in West Potomac Park in Gray’s honor.

The March for Life march is traditionally held on Jan. 22 — the anniversary of Roe v. Wade — but this year, the 57th presidential inauguration caused the National Park Service to schedule the march to occur on Jan. 25.

Johnson says transitioning from two largely attended events in four days is like giving the National Mall a facelift.

“We’re cleaning up after the inauguration, and we’re getting ready for the March for Life,” she says.

Though the Mall will need a lot of preparation, Johnson says the National Park Service treats every event the same, including rallies, musical performances, prayers and speeches. She added that D.C. police will escort the marchers throughout the day.

March participants often include groups with schools, charities, churches and anti-abortion organizations. Hundreds of local students from Catholic University, Gonzaga College High School, St. Ann’s Academy, Georgetown Preparatory School, Academy of the Holy Cross, DeMatha Catholic High School, Georgetown University and others are also expected to attend.

Monahan says Students for Life of America — an anti-abortion organization — sold out spots for their conference, which has more than 200,000 young people, months in advance. The students will participate in the march and attend a 12-hour event with speakers on Saturday.

“We’re certainly seeing signs that there may be record-breaking crowds, and that’s certainly the hope,” Monahan says.

On Friday morning, a youth rally is expected to host about 18,000 demonstrators in the Verizon Center, according to the Archdiocese of Washington. Groups will join the demonstration on the National Mall at noon for a second rally prior to the march. During this portion, marchers hear from speakers, congressional leaders and anti-abortion advocates.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, spoke at last year’s march, telling the crowd that he is one of 12 children and his anti-abortion views are a part of his identity. This year, he is expected to address the marchers in a video that will be released to the public after the march.

“He’s really encouraging Americans and talking about his own pro-life views and the fact that abortion is really a human rights abuse,” says Monahan, describing Boehner’s speech in the video.

At about 1:30 p.m., the march departs, proceeding north on Constitution Avenue until it passes the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill, where the marchers disband.

WTOP’s Traffic Operations Director Jim Battagliese says it’s a good idea to “stay away from the Mall” on Friday.

“People tend to leave work early on Fridays, so having the March for Life in the middle of all this might be a little crazy traffic-wise,” he says.

Battagliese advises commuters leaving work from downtown on Friday to avoid Constitution Avenue because it will be closed.

Click here for a list of road closures around the District on Friday.

Follow @WTOPLiving on Twitter.

(Copyright 2013 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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