A roar went up on the state Capitol grounds and echoed off of surrounding buildings Jan. 23, when Gianna Jessen, featured speaker for the 45th Annual March for Life, led the crowd in a shout of victory.
“We won! We won in his name! The people of God are here to shout victory! Shout as loud as you can,” Jessen implored on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in the Roe v. Wade case to federally protect abortion access.
On June 24, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling, ending a near half-century of federal protection and sending the issue to the states to determine legality. In 18 states, including Arkansas, abortion was outlawed or restricted while others have made or are making access to abortions codified.
In the first Mass for Life since the court’s ruling, pro-life advocates from around the state gathered for the annual Eucharistic Procession and Mass for Life Jan. 22, sponsored by the Diocese of Little Rock’s Respect Life Office, and the March for Life, sponsored by Arkansas Right to Life, which started at Capitol Avenue and State Street and ended with a rally in front of the Capitol.
“Roe is no more,” Arkansas Right to Life president Andy Mayberry said as he opened the rally, which featured Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Lt. Gov. Leslie Rutledge, U.S. Reps. French Hill and Bruce Westerman and several of the state’s constitutional officers.
The sense that a major milestone was reached and should be acknowledged and celebrated permeated the weekend’s events, however there were several reminders that the right to life movement needs continued involvement to achieve all of its goals.
While abortion “leaves a wound that just won’t heal,” Bishop Anthony B. Taylor reminded the more than 450 Catholics who attended the Mass for Life that the Church teaches that people should be cared for from “womb to tomb” and immigration, health care and the death penalty are pro-life issues worth fighting for.
“We’re not just anti-abortion,” he said. “We’re pro-life on every matter that touches on our God-given dignity as human beings created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ: in the womb and throughout life, all the way to natural death.”
The diversity within the diocese was on display at the Eucharistic Procession and Mass for Life. Knights and dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and Knights of Columbus processed in their regalia. Stops during the procession were manned by members of the Church’s Hispanic community as well as the Igbo Catholics from Nigeria.
After the Mass, people raced to the corner of Capitol Avenue and State Street for the eight-block March for Life.
At the following rally, Gov. Sanders told the crowd that she first attended the March for Life with her parents 30 years ago and that she is “thankful for the lessons they taught that every life matters, every life has value, and we must do what we can to protect life at all stages.”
As the first woman and mother to serve as the state’s governor, she said, “We must do better to protect those who can’t protect themselves. Every life is a gift from God.”
Just weeks after winning her first term, with a wink and a smile, she added, “As your governor for the next eight years, I’ll continue to ensure that Arkansas remains the most pro-life state in the country.”
Jessen, the march’s keynote speaker, who has been lauded by Pope Benedict XVI and St. Teresa of Kolkata, gave a rousing speech marked with equal parts preaching and joking quips.
“I’m here to stomp on the devil’s face,” she exclaimed as she began. “Y’all thought you were going to a rally, but you’re going to church.”
Jessen was born April 6, 1977, at just 29.5 weeks and 2.5 pounds. When she was nearly eight months pregnant, her birth mom, then 17, had a saline abortion that was supposed to cause a miscarriage within 24 hours. It didn’t work and left the child with what she calls “the gift of cerebral palsy.”
Jessen was put into foster care and became an anti-abortion advocate after her adoptive mom revealed her life experiences.
“What happened to me doesn’t define me. He defines me,” she said as she pointed to the sky.
Due to her condition, Jessen said growing up she was often told what she was never going to be able to be or do.
“Disabled? Will not be able to get out of bed? Did that,” she said.
She compared those who said her quality of life would be impacted and lessened by her condition to Adolf Hitler.
“Who are you able-bodied person to determine my quality of life?” she asked. “In Jesus, we get the ultimate quality of life.
“Pray and pray and never give up,” she said. “Nothing is impossible with God.”
Julie Jasper, director of the handbell choir at Mary Mother of God Church in Harrison, which provided music for the Eucharistic procession, said this was her first Mass for Life.
“It's not always easy for us to get down to Little Rock, but we were just honored to be a part of it all,” she said. “This just gave me a whole new appreciation for the Blessed Sacrament. This is my first time coming to the Mass or the March for Life, and I’m like, ‘What have I been missing out on?’”
Catherine Phillips, director of the Diocese of Little Rock’s Respect Life Office, said the weekend provided a great balance of recognizing accomplishments while outlining the work that still needs to be done.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 20 states have outlawed abortion. This article has been updated.
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