By Natalie DiBlasio, USA TODAY
Thousands of young adults thronged the National Mall on Friday to protest abortion and cheer speakers who called for overturning the 40-year-old landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.
Protesters - drawn by social media and church youth groups - flocked to the annual March for Life despite subfreezing temperatures and snow in the forecast.
"We are winning with young people. I see it right in front of me today," said organizer Jeanne Monahan, president of the March for Life Education & Defense Fund.
As one abortion opponent after another addressed the crowd, Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey drew the loudest applause with an attack on the court ruling: "Forty years ago this past Tuesday marks the Supreme Court's infamous, reckless and inhumane abandonment of women and babies to the abortionists."
"Know this, Mr. President - we will never quit," Smith said before the marchers took off on their route down Constitution Avenue toward the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill.
In a video message, Speaker of the House John Boehner roused the crowd when he called abortion "a defining human rights issue of our time. He said, "Because human life is not an economic or political commodity ... no government on Earth has the right to treat it as such."
Pope Benedict XVI sent them his encouragement by way of his personal Twitter account, @pontifex: "I join all those marching for life from afar, and pray that political leaders will protect the unborn and promote a culture of life," he posted early Friday morning.
Anina Lund, 14, Monica Dewey, 15, and Monica's brother Jackson, 12, came from West Chester, N.Y., with a group from St. Anne's Church - 118 people all clad in neon-orange hats and green scarves to keep sight of each other in the giant crowd. Both girls spoke of how their families faced abortion decisions.
Monica, one of 10 children, recalled, "My younger brother was very sick in the womb and the doctors told my mom to abort the baby, but she chose not to. He is here today and he is perfectly healthy."
Jackson chimed in, "It's pretty cool that my mom didn't give up. It's cool that I am alive."
Anina had a similar story: "I had a little sister who was going to be aborted because she was premature. But now, she is 7 and she is perfect. This march gave my mom so much support."
Lauren Benzing, 18, of Solon, Iowa, who came with 350 others on 13 buses from the Catholic Diocese of Dubuque, was too young to vote last November but, she vows, "as soon as I can (vote), I will support pro-life. But with the march, I feel like I can still make a difference."
Kathleen Cranford, 61, of Slidell, La., came to the march today with her husband, Clay, who is holding a green "Defend life" sign.
"I've wanted to attend all my life and now I am here - it's a dream come true," Cranford says. "I think all Americans should be here defending life." As disturbed as Americans are by the killings in Newtown, she said, abortion has killed millions more. "Where is the outrage? Where is the insistence on change?" she asked.
However, Americans remain divided on abortion. According to a recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. Significantly more Americans - 53% to 29% - want the decision kept in place rather than overturned. Another 18% have no opinion, the highest level of uncertainty Gallup has recorded on the issue.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 37% of Americans do not know thatRoe v. Wade dealt with the issue of abortion. Among the age group targeted by the March for Life, the number is higher - 57% of adults under age 30 don't know what the case is about.
Jeanne Ameye, 73, of Washington Crossing, Pa., knows very well what the case meant. "I have two adopted mature, grown children and I am so grateful their mother didn't abort them - she could have."
Ameye, who is Catholic, sees trouble in a culture where "we don't hurt animals but we have no problem killing babies. I resent my tax money going toward abortion. It is against my religion," she says.
Jennifer Kilmer, coordinator for Rockville, Md., St. Jude's Catholic parish March for Life bus is here with 28 kids, ages 3-14, who raised money for transportation by selling "pro-life shirts."
Kilmer was excited by the turnout, noting that she is often criticized when out shopping with her 11 children.
"People say I don't know what I'm doing having so many kids. There is a lot of negativity. We are building the leaders of the future. With so many of us, it is just a pro-life message when we go around every day."
Kilmer's oldest child, Christina, 14, Is one of seven siblings at the rally. "I am here because I am pro-life. I want to raise awareness of how abortion is killing children and that is wrong. I am the oldest of 11, and my dad was adopted. Daily we show how great big families are and people see how happy we are."
About 235 Iowans traveled for more than two days on four buses to attend the march, said Maggie DeWitte, 38, executive director of Iowans for LIFE.
"I think so often people working in the life movement feel like they're all alone out there. This gives them a sense of energy, enthusiasm, unity and resolve," DeWitte said.
Deb Ryan-Purcell, 50, of Des Moines, was invited to the event by her daughter, a senior at Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines.
Micah Purcell, 17, said she wanted her mother to witness all of like-minded people who feel passionately about protecting the lives of unborn children.
"When our parents are gone, we'll be in charge of this country," said Purcell, who is attending her third march. "We're sending a message that this is not OK with us."
Gillian O'Callaghan, 17, of Sarasota, Fla., marched with nearly 20 peers from Cardinal Mooney High School and more than 120 others from her local Catholic diocese. They were swathed in layers of clothing: She called the district "a little bit cold" compared to her hometown, which basked in upper 70-degree weather on Friday.
The parochial high school students sold boxes of chocolate, held car washes and sold baked goods to make the trip, with O'Callaghan also chipping in some baby-sitting money. She turned 17 on Thursday: Her parents made up the rest of the travel expense as a birthday gift.
O'Callaghan wanted to come "because I've always loved babies. This issue really hit close to home."
Contributing: Cathy Lynn Grossman; Bob Smietana, The Tennessean; Jens Manuel Krogstad, The Des Moines Register; Laura Ruane, The (Fort Myers) News-Press.