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New generation of Western Pennsylvania pro-life students ready to make voice heard at 44th annual March for Life

Stephen Huba
| Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Greensburg Central Catholic religious studies teacher John McFarland (right) distributes signs Tuesday, Jan. 24 to students who are attending Friday’s 44th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., as well as two youth rallies. From left are Dan Erdely, Stephen Kendrish, Chelsey Boyle and Christina Cochenour. Obscured is junior James Cullen.
Stephen Huba | Tribune-Review
Greensburg Central Catholic religious studies teacher John McFarland (right) distributes signs Tuesday, Jan. 24 to students who are attending Friday’s 44th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., as well as two youth rallies. From left are Dan Erdely, Stephen Kendrish, Chelsey Boyle and Christina Cochenour. Obscured is junior James Cullen.
Women march holding signs featuring historically significant women, including a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, during Saturday's Women's March on Washington.
Women march holding signs featuring historically significant women, including a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, during Saturday's Women's March on Washington.
Signs that will be handed out to marchers for the upcoming Right to Life March in Washington D.C. in Murrysville, Pa. on Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Signs that will be handed out to marchers for the upcoming Right to Life March in Washington D.C. in Murrysville, Pa. on Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017.
Scarves and stickers that were to be handed out in Murrysville to participants going to a 2017 march in Washington, D.C.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Scarves and stickers that were to be handed out in Murrysville to participants going to a 2017 march in Washington, D.C.
Marchers carrying portraits of influential women at the Women's March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2016.
Jamie Martines | Tribune-Review
Marchers carrying portraits of influential women at the Women's March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2016.

John McFarland was a freshman in high school in 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade.

By the time he was a junior, he was concerned enough about the implications of the Supreme Court decision, which legalized abortion in all 50 states, that he decided to do something. He and the entire student body at St. Fidelis Seminary High School near Butler attended something called the March for Life in Washington.

“Our chaperones had us all in a row, like a row of ducks,” said McFarland, chairman of the Religious Studies Department at Greensburg Central Catholic High School. “In those early days, there was much more conflict you were exposed to, between the pro-choice and pro-life groups. ... It seemed to be much more volatile.”

McFarland, 57, of Ligonier, is still marching 42 years later — and he's taking a new generation of Catholic high school students with him. Eleven Greensburg Central Catholic students are sharing a bus with the Diocese of Greensburg and leaving for Washington on Thursday.

“I'm in admiration that we have that kind of conviction (from students). No one has canceled since signing up. To me, that speaks profoundly,” he said.

Western Pennsylvanians in the pro-life movement, from high school students to retirees, say they feel re-energized preparing for Friday's 44th annual March for Life, now that a president who has declared himself friendly to their cause is in the White House.

Western Pennsylvania historically has sent a large contingent to the march, with an estimated 74 buses departing from church sites in 11 counties this year, said regional coordinator Mary Lou Gartner, who attended the first march in 1974.

Gartner believes President Trump is sincere in his pro-life convictions, though he has identified as pro-choice in the past. She said people such as the late conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly and Vice President Mike Pence “turned him around” on the issue.

“People change their positions,” she said. “He has surrounded himself with people who are pro-life. His Cabinet picks have all been good. We are expecting big things.”

Among those are efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider, and pro-life judicial appointments, especially to the U.S. Supreme Court, activists say.

McFarland's students say they are part of a younger generation that sees abortion as a social justice issue and doesn't accept that it will be legal in the United States forever. The only way they see abortion numbers dropping is through a change in the legal landscape.

The Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that specializes in reproductive health and policy, recently reported that the annual number of abortions — 926,000 in 2014 — is the lowest it's been since Roe v. Wade.

“With the change of (president), there's more hope and more positivity, particularly with a Supreme Court justice appointment looming,” said junior James Cullen, 16, of Greensburg. “You could say there's hope that we could really make some change happen.”

Although some of the students feel that their anti-abortion beliefs put them at odds with their pro-choice peers, they also feel like the cultural tide is changing.

Junior Chelsey Boyle, 16, of Greensburg said her job puts her in contact with a lot of pro-choice people and gives her a chance to defend her stance.

“I was talking to one girl about how I was going to the March for Life, and she was really confused. ... She said, ‘But you're a girl. Wouldn't you be pro-choice?' ” Boyle said. “I was like, ‘No, that's not it at all.' … I'm glad she understood that not all women are pro-choice. It's not like men versus women in this debate.”

St. Vincent College in Unity is sending two buses, about 90 students, to the march. Sophomore pre-med student Ben Watt, 19, of North Huntingdon said it's one way to put his Christian faith into action.

“I believe the Bible teaches the sanctity of life,” he said. “I'm motivated by wanting to share that with other people and the hope that policy-makers will hear.”

Sophomore biochemistry student Maria Franey, 20, of Murrysville is attending her fourth march, which she sees as an outgrowth of her Catholic upbringing and the influence of her parents. Marching makes her feel a part of something bigger at a time when pro-life people often feel “attacked and isolated.”

“Going to the march is one of the things that makes you realize how many people are for this movement. It's really amazing,” she said.

The National Park Service estimated that 45,000 people attended the march in 1995, the last year it gave a crowd total. March organizers say the event has grown since.

Paul Whalen, 75, of Greensburg is a March for Life veteran. This year, the bus captain is leading a group of 40 from four Greensburg/Jeannette parishes.

“If government officials are listening — and I hope they are — it's a way for me to peacefully tell people at all levels of government: Let's live in peace and let us respect life,” Whalen said.

Among the larger non-Catholic groups going is the Murrysville megachurch Cornerstone Ministries, which has seven buses lined up to take more than 200 people, said spokeswoman Jennifer Lawlor.

The pro-life cause is “near and dear to the heart” of Senior Pastor Donn Chapman, Lawlor said. “One of our objectives as a church is to make an impact on the next generation, and you want to make sure they're here.”

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280 or shuba@tribweb.com.

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