COLUMBIA—The crowd was slightly smaller and most people wore face masks, but those were the only two visible differences at the first Stand Up for Life March and Rally ever held during a pandemic.
The 48th annual event, held Jan. 9, drew several hundred people to march down city streets to the Statehouse and gather to pray and hear speakers. The rally has taken place every year since Roe v. Wade made abortion legal nationwide in 1973.
Over the years, marchers have braved frigid temperatures, sleet, rain, wind, and tornado warnings. This year, however, the challenge came in the form of the novel coronavirus.
Lisa Van Riper, president of the South Carolina Citizens for Life, congratulated the crowd for turning out despite the pandemic. She noted precautions were being taken, including the face-masked participants and volunteers who sanitized the podium in between speakers.
“Even if only two or three people showed up, we had to come and stand for life,” Van Riper told the crowd. “We must stand and be points of light in a culture of darkness. If you don’t have life, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your tax rate is. Life is the most important issue.”
The march went ahead just as it has for decades, with an honor guard from the Knights of Columbus leading the crowd to the Statehouse. A few people carried their signs and banners up the steps. The most notable absence was the large crowd of youth who have stood there in recent years. Concerns over the coronavirus forced youth groups to cancel their trips to Columbia, including the cancellation of an annual pro-life youth rally that is usually held at the Township Auditorium.
The large groups that usually arrive in tour buses from the Upstate, the Grand Strand and other locations also cancelled this year, but smaller delegations from parishes and Knights of Columbus councils were present.
Father David Nerbun, vicar for family life for the Diocese of Charleston, offered the opening prayer, calling on God to send light and grace to help people continue the fight for the sanctity of life. Father Nerbun is also the chaplain at Coastal Carolina University and is forming the new Catholic Community at Carolina Forest.
Another big change was that this year’s guest speaker, actress Ashley Bratcher, appeared via livestream on a large screen. Bratcher, a native of North Carolina, was the star of the 2019 film “Unplanned,” which chronicles the life of Abby Johnson, who went from working as a clinic director for Planned Parenthood to becoming a pro-life activist.
Bratcher gave the crowd her own pro-life testimonial, describing her years in New York City trying to pursue an acting career but instead ending up in a spiral of hard drinking and depression. She said her life changed one night when, while walking home drunk and angry, a cab driver kept her from walking down a dark alley and insisted on driving her home. Bratcher said she believed that driver was her “guardian angel” and the next day she decided to move back home to North Carolina. Once there, she renewed a relationship with her longtime boyfriend and ended up facing an unplanned pregnancy. Bratcher rededicated her life to Christ, the two married and she gave birth to her son.
“I gave my career to the Lord and that was when I finally became a working actress,” she said. “When I was offered the role of Abby Johnson, some people told me I might be blacklisted from other work because of it, but I said without hesitation that I didn’t care. I don’t find my value and worth in the projects I do — I find it through Jesus Christ.”
While filming the movie, Bratcher said she also learned her own mother had considered abortion when she conceived Ashley as a single mom at age 19, but changed her mind when she was at the clinic for her appointment.
“I had never known I was only seconds or minutes away from never being able to walk this Earth,” Bratcher said. “After learning my mother’s story and my own experience, I am here to tell all women that your life has purpose. Single moms need to hear this. Sometimes all they need in order to choose life is for somebody to stand with them and show that they’re behind them all the way.”
Andy Waitko, a member of Knights of Columbus Council 7122 from Our Lady Star of the Sea in North Myrtle Beach, rode to the march and rally with others from the Grand Strand. Waitko said he attended pro-life events in Delaware before moving to South Carolina, and has made the trip to Columbia for six years.
“It is so important to me to be here,” Waitko said. “As Catholics, we believe life starts from the moment of conception, and this is an amazing opportunity to stand up for that belief and to stand for life.”