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On Roe v. Wade anniversary, abortion foes buoyed by hope

They foresee change with Alito on bench

WASHINGTON -- C. Ray Nagin and Franklin Graham have recently propounded that foul weather is a sign of God's wrath, so the cold rain and dark clouds over the annual March for Life yesterday might have been cause for concern.

But antiabortion leaders took the gloom and damp as a different sort of sign. ''I think it's God's way of cleansing the evil in the world," Representative Jean Schmidt, Republican of Ohio, told the ebullient crowd of tens of thousands.

These are good times for the antiabortion movement. Thirty-three years to the day since the Roe v. Wade decision making abortion legal, its foes spoke yesterday with the confidence of a movement on the verge of victory.

''This might be our last march!" exulted Steven Peroutka, chairman of the National Pro-life Action Center, addressing a crowd of some 500 activists in the Russell Senate Office Building. ''Our next march very well may be the March to Celebrate the Overturning of Roe v. Wade!" The crowd went wild.

The Rev. Rob Schenk, president of the National Clergy Council, concurred. ''If things continue as they are going right now," he told the gathering, sponsored by Senator Mike DeWine, Republican of Ohio, ''our greatest challenge will be to prepare for the post-Roe era!"

It was a day of clarity after weeks of fuzz generated by Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The nominee -- expected to be endorsed today by the committee -- maintained that he did not have strong legal views about abortion. And senators acted as if abortion were not the reason they would vote for or against him.

But at yesterday's March for Life, neither speaker nor marcher was confused. ''We must support the confirmation of Judge Alito and other jurists who will support a strict-constructionist view of the law and make it possible once and for all to end Roe v. Wade," Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, a leading House conservative, thundered to the soggy crowd.

In the crowd, Sheila Wharam of Baltimore was almost jubilant. ''We're getting close," she said, holding a banner urging, ''Mr. Justices, Please Reverse Roe v. Wade."

Ceremonies began with a ''National Memorial for the Pre-Born" in the Russell Caucus Room, where marchers overflowed from the chairs. A Baptist choir sang, ''It's All About You, Jesus," for the worshipers, including relatives of the late Terri Schiavo.

Peroutka saw victory at hand. ''We're no longer the right-wing Christian nuts," the religious broadcaster observed. He urged preparation for Roe's demise, warning that could come ''very quickly."

Across town, the leadership of the National Right to Life Committee was trying to cool the exuberance. At a sparsely attended news conference, the group's executive director, David O'Steen, pleaded for caution: ''There are five votes on the court in addition to Sandra Day O'Connor who have indicated their support for Roe."

But this was not a day for sober reflection. On the National Mall at Seventh Street, tens of thousands of antiabortion activists were listening to the Rev. James Nesbit, whose voice cracked and warbled as he delivered the jeremiad.

''It has been told by the prophets in the land that there is a president coming out of Texas, a Burning Bush," Nesbit prayed. ''He will deal with abortion in the land."

Signs of the movement's rising confidence were everywhere: Gone, for the most part, were the grotesque photos of aborted fetuses. In their place were slick slogans, ''Justice for All -- Born and Preborn" and a lineup of some of the country's most powerful people.

President Bush, calling in from Kansas, didn't mention Alito or Roe. He spoke generically of ''a noble cause," and the need to protect ''all who are weak and vulnerable, especially unborn children." But when Bush allowed that ''we're making good progress," everybody knew he was, ultimately, talking about Roe's end.

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