WASHINGTON - In the first presidential address delivered in person at the March for Life, President Donald Trump spoke the language of the Christian antiabortion movement, praising activists who "make it your life's mission to help spread God's grace."

Trump has endeared himself to the antiabortion movement by appointing conservative judges and changing executive branch policies to promote the cause. When he spoke at Friday's March for Life, which meets on the Mall annually to commemorate the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and call for its eventual overturn, the demonstration took on aspects of a campaign rally.

Many people wore Make America Great Again hats or toted pro-Trump signs. When Trump waved to the crowd to the sound of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A.," some chanted "four more years!"

Marchers in the 47th annual March for Life move up Constitution Ave. in Washington on Friday.  Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Voisard
Marchers in the 47th annual March for Life move up Constitution Ave. in Washington on Friday. Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Voisard

"All of us here today understand an eternal truth - every child is a precious and sacred gift from God," Trump said. "Together, we must protect, cherish and defend the dignity and the sanctity of every human life."

He cited his administration's antiabortion initiatives, including expanding the Mexico City Policy - which bans U.S. funding to nongovernmental organizations that offer abortion counseling in foreign countries - and issuing a rule that prohibits organizations that receive Title X funding from providing referrals for abortion. That rule led Planned Parenthood to drop out of the massive Title X program, losing significant federal dollars.

Trump also weighed in on a year-old furor in Virginia.

In January 2019, Republicans circulated a video of Del. Kathy Tran, a northern Virginia Democrat, acknowledging that her bill to reduce restrictions on late-term abortions would allow abortions up to the point of delivery in cases when the mother's life or health was at serious risk. Conservatives across the country attacked Gov. Ralph Northam and other state Democrats after they defended the bill.

"We love the commonwealth of Virginia, but what is going on in Virginia? What is going on, Virginia?" Trump said Friday. "The governor stated that he would execute a baby after birth."

Thousands, including many souvenir vendors, turned out for the 47th Annual March for Life in Washington on Friday. Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez
Thousands, including many souvenir vendors, turned out for the 47th Annual March for Life in Washington on Friday. Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez

A spokeswoman for Northam, who was a pediatric neurologist before becoming governor, said at the time that his words were taken out of context by Republicans, and called the notion that he would approve of killing infants "disgusting." The spokeswoman declined to comment Friday on Trump's latest remarks.

The bill did not pass last year and has not been reintroduced this year, although other legislation that advanced out of a Virginia House committee would roll back some abortion restrictions.

Trump's participation meant extra security for thousands of attendees, who typically meander onto the Mall from all sides in the hours before the rally. A bank of metal detectors spanned the length of the Mall, the only entrance for seven blocks.

The Secret Service banned many items that attendees might normally bring: backpacks, food or drink coolers, glass or thermal containers, selfie sticks, balloons, and banners more than 20 feet long and 3 feet high. The line to get through the security checkpoint was brief an hour before the president's arrival, but grew so packed by noon that hundreds of people could not get onto the Mall. They listened on loudspeakers from afar.

Louisiana state Sen. Katrina Jackson, a Democrat and a speaker at the event, said in an interview before the march that while she disagrees with Trump on policies and is discouraged by the insults he spouts, she was "ecstatic" that a president would attend.

"We finally have a sitting president at the March for Life," she said. "It doesn't make him the face of it. It sets a precedent for future presidents to speak. It's my prayer the president's attendance doesn't make it look partisan."

But many marchers were comfortable with partisanship. The group Students for Life, which brings university chapters to the Mall each year, used its slogan "pro-life generation" on one side of its signs, and added a pointed message to Democrats on the other side: "I vote pro-life first."

Melody Wootten, a 49-year-old musician from Sterling Heights, Michigan, said she came to the march for the first time because of Trump. Both the legality of abortion and the president's impeachment, she said, constitute "an attack on Christianity."

Alexandria and Michael Capps, of Maryland, brought their three children. Michael said he thinks Trump is "the most religious president we've seen," although presidents Obama and Bush were devout Christians and Trump does not belong to a church. Trump, Capps said, "is setting a great example for our children."

Nine-year-old Brayden, their oldest child, brought a "Trump 2020" sign that he had colored. "He's the best," Brayden said. "He's keeping America great."

Alexandria's handmade sign had her own message: "Did you know there are aborted fetus cells in vaccines?" Some vaccines use cell lines which descended from fetal tissue. The Catholic church has encouraged families to get vaccinated regardless. But Alexandria's message to fellow marchers, she said, was that "Christians can't continue to vaccinate their children."

Thousands, including the Crusaders for Life group from Chicago, turned out for the 47th Annual March for Life in Washington on Friday.  Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez
Thousands, including the Crusaders for Life group from Chicago, turned out for the 47th Annual March for Life in Washington on Friday. Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez

Volunteers handed out signs paid for by the Trump campaign at the entrance to the march.

Terry Schilling, who runs the conservative American Principles Project, said hawking the signs was the first campaign volunteering he had done. Schilling was skeptical of Trump in 2016 and voted for him largely because he worried about what justices Democrat Hillary Clinton might appoint to the Supreme Court.

But he has been delighted by Trump's record in office, including his tax law, the state of the economy, his understanding of religious freedom - and above all, his stance on abortion. "I could never have been more happy to be wrong," Schilling said.

Peter Wehner, who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, said in an email that Bush addressed the march by video and invited some marchers to an event at the White House each year, rather than attend in person, because after the Sept. 11 attacks, officials believed his attendance would create a security nightmare for marchers.

Trump's decision to attend the rally came as he seeks to consolidate support from evangelicals in his reelection campaign.

In December, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today published an editorial calling for Trump's removal from office over his efforts to pressure Ukraine's leader to open an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential contender.

The editorial stunned the White House, and Trump has responded by rallying evangelical support. This month, he held a campaign event at a Latino evangelical church in Miami that included an appearance by Cissie Graham Lynch, granddaughter of the magazine's famous founder Billy Graham. Last week, the administration announced new federal guidelines to strengthen protections for students who want to pray or worship in public schools.

In past years, Trump has addressed March for Life attendees by video message. Vice President Pence became the first vice president to speak at the rally in 2017, just days after Trump's inauguration.

Leaders in the antiabortion movement say they have more access to this administration, particularly through Pence's office, and many post pictures on social media of themselves at the White House.

Daniel Williams, a historian at the University of West Georgia who has written a book on the antiabortion movement, noted that the March for Life founder, the late Nellie Gray, was a pro-labor Democrat who worked in the Johnson administration. In the decades that followed, the abortion issue has become more partisan, he said. "What we're seeing is an exacerbation of partisan divides on both sides," Williams said. "The activists of the 1970s would not have foreseen the pro-life movement be so aligned with one party."

Thousands, including counter protester group Abortion Access Front from New York City, turned out for the 47th Annual March for Life in Washington. Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez
Thousands, including counter protester group Abortion Access Front from New York City, turned out for the 47th Annual March for Life in Washington. Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez

In the 1980s, Williams said, about one-third of Republican senators favored abortion rights, and surveys showed that a majority of Republican voters favored abortion rights. Today, nearly every Republican member of Congress is opposed to abortion rights. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey this week found 84% of Democrats identified as "pro-choice," while 68% of Republicans identified as "pro-life."

Trump once had a troubled relationship with the antiabortion movement because of his past support for abortion rights, and he would sometimes flub conservative talking points on abortion. But his ability to deliver justices to the Supreme Court that activists hope will reverse Roe v. Wade is central to his reelection, said Mary Ziegler, a professor at Florida State University College of Law. "He has had to do more to prove himself to what is a key constituency than most previous Republicans did after Roe," Ziegler said.

Many attendees said they were "pleasantly surprised" by Trump's support for their antiabortion cause.

Billy Naquin of Thibodaux, Louisiana, attending his first March for Life while on a trip to Washington, said when he voted in 2016, national security and the economy were his top issues. On abortion, he didn't think Trump "would be willing to get into something so controversial."

Trump has outperformed his expectations. He deemed his presidency "awesome. "

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The Washington Post's David Nakamura, Anne Gearan, Emily Guskin Laura Vozzella and Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.

This article was written by Julie Zauzmer, Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Michelle Boorstein, reporters for The Washington Post.