NEW YORK – When Jeanne Mancini attended her first board meeting for the March for Life in 2012, she left undecided as to whether it was the right fit for her. As a long-time pro-life activist, she’d participated in the annual event marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which declared a constitutional right to abortion in the United States, but she had some skepticism about its organization.

The board, she thought, was “old school” in its thinking and operations, and she felt “conflicted and ambivalent” about joining their ranks. Yet several months after attending that meeting, which she recalls as “their chance to interview me, and my chance to check them out,” she received a phone call from March for Life founder Nellie Gray.

“She just said ‘great, you’re on the board’,” Mancini remembers. “She didn’t put it in the form a question, which had she, I would have engaged her a bit, but she didn’t, so I just rolled with it.”

That sort of tenacity is what had cemented Gray as one of the nation’s most prominent pro-life activists in the years following Roe. She was tireless in her efforts to overturn the Court decision, retiring from her job as a lawyer for the Labor Department to work full-time to organize an annual March starting with the 1974 one-year anniversary.

Yet she was also entrenched in her ways, and by most accounts, unwilling to compromise and discuss different strategies for pro-life activism — a characteristic that made her the ire of some who proudly identified as pro-life, yet were hesitant to affiliate with the March.

The annual event regularly draws hundreds of thousands of participants to Washington, D.C. each January — often in brutal weather — and Mancini recognized its potential. Yet two months after that phone call, Gray died at the age of 88 and in an emergency board meeting, Mancini found herself elected as acting President of the March for Life.

“Everyone is welcome” 

After successfully shepherding the March through its first year without its founder, Mancini left her work at the Family Research Council and became full-time president of the newly reorganized March for Life Education and Defense Fund. If one phrase could summarize Mancini’s new philosophy of the March for Life, it would be “big tent.”

The event, which was traditionally organized and attended primarily by Catholics, needed fresh blood, and Mancini immediately looked toward evangelicals, who are massively pro-life, but historically have only turned out for the March in comparatively low numbers.

Mancini turned to Focus on the Family, one of the nation’s most influential Christian groups, where she partnered with Kelly Rosati, vice president of advocacy for children, who along with Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, welcomed the opportunity to partner with Mancini.

“It’s really been the Catholic community that has been so wonderful in showing such great leadership around the March,” Rosati told Crux. “We really talked about the fact that the evangelical community should participate in a greater way.”

Rosati said it was Jeanne’s inclusive vision for the March that made it an attractive partnership — and part of the reason she was willing to join the March’s board as a part of Mancini’s efforts to diversify it beyond its Catholic base.

“Jeanne is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known,” said Rosati. “She is such a rare combination of compassion, clarity, charity, and strength, and I think she’s brought all of that to her role with the March.”

“We’re very much inspired by her hopefulness, her direction, and her emphasis on love,” she added.

That emphasis on love — which factors into this year’s official theme for the March, “Love Saves Lives,” — is part of the reason Mancini adopted an open-tent approach to the March, hoping to gain participants from all religious persuasions (and none). Despite its Catholic roots, the March for Life, Mancini told Crux, is non-sectarian and “every one is welcome, short of people who promote violence.”

For that reason, as well, Mancini has also worked hard to ensure that the March is a bi-partisan event. While pro-life activism in recent years has become more closely allied with the Republican party, Mancini says there is a long history of both parties coming together for the event and it’s only been in recent years that partisanship has become an issue.

“The pro-life issue didn’t really become a Republican issue until Reagan became president,” said Mancini. “It’s always been a social justice issue. It seems to me what was a real dividing line was when Obamacare passed and there was a fallout with pro-life democrats…but it’s always been bi-partisan and that’s something that’s very important to me.”

At this year’s March, both Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey and Democrat Dan Lipinski of Illinois will speak alongside one another.

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, says that official participation from the Democratic party in recent years is “an issue with our party, not the March.”

Day also offered her praise of Mancini’s welcome of pro-life Democrats to the March for Life and says it’s a marked change from Gray’s leadership.

“Nellie Gray was not fond of Democrats for Life and didn’t think we should be involved in the pro-life movement at all,” said Day. “We were not welcome.”

One year when participants from Democrats for Life arrived at the National Mall with their donkey mascot, Gray threatened to have them arrested.

“The March has become much more open under Jeanne’s leadership,” said Day. “We all have the same goal. We have different ways of getting there, but we’re all headed in the same direction.”

Pro-life in the time of Trump

In March 2016 — in the heat of the Republican primaries — Mancini found herself on Hardball with Chris Matthews responding to then candidate Donald Trump’s claim that women who have abortions should be punished.

While Trump would later attempt to walk back his comments, it nonetheless put pro-life activists on the defensive and Mancini was in the hot seat.

“It was a surprise and just a real disappointment,” Mancini told Matthews, referring to Trump’s comments. “It’s not in line with the pro-life movement…we really believe that to be pro-life is to be pro-woman and pro-baby.”

“I can’t judge his heart,” Mancini went on to say, “but he should be more educated on these issues before he speaks on them.”

The fact that Mancini was willing to take such a high-profile interview was a noticeable break with her predecessor, who had an antagonistic relationship with the news media.

“Nellie had an approach to media that, understandably, was a little bit distrustful and protective,” Mancini told Crux. “And I had the opposite perspective. We had a job to do, which was to get the message out about the March for Life and to do as much major media as possible.”

While Mancini believes that taking on such media opportunities is part of the March for Life’s public witness, it has not come without criticism from her base.

“In the wake of the Chris Matthews interview, I did get some really nasty engagement on Twitter,” she recalled. “It was sad that a lot of that specific engagement was from  both the pro-life and pro-choice community.”

Yet despite her willingness to criticize the then candidate, she says that today the March for Life enjoys a very warm relationship with the Trump White House.

The 2016 election proved incredibly divisive for traditional pro-life activists, some of whom were staunchly identified as “Never Trump.” Mancini recognizes their concerns, but told Crux that she could not have anticipated the way in which the administration greeted the March for Life during their first week in office.

Two days after Trump’s inauguration, then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer mentioned the March for Life during a White House press briefing — the first of several mentions, including ones from the president, in the lead-up to last year’s March.

Last year Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the rally prior to the March, a historic first, which Mancini believes has been critical in shoring up a strong relationship with the Trump administration.

“Our access to the White House has been unprecedented this year, including a number of meetings with the Vice President,” she said.

While she readily admits that not all pro-lifers are on board with the administration, she maintains that from a single-issue perspective, the issue of life is faring well at the moment.

“I’ve seen the White House make phenomenal decisions on the life issues this year,” said Mancini.

“While admittedly there has been controversy about aspects of this Administration, the President has been very strong on the life issues,” she said. “He has remained true to his campaign promises and has done a lot to promote the sanctity of human life. We are grateful for all that the President and his administration has done — and we expect to see more strides to protect life this coming year.”

With one week to go before this year’s March, which will take place on January 19, Mancini says she’s trying to stay above the fray and not get sidetracked by political disputes or involved in internal disagreements over what the definition of being “pro-life” fully entails.

“We only focused on the beginning of life issues,” she said. “We don’t normally focus on end of life issues or the things that are in between.”

“Now we know that every person has inherent human dignity and we need to be pro-life at every stage,” she added, “but part of this is that our organization was founded as a direct response to the two Supreme Court decisions that were 100 percent about abortion, so that’s our focus.”

As she heads into her sixth year leading the March, at age 45 Mancini isn’t necessarily thinking about retirement, but she is thinking a lot about how eager she is to see her mission fulfilled.

“Five years from now will be the 50th anniversary of Roe, and I would like to not March,” she told Crux. “I would like for the March to be finished, because we will have done our job and hearts and minds will be changed and abortion will be unthinkable and illegal.”