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WASHINGTON – Forty years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion, 40 teens from the Buffalo area led the way Friday during the annual “March for Life,” each of them carrying a white flag that symbolized strength, not surrender, 55 million abortions later.

About 400 people from Western New York marched behind the youths with white flags, and many thousands of people from all around the country followed on the annual trek to the steps of the Supreme Court – which, in the view of protesters, legalized murder when it legalized abortion.

They marched beneath a pewter sky on a breezy, bone-chilling afternoon, but the weather couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the teens from Western New York at the front of the protest.

“It feels awesome to be in front,” said Amelia Evans, 16, a student at Holy Angels Academy in North Buffalo. “When you’re in the middle, you feel like part of the community, but up front you feel like you’re leading. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

The March for Life is almost as old as Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on Jan. 22, 1973, and for years tradition had it that the march would be led by youths from metro Washington.

But this year, the teens from Buffalo, along with students from the University of Notre Dame, led the way, and the reason why may best be found in scripture.

“Ask, and it shall be given you,” the apostle Matthew said.

In this case, Cheryl Calire, the director of pro-life activities at the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, pushed for the Buffalo youths to be put at the front of the line.

The timing for that request may have been just right. The march’s founder, Nellie Gray, passed away last year, and her successor, Jeanne F. Monohan, has shown an openness to change, installing Jumbotrons on the National Mall for the event for the first time, revamping the march’s 1990s-vintage web site and starting a Twitter feed.

Asked how she got her way, Calire said: “It was a lot of prayer and convincing and explaining to [march organizers] that while the march is held in Washington, people come from all around the country for it. We have an 8½-hour bus ride to get here, and I told them it would be really nice to be recognized in this way.”

And on Thursday night, Calire and other Catholic leaders from Buffalo got the good news that the Knights of Columbus, who handle the march logistics, had approved their request.

“The students of St. Francis High School [in Athol Springs] and all parishioners in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo should feel exhilarated that young people from the region will be playing such an important role,” Phil Eddy, northeast regional coordinator for Students for Life of America, told the Buffalo contingent via email.

Sure enough, the students were exhilarated.

“I feel so excited to be here,” said Maddie Weitz, 15, also a Holy Angels student. “I really feel like we’re making a difference in people’s lives.”

The original plan was for students from St. Francis, which sends a large contingent to the march every year, to be the flag bearers.

But then the chaperone for the St. Francis group, Rory Reichenberg, was told there would be 40 flags – one for each year that has passed since Roe v. Wade. That being the case, the flag-bearing duties were spread out to students at several other local Catholic schools.

It seemed appropriate that youths should lead the parade.

While the March for Life is a familiar Washington event, its demographics have changed dramatically over the years. Once dominated by older protesters bearing hand-made signs, the march now seems like a youth rally, filled with students from Catholic schools and other religious institutions from across the country proudly showing off their school colors.

“Most importantly, we are here with so many young people,” Monohan told the crowd at the rally that preceded the march. “Your generation is a pro-life generation.”

That’s certainly the way the teens from metro Buffalo talked.

“I really believe all life is to be respected, even as an embryo, just as we all ought to be respected,” said Aaron Hayes, 17, a junior at St. Francis.

Andrew Swift, an 18-year-old senior at St. Francis, agreed.

“I was adopted, so this issue is personal to me,” he said. “To be able to come out here just means so much to me.”

It obviously meant plenty to many others as well.

While authorities no longer provide crowd estimates at such events, Eddy said this year’s crowd was expected to be the largest ever, and the National Mall and the parade route did seem jammed with many more people than in recent years.

Anti-abortion activists continue to flock to Washington amid many small victories and some large failures.

While state legislatures passed 92 laws restricting abortion in 2011 alone, abortion opponents have not been able to achieve their ultimate goal: overturning Roe v. Wade.

What’s more, a Pew Research Center poll released last week showed that 63 percent of those surveyed oppose overturning Roe in its entirety, a move that only 29 percent favored. Those numbers are similar to those in polls from a decade and two decades ago, Pew said.

To abortion rights supporters, those numbers are a stark reminder that the Roe decision was right.

“On this day we remember the countless women who died from unsafe abortions prior to Roe,” Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said earlier this week. ”Those brave women were the senseless victims of a society that historically has treated women like second-class citizens, tossed their rights around like a political football and patrolled their bodies as if they belonged to the state.”

A handful of counter-protesters brought those sentiments to the streets Friday, but they were vastly outnumbered by those who see abortion as an abomination.

Among those was Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Diocese of Buffalo, who delivered the homily at a morning Mass for the Western New York visitors prior to the march.

Noting that New York’s abortion rate is double the national average, Malone said: “The only way that can change is through conversion, change of heart and mind.”

The “apostles for life” who attend the March for Life are trying to accomplish just that, he said, urging them not to get discouraged.

“Even though we come here for something grave, we should have hearts full of hope,” Malone said.

Then again, hope seemed to come naturally to many of the Buffalo teens at the front of the march.

“It was a privilege,” Tanner Kendall, a 17-year-old junior at St. Francis, said after carrying a “March for Life” flag from the National Mall to the Supreme Court. “It really feels like we did something today.”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com