JEFFERSON CITY — Kathy Forck hasn't been getting much sleep. As an organizer for the seventh annual Midwest March for Life and the campaign manager for Columbia's 40 Days for Life chapter, Forck has been preparing since the end of last year's march for today.
Yellow balloons with the word "life" printed on them and pink and blue flags that read, "Abortion kills babies" and "Jesus forgives," whipped in the wind Saturday morning as hundreds gathered in Jefferson City for the Midwest March for Life.
Forck handed out brochures with the day's schedule as participants trickled in and huddled in front of St. Peter Catholic Church to hear various speakers for a pre-rally at 9:30 a.m. Some marchers came with signs of their own and others picked up signs available for participants that read "Face it... abortion kills a person!!" and "I'm a life defender" in all caps.
At 10 a.m., marchers gathered behind the Knights of Columbus, who led the march around the statehouse and through downtown with the resounding sound of bagpipes. According to organizers, the march drew more than 800 participants who came from across Missouri, with some even crossing state lines to participate.
Kathi Wallace, 53, and Leslie Collins, 61, trekked 2 1/2 hours from Edwardsville, Illinois to participate in the march. Collins said she felt it was important for her to march in person to show her support, rather than just simply donating money.
Wallace is a counselor and she said she's worked with women who have had abortions, and have heard their stories firsthand.
"It's just all over an issue of love, you know, that we should sit with people and listen to their stories. Not judge them for choices they make, but help them try to stop ending life if we can help them," Wallace said.
Wallace said she has felt misjudged for being opposed to abortion rights, even by friends.
"I don't like the dichotomy I'm seeing happening," Wallace said. "Assuming that it's down political lines of this side is for this and this side is for this."
Tom Piper, 46, held a sign that read "Dads for life" on the Capitol building's steps while his wife took a photo of him with their daughters, ages 2, 7 and 9.
Piper traveled with his family from St. Charles and said that he stands for sanctity of life, so protecting life in all of its stages is part of that.
"We're very much for women's rights," Piper said. "It's just that abortion hurts women."
Marchers gathered in the Capitol rotunda to hear from speakers after spending 40 minutes going through security.
"Does anybody have a good therapist? I need one after the Women's March," Reagan Barklage, founder of Mizzou Students for Life, said to the crowd filling the rotunda floor and listening from the railings on upper floors.
Members of Mizzou Students for Life and students representing chapters from Missouri State University and Missouri University of Science and Technology stood in front of Barklage as she spoke.
Kristen Wood, an MU junior and president of Mizzou Students for Life, was one of about 10 members of the student organization who came to the march and led chants such as, "We are the pro-life generation," and "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Roe v. Wade has got to go."
Wood has attended the Washington March for Life for seven years and traveled to the D.C. March for Life last weekend with 16 members of Mizzou Students for Life. Wood said that the D.C. march was larger than the Midwest March for Life and noticed that today's march had more religious groups in attendance than the D.C. march.
"We are a secular club, and our old president was an atheist," Wood said. "Our generation and our movement is definitely shifting to more of a secular perspective."
Speakers at the rally urged attendees to become more politically active.
Steve Rupp, president of Missouri Right to Life, encouraged attendees to return to the statehouse on March 14 to lobby legislators. Karen Nolkemper, executive director of the Respect Life Apostolate of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, called upon participants to oppose Board Bill 203, an ordinance that would "prohibit discrimination based on a person's reproductive health decisions or pregnancy," in St. Louis.
Bridget Van Means of Thrive Express Women's Healthcare reflected on the recent presidential election in her speech.
"We know he's a little naughty," Van Means said of President Donald Trump, "but he loves the babies. God's people came out (this election). It was awesome. Catholics, Protestants, the Ku Klux Klan — everyone came out for the babies."
Opposition to Planned Parenthood was a consistent theme in many of the day's speeches.
"We will drive the last abortion clinic out of our state this year," Van Means said.
"From a doctor's perspective, the conditions that Planned Parenthood operates under are just disgusting," featured speaker Dr. Vansen Wong, a former abortion provider, said. "The reason Planned Parenthood has such a hard time fufilling the requirement (of having doctors with medical privileges) is because doctors on staff at the local hospital don't want anything to do with them."
Ryan Bomberger, founder of The Radiance Foundation and also a featured speaker, said he calls Planned Parenthood "Planned Propaganda."
"Black lives matter in and out of the womb. Planned Parenthood is the leading killer of unarmed black lives," Bomberger said.
As speakers wrapped up and participants headed out of the rotunda shortly after 1 p.m., Forck began to clean up around the stage and said the turnout was "unbelievable."
Forck said she will have a busy next few months with local "Defund Planned Parenthood" rallies planned for next Saturday, and the start of the "40 Days for Life" campaign from March 1 to April 9. Forck said she will need to coordinate people praying outside of the Columbia Planned Parenthood clinic for 10 hours a day for the event, but despite the workload her personal connection to the issue motivated her.
When Forck's mother was 16, she was sexually assaulted, Forck said. She became pregnant, and her parents made her get an abortion in Chicago. Forck's mother stopped going to school and church, and the experience "broke her heart," Forck said.
Forck's father didn't tell her this story until a few years ago, after her mother had already passed away. Forck said when she heard the story, the empathy she had for the women she would see walking into clinics to receive abortions became clear to her.
"I realized I had the empathy because my own mother was in that situation," Forck said.
Forck said she wished her mother were still alive to see the work she does.
"You know, I just wish that she would have been here," Forck said. "I think she would have probably told me about (what happened), and I would have told her about the resources available that she could have gone to to get some healing."
Supervising editor is Shane Sanderson.