U.S. anti-abortion marchers brave freezing cold in Washington

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Thousands of U.S. anti-abortion activists braved frigid temperatures to rally at the annual March for Life on Wednesday, and a top Republican lawmaker vowed that the House of Representatives would vote soon to end taxpayer-funded abortions.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told the rally, one of the key yearly events for the anti-abortion movement, that the Republican-controlled chamber would approve the measure halting taxpayer funding for the procedure next week.

“We cannot allow the opponents of life to continually weaken the moral fabric of our country,” Cantor, a Virginia lawmaker, said at the rally on the National Mall.

But Cantor acknowledged that the House Republican measure might ultimately be a symbolic one, saying that passage in the Democrat controlled Senate and acceptance by President Barack Obama “will be a much tougher task.”

Opponents of the procedure failed in their attempts to attach new anti-abortion provisions to the $1.1 trillion spending bill Congress approved last week.

The thousands of marchers huddled on the Mall defied temperatures around 14 Fahrenheit (minus-10 Celsius) made more stinging by a stiff wind.

Activists carried signs saying “I was conceived from rape. I love my life” and “Stop abortion now.” Groups of Catholic high school students chanted: “We love babies, yes we do! We love babies, how about you?”

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From Vatican City, Pope Francis used Twitter to back the rally. “I join the March for Life in Washington with my prayers. May God help us respect all life, especially the most vulnerable,” he said.

The march has been held annually since the January 22, 1973, Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion until viability of the fetus, generally considered to be 22 to 24 weeks.

Meanwhile, supporters of abortion rights spoke out to repeat their support of the 1973 decision.

“It’s time to seize this vital opportunity to reclaim the rights that Roe recognized and the protections it established more than four decades ago,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a lobbying group.

The Washington rally comes after judges have turned back some state laws restricting abortion.

A federal judge on Friday struck down a 2011 North Carolina law requiring abortion providers to perform an ultrasound and explain it to a woman before she goes through with an abortion.

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The Supreme Court on Monday also struck down an Arizona state law banning abortion after 20 weeks.

In a sign the Supreme Court could hand anti-abortion activists a victory, justices have expressed doubt about a Massachusetts law that mandates a buffer zone around abortion clinics to allow patients unimpeded access.

About 1.2 million U.S. abortions were carried out in 2008, the last year for which data were available, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit sexual health organization.

A Pew poll in July showed that little more than half of Americans favor abortion rights and about 40 percent oppose them.

Additional reporting by Ian Simpson and David Lawder; Editing by Scott Malone