Natalie DiBlasio, USA TODAY

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected on the National Mall on Friday to protest the 40-year-old landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the first trimester.

Buses are shuttling in teens and young adults from all over the country -- drawn by social media and church youth groups -- for the annual March for Life.

Pope Benedict sent them his encouragement by way his personal Twitter account, @pontifex: "I join all those marching for life from afar, and pray that political leaders will protect the unborn and promote a culture of life," he posted early Friday morning.

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"We are expecting record-breaking crowds - 80% under the age of 20," said Jeanne Monahan, president of the March for Life Education & Defense Fund. "Mostly teenagers come, and we get a lot of high school groups."

This is Monahan's first year leading the march and she made major changes to appeal to a younger audience. "We shortened the program from longer than two hours to an hour, picked speakers who are more engaging and we are deeply engaging social media."

Dan Nguyen, 31, of Phoenix, Ariz., arrived at the Mall with 40 high school students and hour before the event was set to begin He lofted a huge sign with the face of his son on the front. The back read, "My name is Joseph and my mom chose life! This is my dad."

"The people who are here, it's a young generation," Nguyen says. "It's a group if people who are not well spoken for through our political process."

Facing 21 degrees and a thin layer of snow on the Mall, Nguyen says, is "worth it to be here to stand up for it we believe in."

As crowds poured in, Christian music blasted from the stage and marchers held signs reading, "I regret my abortion," "My abortion hurt me," and "Stop abortion now."

Kathleen Cranford, 61, of Slidell, Louisiana came to the march today with her husband Clay who held a green "Defend life" sign.

"I've wanted to attend all my life and now I am here -- it's a dream come true," Cranford says. "I think all Americans should be here defending life."

Cranford voted for Mitt Romney in the presidential election. She says "Life was my primacy issue in the election."

The couple has never been to this national March, but they attend state and local marches often. Every year they do the march in Baton Rouge Louisiana.

Cranford says. "I understand that the shooting in Newtown was very tragic. But that was 20 children. This is 55 million (in 40 years). Where is the outrage? Where is the insistence on change?"

However, Americans remain divided on abortion. According to a recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. Significantly more Americans - 53% to 29% - want the decision kept in place rather than overturned. Another 18% have no opinion, the highest level of uncertainty Gallup has recorded on the issue.

According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 37% of Americans do not know that Roe v. Wade dealt with the issue of abortion. Among the age group targeted by the March for Life, the number is higher - 57% of adults under age 30 don't know what the case is about.

Sydney Goldstein, 16, of Charlotte, is heading to the march with about 30 students from her government class at Charlotte Christian School.

"I am going to speak for the babies that are dying every day that don't have a voice to speak for themselves," Goldstein said. "This is one way to voice my opinion, because I cannot vote."

Today's Friday's rally will begin before noon on the Mall and at around 1:15 p.m. the march will kick off and follow its traditional route up Constitution Avenue to the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill.

Speakers include U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn.

Benedictine College has sent seven full buses - nearly 400 people - for a 30-hour ride from Atchison, Kan., to Washington, D.C., to participate.

This is the largest group to go in the school's 28 years of involvement, spokesman Humam AlMukhtar said.

Contributing: Cathy Lynn Grossman

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