No Shades of Gray
A life of dedication to life.

Nellie Gray in 2009


I believe in my heart that we are on the cusp of overturning Roe v. Wade. And while that will not end, throughout the United States, the human-rights violation that abortion is, it is the essential first step in doing so. (Overturning Roe will return the issue to the people, through their elected representatives, where it belongs in a democracy.)

One of the chief reasons we are on that cusp is because Americans have refused to be bullied into silence by the Supreme Court’s grandiose claim (in Roe and afterwards) to have settled an issue of national importance, in the words of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “when the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution calls the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution.”

Abraham Lincoln refused to accept such high-handed nonsense (technically called judicial imperialism) with the Dred Scott decision and slavery. For the people to accept the idea that the Court could decide, for all time, a fundamental issue unjustly would be to “resign their government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.” Lincoln refused to do it.

And so did Nellie Grey.

As Lincoln refused to accept the “constitutionalization” by the Supreme Court of a right to slavery, Nellie Grey refused to accept the “constitutionalization” of a right to abortion. And thus was born what is, I believe, the longest-running civil-rights movement in American history, the March for Life.

Nellie Grey did not create the March alone, of course, but she was the fire that drove it. Abortion was an evil whose existence could not be tolerated. As she said, “I don’t understand slavery. I don’t understand the Holocaust. I don’t understand abortion.”

Nellie Grey was sadly wrong in expecting the wrong to be corrected immediately. It is an evil that has proved to have enduring power (though, as noted, I believe that power is eroding through deeper understanding of the origins of human life, the realization that abortion harms women, and the willingness of young people to be open-minded and thus to grasp the essential justice of the pro-life cause).

But what we must not miss is the incredible enduring witness of the March. Every year, for 40 years, rain or shine, snow or wind, the Marchers come. And every year they seem to get younger.

But make no mistake about it — immense political pressure was on the pro-life movement to go away, to go home, to keep any objections for, perhaps, one’s conscience but not to express them in the public square. Yet the commitment and resolve of Nellie Grey (and many like her) resisted that seemingly irresistible tide (after all the Court had summoned everyone to accept its “common mandate”). And 40 years later, the March continues.

This is the cause to which Nellie Grey gave her life. It is one to which we (as Americans committed to equal justice under law) should give ours.

She is a great role model and she will be missed. But we will keep marching.

William Saunders is senior vice president for legal affairs at Americans United for Life.

Nellie Grey was the symbol and inspiration for the annual March for Life. Her innovation and those who participated in this event kept before the nation, when it would listen, the truth that something basic was at stake in life questions and issues. What was at issue was the actual existing human being in all its stages of life from conception to natural death. Today, it does not take a genius to understand this truth. We have videos and films that show it.

The Right-to-Life marches that I attended always seemed to be on the coldest day of the winter. That somehow made them more graphic. The marchers were mostly young. They knew they stood for something important, something many of their elders missed.

During the time of Nellie Grey’s efforts, the world passed from panic about overpopulation to the fact of radically declining populations in precisely the countries that were most assured that the sexual revolution has nothing to do with their future. So-called advanced nations now have to import their labor, a need that changes the very basis of their culture and polity.

Most people now recognize the shoddiness of the legal and scientific reasoning that supposedly justified Roe v. Wade. More recently, the logic of the whole pro-life issue, led by people like Hadley Arkes, has cleared away any unclarity about what we were doing and its consequences. We are in fact in a position now where no real intellectual justification exists for actions against the human person. The reasoning is all spurious. It comes down to “I will do what I will, whatever the truth, whether a human life exists or not.”

The future of the pro-life movement is the future of the logic that underpins its reasoning. To deny it, one has to deny reason.

— James V. Schall, S. J. is a professor of government at Georgetown University.