Politics & Policy

No Shades of Gray

A life of dedication to life.

Nellie Gray, the founder of the March for Life, died this week at age 88. As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision and, a year later, of the March, which rallies activists from across the country in Washington, D.C., in defense of vulnerable unborn human life, fellow pro-life activists and grateful Americans pay her tribute and assess the state of this human-rights campaign.



When a small group of concerned citizens gathered in Nellie Gray’s dining room in 1973 to discuss the problem of abortion, no one imagined the conversation would mark the start of the most significant pro-life event in the United States, the March for Life. Of that meeting, Nellie remarked, “We were just a small group figuring out how to respond; I just had the convenient place to meet!”

From the first moment, Nellie fought with all her strength to abolish legalized abortion, which she believed to be a direct attack on the most defenseless of Americans. When laws related to abortion did not change in Washington, Nellie neither gave up nor grew tired but instead inspired countless others to join in the peaceful protest of this profound human-rights violation. During her almost 40-year leadership of the March for Life, attendance grew from 20,000 participants in 1974 to over 250,000 participants in recent years, with tens of thousands more marching in spirit at home.

Many, if not most, attendees at the annual March for Life are young people. Interestingly, while this energetic demographic of Americans has always lived in a post-Roe era, they are overwhelmingly pro-life, according to pollsters.

Nellie’s credo of “No exceptions! No compromises!” sometimes brought criticism, yet most will agree that at least in part because of Nellie’s passionate and relentless protection of life, Roe v. Wade is not settled law. No politician can run for office in the United States without a stance on the legality of abortion.

In life, Nellie Gray inspired the most well-attended, peaceful annual protest on the human-rights issue of our day: abortion. In her memory, we will continue to march until her dream of a world free of abortion is realized.

— Tim Saccoccia is on the board of the March for Life.


Nellie Gray and the March for Life are near-synonyms. No doubt, when this redoubtable woman launched this event on the first anniversary of Roe v. Wade, she little expected that its annual renewal would span the second half of her long and exemplary life.

Few right-to-life activists of that era did. We believed that the Supreme Court ruling of 1973 was so antithetical to our nation’s animating principle — the right to life is endowed by our Creator — that this judicial ukase could not long withstand determined popular resistance. We also believed, and history has affirmed to a greater degree than we typically discuss, that Roe and its progeny would unleash eddies of violence that would ripple across social relationships in unpredictable ways.

The March for Life was — and is now — a visible symbol of two propositions. First, that affirming life is not a temporary but a permanent task entrusted to every generation. And second, that peaceful and principled witness is vital if the practice of abortion is not to be incorporated into our way of life as just another tolerable and immovable evil.

Nellie Gray’s persistence and fearlessness were legendary. She was tough-minded in public and even more so in private. Anyone who was in the room when she persuaded President Reagan to make an appearance on the White House balcony to wave to her marchers across the Ellipse knows just how tough she could be. Reagan’s aides worried about his safety in so public a space; Nellie understood the importance of symbols, even in an atmosphere of threats.

The March for Life will go on, for the simple reason that it is a movement of youth. Roe is approaching 40, but the pro-life cause is, as it should be, young. That is the symbol and substance that sustain our hope.

— Charles A. Donovan is president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.


Hearing of Nellie Gray’s passing, a well-known quote from Congressman Henry Hyde came to mind. It’s lengthy, but worth repeating in reflecting upon the legacy of this strong-willed, one-woman whirling dervish:

When the time comes, as it surely will, when we face that awesome moment, the final judgment, I’ve often thought, as Fulton Sheen wrote, that it is a terrible moment of loneliness. You have no advocates, you are there alone standing before God — and a terror will rip your soul like nothing you can imagine. But I really think that those in the pro-life movement will not be alone. I think there’ll be a chorus of voices that have never been heard in this world but are heard beautifully and clearly in the next world — and they will plead for everyone who has been in this movement. They will say to God, “Spare him, because he loved us!”

Like many, I’ve marched regularly since my teenage years. My first perspective was when I attended with Students for Life. We found that the solidarity of marching with so many people our age strengthened our commitment to the cause. 

Later, as a lobbyist for National Right to Life, I could see the impact of the thousands descending upon Capitol Hill, to give their heartfelt thanks to those members of Congress who had the courage to stand for life, and to politely lobby those who didn’t.

A few years later, my husband was elected to Congress, and he spoke every year at the March. Standing on the stage with him, viewing the vast sea of joyful faces in the crowd, was inspiring. Always bundled up in the bitter cold, it seemed, as if God wanted to make sure everyone was really committed to the cause and willing to march in every kind of weather.

Most inspiring though, is the perspective of marching now with my children. And seeing that the crowd is dominated by people their age, not mine. Nellie Gray has passed the torch to the next generation, and is now listening to that chorus of voices singing out on her behalf.

— Maureen Ferguson is senior policy adviser for The Catholic Association.


I can’t recall a conversation with Nellie Gray in which the topic of unity was not discussed. Her main goal and greatest desire was to see people unite in support of the sanctity of life and protection of the pre-born.

She was faithful in this effort, especially in including the women and men from the Silent No More Awareness Campaign. As people who have been involved in abortion, we expected her (and all pro-lifers) to ignore us and reject us. Instead, she embraced us and gave us a platform to share our message of regret and hope in the help that is available.

Each year Nellie invited us, as Silent No More women and men, to help lead the March for Life, during which we carry our “I Regret My Abortion/I Regret Lost Fatherhood” signs. I cannot tell you how many people embrace us and reach out seeking help for themselves or family members.

By uniting even those who have personally experienced abortion, Nellie was able to create an atmosphere during the March for Life that continues throughout the years as pro-lifers reach out to both pregnant women and those who have suffered from abortion.

As we approach 40 years of legalized abortion, the encouragement Nellie gave to us who have had abortions has inspired more women and men to be silent no more, and we are dismantling the argument that women need the right to abortion as we share how wrong and bad the choice of abortion has been in our lives.

Our voices, along with everything being done by the many pro-life groups, are uniting to make abortion less acceptable and ultimately unthinkable.

— Georgette Forney is president of Anglicans for Life and co-founder of the Silent No More Awareness Campaign.


The March for Life is a living picture of pro-life Americans standing together to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Together, once a year, we remember those whose lives have been lost to abortion. We recommit ourselves to empower every woman to choose life and welcome every child into our communities, across the nation, and throughout the world.

Nellie Gray was a truly amazing woman. She brought her experience as a World War II Women’s Army Corps corporal and attorney to bear on the entire pro-life movement. The March — and Nellie’s personal example — motivated, energized, and inspired generations of life-affirming leaders and local activists. On the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we will march for legal protection of the rights of unborn children and we will thank God for the life of Nellie Gray.

— Melinda Delahoyde is president of Care Net.


When, in the fullness of time, a definitive history of the pro-life movement is written, Nelly Gray will be remembered as its mother and the guardian of its message. Like every good mother, she planned faithfully for the annual return of her extended family. Everyone was welcome at the March for Life, and it showed. Unspoiled by institutional and political rivalries, the March has become the only real, and completely “inclusive,” annual convention the pro-life movement has ever known.

Less well-known is Nellie Gray’s influence on the pro-life message. For Nellie, there was only one message, and it was embodied in the “Paramount Human Life Amendment”: The paramount right to life is vested in each human being from the moment of fertilization without regard to age, health, or condition of dependency. That message was like a beacon in the darkness, a constant point from which others working in the field could take their bearings. And, like the mother-to-the-movement she was, Nellie did not hesitate to remind us in a very public way when she thought that we had veered dangerously off-course.

I learned that the hard way back in 1991, when we organized one of the best debates ever held at any law school between pro-life and pro-abortion litigators and legal scholars. Nellie threatened a demonstration! “How can you give them a podium?” she demanded. Catholic University officials nearly fainted. After hours of impassioned argument, she relented, but only after we managed to convince her that the next generation of pro-life lawyers needs to hear other side’s legal and philosophical experts firsthand, and to watch our experts take their arguments apart — decisively. But she had made her point: No compromises. Nellie, we miss you. R.I.P., and pray that God will inspire a worthy successor.

— Robert A. Destro is professor of law and director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law and Religion at the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University of America.


Nellie Gray will never see the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that prompted her to lead millions of people over the years to march for life in Washington, D.C. — or the overturning of that decision, which was her most cherished dream. That torch is now with a new generation, a generation that has never known a day without legal abortion, many of whom miss the siblings they never knew. That torch also burns steadily in the hearts of millions of with women who were told that abortion was essential to freedom, only to learn abortion was a enormous burden and a terrible loss. We now know that abortion has been a failed experiment on women. The first feminists knew what we had to relearn: Women deserve better and every child has a right to life. March forth.

— Serrin Foster is executive director of Feminists for Life.


Pro-life students from across the nation will be forever grateful for the leadership that Nellie Gray has provided to our movement, for founding the March for Life, and for setting an example of passion and perseverance that inspires us all to dedicate our lives to finishing what she started, abolishing abortion in our lifetime.

The common phrase we hear most at Students for Life from young pro-lifers is that they feel “alone” on their campus, singled out by professors or friends for being that “radical anti-choicer.” For all of us, our first time at the March for Life felt like a huge welcome-home party. The joy you feel being surrounded by 400,000 other people who are just as passionate as you to abolish abortion is indescribable. The emotional high you receive gives you what you need to persevere though the rest of the year. As soon as you step off the coach bus, you know you are not alone, that our movement is winning, and someday soon abortion will be a thing of the past. There is nothing like that feeling in the whole world.

— Kristan Hawkins is president of Students for Life.


Since the early 1970s, Nellie Gray’s March has reminded the nation that the abortion debate won’t just go away. Indeed, much to the dismay of abortion-choicers, the United States is still arguing over two key questions that will do nothing less than determine the future of human beings.

First, we’re arguing about moral truth. Is it real and knowable, or just a preference, like choosing chocolate ice cream over vanilla? Second, we’re arguing over human value. Does each and every human being have an equal right to life, or do only some have it, in virtue of some accidental property that may come and go in the course of their lifetimes?

Gray’s annual march reminds pro-lifers that surrender on these two questions is not an option. The importance of that fact alone can hardly be overstated. From Democrats on judiciary committees to Planned Parenthood operatives, the consistent theme from our critics is that the abortion debate is over and pro-lifers have lost. We should make peace with over a million procedures a year.

Gray’s answer? Never. Sure, the road is hard and the defeats are many. Progress is slow. But we’re not quitting, no matter how many times you try to bury us.

There’s more. Gray’s annual event now draws to D.C. thousands of students who receive valuable pro-life apologetics training sponsored by Students for Life of America. Consider SFLA’s growth: In 2004, I spoke to roughly 70 students at the national conference. In 2011, I spoke to over 1,800! This year we expect 2,100 plus.

Michael Bauman of Hillsdale College puts it well: “When words lose their meaning, people lose their lives.” Nellie’s march is a statement that despite the best efforts of Planned Parenthood, words like “abortion” still mean something in our nation. And if we don’t like what the word means, maybe we should think twice about tolerating it.

— Scott Klusendorf is president of Life Training Institute, where he trains pro-life advocates to defend their views in the public square.


From the beginning, the March for Life was an important event in my family. Our lives had changed irrevocably on January 22, 1973, because from then on my father, J. P. McFadden, devoted his energies and passion to the defense of the unborn. In 1974, he opened a lobbying organization in D.C., the Ad Hoc Committee, and launched a lively newsletter, Lifeletter, which — as I saw while looking through the early issues, after hearing of Nellie Gray’s death — reported on the first March with such hopeful enthusiasm for the overturn of Roe it makes one’s heart ache. By the second annual March, in ‘75, Nellie Gray emerged in the pages of Lifeletter as the clear leader of the march on Washington, who unabashedly demanded that Congress act to stop the slaughter of the innocents.

For years, we older children would go to the March with our parents, sometimes standing in the midst of the crowd to hand Lifeletters or the Human Life Review (which J. P. founded in 1975); afterwards, we’d head to the office, where an open house for marchers offered warmth, food, and sprits (both drinkable and in camaraderie). My father often spoke of “Miss Nellie” with fondness, admiring both her chutzpah and her absolute dedication.

J. P. died in 1998, and the Ad Hoc office in D.C. has closed; but the March, with Miss Nellie at the helm, has continued, with strength and fervor. Attending in recent years, I marvel: at the masses of young marchers, at the overwhelming attitude of joy and hope — no matter how invisible about half a million people are to the press. 2013’s march will mark the 40th anniversary of Roe. Miss Gray will be missed, but I believe she’ll be watching, in heavenly freedom from the icy winds of an earthly January.

— Maria McFadden Maffucci is the editor of the Human Life Review.


Helen Gurley Brown and Nellie Gray died within hours of each other.

Brown, 90, was editor of Cosmopolitan for 32 years. She arguably did more than any other single person to sell the lie of “having it all”: self-focus, power, promiscuous sex.

Gray, 88, abandoned her promising legal career to challenge the moral conscience of the nation to protect the innocent unborn victims of the collateral damage of the Cosmo lifestyle. At the first March for Life in 1974, almost everybody knew each other, and we were excited that two whole busloads came from Long Island. It was Nellie’s sheer dogged determination that kept it going through the decades. Today, the March is a rite of passage for pro-life youth, and hundreds of busloads come from across the whole country.

The March for Life, by its very existence and its predictability, has been central to the development of the pro-life movement. It is truly the Gathering of the Clans, where bonds are forged, and quarrels fought among brethren, and from which leaders and the troops go forth reinvigorated for the work ahead.

Dozens of organizations schedule conferences and events around the March. People around the world plan their international travel to coincide with it. The March, with its attendant calendar of events, brings together a critical mass of people with a single purpose: to protect the unborn.

Protecting the unborn is multifaceted work: educating the public; providing care and services to women with unplanned, unwanted pregnancies; researching why women choose abortion and how to influence their choice; offering succor to women who regret their abortions; crafting legislation to protect women; crafting legislation to protect the unborn; teaching people how to register voters for life; and on and on.

Though Nellie’s goal of a constitutional amendment has not been achieved, there is fruit from her labors: American culture has been become more pro-life. Abortion rates fell 33 percent from 1990 to 2005. Popular support for “any abortion, for any reason” stood at only 7 percent in 2009, according to Gallup. And the pro-life movement will continue to be refreshed and renewed by the March that Nellie started.

Today, both Nellie Gray and Helen Gurley Brown stand before the awesome judgment seat, both giving an accounting of their lives. Not men shall judge them, but God.

— Connie Marshner is a long-time pro-life activist in Washington, D.C.



One of the many things to consider about the life and work of Nellie Gray is how she, and her beloved March for Life, represent what is so great about the pro-life movement, and what continues to confound its opponents.

Anyone who has been to the March will quickly notice several things. There are so many stalwarts there who have fought to defend life for years — just like Nellie Gray. They were out there when the states started legalizing abortion, and when Roe v. Wade was decided. They have shown the strength of the movement by their fidelity to the cause over many, many years. Constancy — staying the course in a just cause.

They also notice all the young people who are filled with passion for defending life — just as Nellie Gray was. The March is a rally and party, remarkable for an event about such a lamentable reality. This atmosphere, particularly the energy of the pro-life youth, lifts us up and encourages us that there is hope for the future. Renewal — transforming new hearts and minds and culture.

No movement in America is less fashionable and fancy than the pro-life cause. Its opponents cannot understand its appeal and its longevity. The March for Life is hardly a glamorous event. There are no movie stars, rock musicians, or A-list celebrities in sight, and there is little likelihood that it will become the next big fad.

But Nellie understood. The truth of the pro-life movement is very simple — every life has value. This drove Nellie Gray — and millions like her — to be steadfast defenders of life, and it continually renews the cause. Nellie Gray was an ordinary woman called by God to do exceptional work, with constancy and hope for renewal. The March goes on.

— Edward T. Mechmann is assistant director of the Family Life/Respect Life Office at the Archdiocese of New York.


Nellie Gray’s great leadership of the March for Life testifies to the importance of key leaders in the pro-life movement and speaks to what one determined person can accomplish with God’s grace. Yet the annual event she founded to protest both the evil of abortion and the Supreme Court’s legalization of it clarifies that the pro-life campaign is a true people’s movement — a grassroots effort by thousands and thousands of ordinary folk. The March for Life serves powerfully as both a rallying point and a source of strength for local pro-life groups across the country, such as the one that I am part of at the University of Notre Dame. Now over 400 students and 50 faculty and staff, led by the university’s president, attend the March for Life. Participation in it energizes us in our on-campus endeavors and for the struggles that undoubtedly lie ahead. We can only be deeply grateful for the tremendous courage and commitment of Nellie Gray and allow her witness to call each of us forth to reaffirm our gratitude for God’s gift of life and our resolve to allow all to share it.

— Fr. Bill Miscamble, C.S.C., is president of Faculty for Life and a history professor at the University of Notre Dame.


When we lose someone like Nellie Gray, founder of the March for Life, we mourn the loss of an extraordinary advocate for the unborn. We tell the story of her life as a faithful Catholic who was eager to welcome everyone from cardinals to schoolchildren as part of the annual rally and March. We mourn her loss, but it is also a time to celebrate the difference that one life can make.

Nellie’s main concern wasn’t record-breaking crowds or fancy dinners; it was helping people come to Washington to make their voices heard by their elected officials. She was convinced that speaking truth to power could actually end abortion. The annual march and rally became a true celebration of life that flourished and gave rise over the years to dozens of other pro-life prayer services, rallies, and conferences. It led to an overwhelming growth in attendance at annual events like the National Prayer Vigil for Life, especially by young people.

It would be easy to despair that this coming January will mark 40 years of legalized abortion. We find hope in the record numbers of pro-life laws passed by states in recent years, and polls showing that the majority of Americans are now pro-life. As pro-lifers work toward a culture that increasingly welcomes the unborn, Nellie remains an inspiration. For many, attending their first March for Life inspired them to be pro-life in all that they do as teachers, parents, and volunteers in their churches and communities. Many even chose to be full-time members in the pro-life movement.

In our own way, you and I are also called to speak up against abortion and stand up for life. It doesn’t require a fancy degree or a super PAC. It’s as simple as grabbing a backpack and a bus ride to Washington. Or speaking up, whenever and wherever those who are vulnerable are at risk. This is our lesson: One life can make a difference.

May God bring Nellie home to rest in peace, and may God bless each of us with the heart and courage to be a voice for the voiceless.

— Mary McClusky is special-projects coordinator at the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.


Nellie Gray truly was like a modern-day Queen Esther. She stood firm and told the truth to the leaders of our nation about the destruction of the unborn. She was born for “such a time as this.” Her legacy will continue as we march this coming year and as long as it takes to overturn Roe v. Wade in an attempt to protect women and babies from the horror of abortion. Nellie would want us to continue her tireless fight. I am inspired by the legacy she leaves.

This 2013 March for Life will mark the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, the 39th anniversary of the March, and the first march without its leader and visionary, Nellie Gray. Yet the heart of the pro-life movement is not really the courts or the Congress or even one particular individual. Those are the brains.

No, the heart of the pro-life movement is encapsulated in all the millions of volunteers who toil away in anonymity, marching to support life and working tirelessly to defend the innocent unborn. To end abortion, we need to change the culture; to change the culture, we need to change hearts. This is exactly what the March for Life aims to achieve, and as a result, attitudes are definitely changing and life is being celebrated more and more.

If I could tell Nellie Gray now how much her example of leadership means to the women of this country — from serving as a corporal in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II to retiring from a professional life as a lawyer to become a pro-life activist — I know she would humbly pass it off. But I pray young ladies see Miss Gray’s example and follow in her very big footsteps to lead the women of this country towards a better future.

— Penny Young Nance is president of Concerned Women for America.


With the passing of pro-life leader Nellie Gray, many in the right-to-life movement are reflecting on her main legacy, the annual March for Life. Sometimes pro-lifers take the March for granted. However, the March is unique for several reasons. There is no annual protest March in Washington that consistently draws the crowds the March for Life does. With only a couple of exceptions, there is no other pro-life event that has lasted some 38 years. Finally, it is one of the few events that are supported by nearly every pro-life group.

Of course, each and every pro-life activity is subject to intense internal scrutiny. The March for Life was certainly no exception. Among the common complaints are that the March receives too little media attention, the media coverage it does get is misleading, and pro-lifers could get more political leverage from the thousands of people who attend the March.

These complaints have varying degrees of merit. However, they miss the point that the March itself has intrinsic value to its participants. The ongoing struggle to restore legal protection to the unborn is often thankless. However, every January it was always heartening to witness people who traveled considerable distances, see a large crowd of enthusiastic young people, and reconnect with friends from across the country.

Furthermore, the March contains important symbolic value. Every January, thousands of people from across the country descend upon the Mall on Washington. We come to support the weakest among us and protest a tragic and indefensible Supreme Court decision. It never matters who is in the White House, who controls Congress, whether the pro-life movement had a good year, or what the weather is like. The attendance year in and year out is consistently strong. This sends a clear and unambiguous message to friends and foes alike. The pro-life movement is here to stay.

— Michael New is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan – Dearborn, a Fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New


Thanks to Nellie Gray, I have a standing appointment every January 22 at the place where the most disastrous decision in American history was made. On that now-infamous date in 1973, newspapers across the country declared in their headlines that the U.S. Supreme Court had “settled the abortion issue.”

But because a courageous woman knew she couldn’t live with that decision, she mustered her forces to march on Washington and say abortion is murder and would not be tolerated in a nation whose Declaration of Independence declares the right to life inalienable.

She found her motivation to fight abortion by thinking about how the Nuremburg trials had made it clear that there are laws of human nature that no government may transgress.

It is regrettable that we still march, but march we do, in ever-growing numbers. Our presence, in the hundreds of thousands, in the seat of government of the most powerful nation in the world, is proof that abortion remains the most unsettled issue in America.

The 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade could be the most important yet. There are certain galvanizing moments in the history of every movement for social reform — moments that represent definitive turning points on the path to victory. For the pro-life movement, the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade can and should be such a moment. Priests for Life is mobilizing a coordinated effort to have events not only in January but throughout 2013 to bring focus to the holocaust of abortion and how to end it.

We will have to march without Nellie Gray this year, but when we ultimately march to victory — and we will, I assure you — it will be because a woman of great faith and great conviction was bold enough, and heartbroken enough, to take those first steps.

— Fr. Frank Pavone is national director of Priests for Life and president of the National Pro-life Religious Council.


When I first attended the March for Life in the early 1990s, I was just a kid. I remember the experience well: It was cold and rainy, and I was amazed by the size of the crowd. At that March I learned for the first time that our small group of pro-lifers was a part of something much larger.

That first experience confirmed in me the conviction that the cause is just, and that victory will come eventually.

I have been back to the March many times over the years since. But my most memorable experience at the March came in January of 2011. It was my first time back to the March since becoming a “professional,” a full-time worker for the cause. We had just launched our NYC 41 Percent campaign here in New York, and I had spent a few weeks dealing with the very hostile New York press. I had a meeting on Capitol Hill that made me miss the rally, and by the time I emerged at the top of the hill near the Supreme Court, hundreds of thousands of marchers had filled the streets from the Mall all the way to the Supreme Court.

I was immediately overwhelmed and moved by the joy, and the power, of that crowd. I again felt sure that victory would be ours, in time.

When Nellie Gray launched the first March for Life, she had no such palpable consolation to support her in her fight for life. But she persevered, and the March for Life has launched generations of pro-lifers into the fight to which she dedicated her life. We owe her a great debt of gratitude. May she rest in peace.

— Greg Pfundstein is executive director of the Chiaroscuro Foundation.


Nellie Gray did more than focus the nation on the pro-life cause once a year. She helped pro-lifers see each other, and in so doing has kept the movement young and strong.

I remember the first time I marched as a mom. Little Lucy, snug and warm in a sling on my hip, engaged in one of her favorite pastimes: studying the faces of the people around her. She saw many happy ones that cold day.

What Lucy understood instinctively has been lost to many in our post-modern world: that we are made to live in relation to each other, not in isolation.

The post-modernist’s idea of freedom is a quest for absolute autonomy: autonomy over our bodies, our time, the timing of our children and even of our own deaths. Pope John Paul II called this a distortion of freedom and said it leads to a society in which “everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself.” (Evangelium Vitae, No. 20.)

The March for Life is a political protest, yes, but it’s also a great expression of solidarity. The tens of thousands of people who march each year stand to gain nothing from the success of their efforts. No rights, no raises, no cures for a suffering relative. They march in solidarity with fellow members of the human family they have never met and will never meet. How selfless. How counter-cultural!

The first year I brought Lucy, the Washington Post (whose March reviews I dread to read) reported that “the mood was closer to a party than a political protest, and the soundtrack of the day was the laughter of young people.”

Thanks for the laughter, Nellie!

— Cathy Ruse is senior fellow for legal studies at the Family Research Council.


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.


The March for Life has served more than any other annual occasion to focus the energy of the pro-life cause and to promote solidarity and enthusiasm in our ranks. And the March was Nellie Grey.

She saw things clearly in 1973 that took some of us much longer to see at all. Her presence through the years reminded us that the struggle would not be quickly won and that patience was a necessary virtue for those of us who joined the struggle. She grew old on the podium while the crowds surrounding the podium grew younger.

One could not attend the March without believing not just that we would win eventually, but that we are winning now. Those of us who live at a distance from Washington, D.C., but regularly accompany university students to the March, are reminded every January of the impact this event has on the young as well as the older participants. As recently as 1980, only one Notre Dame student attended the March. This past year, over 400 students attended accompanied by two dozen or so faculty members. And our numbers are growing every year.

The March is the central item in the pro-life calendar on the Notre Dame campus. Activities in the fall semester anticipate it, while those in the spring semester are enlivened by it. We are always either preparing for it or living in its afterglow. It is difficult to imagine what else could shape our pro-life efforts on this campus so magnificently.

For those of us of an age to have had our moral sensibilities shaped by the civil-rights struggle of the 1960’s, the March and the crowds on the Mall are a reminder of the links between the two great civil-rights issues of our age, the struggles for racial justice and for the rights of the unborn.

It was Martin Luther King’s soaring rhetoric and inspiring witness that made the Mall hallowed ground. Though her rhetoric was quite different from Martin Luther King’s, Nellie Grey was no less a witness to what a struggle for justice requires of all of us. We will always be grateful that she invited us all to join her each January to stand together in memory of the victims of our brutal abortion regime, and that she became our great symbol of the patient hope that looks to that future when the unborn can once again be assured their proper standing in our community. Thank you, Nellie.

— David Solomon is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and chairman of the Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life.



Like so many right-to-lifers, Nellie Gray dedicated herself to saving the lives of those she would never meet. Through the March for Life — and the many marches and rallies it inspired in state capitals across the country — Nellie helped keep our great cause everpresent in the public mind.

As a result of Nellie’s tireless efforts, every January, hundreds of thousands of right-to-life activists from coast to coast gather to remember the millions of innocent unborn children who have lost their lives as a result of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. They leave inspired; ready to return to their local communities and continue their selfless efforts to defend the defenseless. Those dedicated activists are making a tremendous difference.

But where we see that difference the most is in the overwhelming number of young people — the “Roe generations” who have lost more than 54 million friends, classmates, brothers and sisters — who have taken up the cause of life. The passion and enthusiasm that motivate these young people is what gives us reason for hope for the future and what so discourages pro-abortionists.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we will once again gather and show the country that the right-to-life movement is stronger than ever. And though Nellie Gray will be missing, her legacy of selfless dedication will continue to inspire and motive more activists in the fight for life.

— Carol Tobias is president of the National Right to Life Committee.


One of the most striking elements of the annual March for Life is the crowds of young people. Well, that and the fact that the marchers persist even when it’s sub-zero weather, or sleeting rain, or blowing snow — marchers have endured all of these during the annual commemoration on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Both of these factors represent a tribute to March for Life founder, Nellie Gray. The founding generation may have aged, but Nellie still communicated her commitment and passion for defending life to a new generation. While feminists wonder why young women increasingly don’t want to identify themselves with “feminism,” every year that Nellie marched up Constitution Avenue, past the Capitol, to stand in protest in front of the Supreme Court, she was surrounded by eager young faces, chanting and singing and eager to proclaim themselves pro-life. So much so that they were willing to come and march even in the worst conditions.

While some of us (not me, of course!) might have voted for marching in balmy breezes, Nellie rallied the movement around the importance of the January 22 anniversary. And her presence on that stage represented another indictment of the feminist movement. While the self-styled defenders of women’s rights were proclaiming the centrality of abortion to female empowerment, Nellie walked away from a legal career following military service in WWII, to actively defend the most defenseless. That’s what real feminine power looks like.

— Charmaine Yoest is president and CEO of Americans United for Life.

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