This weekend will mark the five-year anniversary of the passing of a pro-life hero, Nellie Gray, a pioneer of the pro-life movement who went home to God on August 13th 2012, at the age of 88. Nellie was the founder and long-time president of the March for Life, an event that began as a modest peaceful protest against Roe v. Wade and grew to be the largest annual human rights demonstration internationally, celebrating its 45th anniversary this coming January. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has referred to Nellie as the “Joan of Arc of the pro-life Movement.”
A native of Texas and a proud American, Nellie served our country during World War II in the Women’s Army Corps. She received her undergraduate degree in business, master degree in economics, and law degree from Georgetown Law Center. Nellie worked for close to three decades in the federal government with the US Departments of State and Labor before retiring to help start and then run the March for Life. Nellie was Roman Catholic and a regular parishioner at St. Mary’s parish in Chinatown, Washington, D.C.
In January 1973, the Supreme Court overturned state laws and made abortion legal throughout the United States in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. Nellie at the time was in her mid-forties and sensed a call to dedicate her time and energies to protect pre-born babies. Along with a small group of other pro-life advocates, Nellie coordinated the first March for Life in January, 1974, with the plan being not to return the following year but to her surprise and sadness, Roe and Doe were not corrected in the years following 1973. Nellie never anticipated that there would be a need for a long-term, annual March for Life. She never expected abortion to be legal that long, nor did she expect the March for Life to grow to become the largest pro-life event in the world. When she died in 2012, her last known conversations were about the March for Life. She truly dedicated her entire life selflessly for close to 40 years to protecting the pre-born child.
Conversely, abortion advocates expected pro-lifers to become desensitized to the reality of abortion, and stop working to protect the pre-born. Much to the contrary, the March for Life continues to grow in number and impact each year, influencing culture and pro-life legislation. This past year, the March for Life welcomed to the stage for the first time ever a standing Vice President of the United States, in office for only one week at the time!
Nellie Gray was convinced of the necessity of praying for conversions of those committed to promoting abortion, and she had the grace of witnessing many such miracles. Over the years Nellie had the honor of standing on the March for Life platform with Norma McCorvey, (who joined Nellie in going home to God this past February), the Jane Roe of “Roe v. Wade”, Sandra Cano, Mary Doe of “Doe v. Bolton”, and, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a self-proclaimed “architect of legal abortion” who after a powerful conversion left NARAL Pro-Choice America to become a full-time pro-life activist.
Over the years the age of March for Life participants has decreased to the extent that today the vast majority of marchers are young people. They even refer to themselves as the “Pro-life Generation”. Groups including NARAL Pro-Choice America are acknowledging this reality and working to market to young people more and more. In 2010, in a Newsweek article, former NARAL President Nancy Keenan was quoted as referring to the March for Life participants as, “I just thought, my gosh, they are so young. There are so many of them, and they are so young.”
Nellie understood well that these groups had a problem bringing in young people not because of bad marketing strategies but because of the “product” of abortion. She once said: “I don’t understand slavery, I don’t understand the holocaust, I don’t understand abortion.” Given her intellectual capacities and fighting spirit, Nellie could have spent her life doing almost anything, but she selflessly chose to work to protect the unborn for nearly four decades. We are grateful. Rest in Peace, dear Nellie Gray.