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NEWS PROFILE: Nellie Gray: 25 years behind the March for Life

c. 1998 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ In the fall of 1973, Nellie Gray and about 30 other anti-abortion activists from the mid-Atlantic region began gathering at the retired federal worker’s home on Capitol Hill to plan a January demonstration on the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing abortion. Gray recalled with amusement […]

c. 1998 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ In the fall of 1973, Nellie Gray and about 30 other anti-abortion activists from the mid-Atlantic region began gathering at the retired federal worker’s home on Capitol Hill to plan a January demonstration on the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing abortion.

Gray recalled with amusement her naivete back then:”We just thought we were going to march one time and Congress would certainly pay attention to 20,000 people coming in the middle of winter to tell them to overturn Roe vs. Wade.” But 25 years later _ with legislation banning abortion still beyond reach _ Gray’s commitment to eradicating abortion remains steadfast, and she continues to play the key role in organizing the mid-winter protest that has over the years drawn hundreds of thousands of abortion foes to the nation’s capital every Jan. 22.

In the early ’70s, Gray was only tangentially involved in the fledgling anti-abortion movement, she said in an interview. Today, the energenic and youthful 73-year-old is president of March for Life, the Washington-based non-profit that sponsors the annual protest and works in anti-abortion lobbying and education efforts.

Gray’s commitment to the cause escalated in 1973, when she was approached by a group from Long Island who had been battling newly passed abortion-rights laws in New York state and who wanted to take their cause to the national stage after Roe. They asked Gray to host their initial meeting because she lived closest to the Capitol _ the first venue for the protest, which later became the March for Life.”I always say … `Be careful who you let in your dining room because you may wind up being the president of a corporation,'”chuckled Gray, a devout Roman Catholic who never married and has no children.

In 24 years, Gray has never missed a march, and has acted as the sole emcee at every rally preceding the 21-block trek that begins at the Ellipse behind the White House, travels along the National Mall, and up Capitol Hill to the U.S. Supreme Court.”(Gray) is amazing personally for sticking to this rally and this march year in and year out,”said Helen Alvare, spokeswoman for the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.”The phenomenon of abortion is just so huge that one often feels small and insignificant trying to work against it … and when you go to this rally, you realize that tens of thousands of other people are with you.” The March for Life is largely a grassroots Catholic effort relying on countless volunteers _ from local leaders who organize the Washington-bound contingents to the bus drivers who get them there. It operates on a $200,000 annual budget. Gray said neither she nor the two other full-time staffers draws a salary from March for Life, which she continues to run from the basement of her Capitol Hill townhouse.

A self-described”longtime activist,”Gray credits not her church but the lessons learned from World War II as her prime motivation for challenging the legalization of abortion.”From the Nuremberg Trials we learned that nobody has the capacity to authorize the intentional killing of an innocent being,”said Gray, who served as a corporal in the Women’s Army Corps during the war.”It impressed upon me that if everybody’s rights are not protected, nobody’s rights are protected.” To Gray, who believes life begins at fertilization and once personhood is established on that premise all law applies equally to the fetus, the battle against abortion is more a matter of basic human rights than religion.”The individual person is extremely important to me. When I heard about abortion, I really could not believe that America was entering into … killing its own innocent children. I just could not believe this and I just said, `Not in my country, you don’t do that.'” Gray said in 1973 she was unaware of Rome’s strong anti-abortion stance. But after a fellow panelist on a TV talk show accused her of being a knee-jerk Catholic parroting the church, Gray began to investigate where the Vatican stood on abortion.

What she found”delighted”her, she said.”When I began to look at the documents of the Roman Catholic Church, I was so pleased to see the very straightforward … position that the church had been taking since the early days.” Gray is particularly inspired by a 1930 church encyclical by Pope Pius XI on Christian marriage _ Casti Connubii _ that states life begins at conception and, therefore,”the lives of the mother and child must be preserved at any expense,”she said. The Life Principles developed by March for Life embody the same sentiments, although Gray said the tenets were developed five years before she first read the Vatican document.

And at a time when some in the anti-abortion movement are content to gain any ground limiting abortion, March for Life remains unflinching in its stand to pass legislation _ including a constitutional amendment, if necessary _ that would ban all abortions with no exceptions, said Gray, who is also a legislation attorney. She refers to exception clauses as”the Achilles’ heel of the pro-life movement.””I heard a clergyman say … `I don’t like these exception clauses, and I believe we shouldn’t have them but legally I don’t think we’ll ever get this. … And I thought why would a clergyman say that you don’t have faith in God Almighty that we’ll never get this. I have complete, utter faith that we are going to get this.” Even some who disagree with Gray on abortion offer measured respect for her determination.”In some ways, one admires people who have firm principles and stick to those principles,”said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, a Washington-based advocacy group not affiliated with the church.”On the other hand, if the past 25 years have taught us anything it’s that the abortion issue is extremely complex. We have not been well served with absolutism on either side of the issue.” Undaunted by critics and compromisers, Gray is certain that in the end March for Life’s hardline position _”No exceptions! No compromise! Not even a little bit of abortion”_ will prevail.

But, she said,”the battle will not be won”until the entire anti-abortion movement and every community of faith works relentlessly”to establish personhood for the pre-born children.””It takes the church as the total body _ not just my Roman Catholic Church, but the whole church body _ coming together and saying, `In America, we will not tolerate this.”

END RNS