In the passing of Nellie Gray, the founder and president of the March for Life, the nation has lost a great human rights champion who dedicated the latter half of her 88 years to defending the most basic human right: the right to life.
For nearly 40 years, Nellie sought to rally and unify defenders of life. She never wavered from this goal, even this year calling upon "all grass-roots pro-lifers and government officials to unite because any abortion is untenable."
Nellie first learned of abortion while reading a novel that described an abortion in which the baby was partially delivered and his skull crushed. That vivid picture of the brutality of abortion stayed fresh in her mind, so it is not surprising that she, like so many of us, was devastated when in 1973 the Supreme Court legalized abortion right up until the moment of birth. Years later, she wrote in a letter, "By abortion, a pregnant mother is hurt and a preborn is a torn-apart corpse."
Nellie's life was characterized by service to her country. She served as a corporal in the Women's Army Corps in World War II and earned an undergraduate business degree, a master's degree in economics and a law degree. She worked as a civil servant in the Departments of State and Labor for 28 years. It was her patriotism and an abiding sense of duty that drove her to retire from the federal government early so that she could help lead the effort to restore legal protections to the preborn.
At Nellie's first March for Life on Jan. 22, 1974, I, along with thousands of others, gathered in the nation's capital believing that the innate cruelty of Roe v. Wade would be rejected by compassionate Americans, including politicians. But like many human rights abuses, abortion continues. Decades later, it is clear that Nellie's commitment to the cause has helped shape a robust, sustainable, persevering and effective pro-life movement. The great March for Life hatched in her living room went on to become the nation's largest annual pro-life gathering.
The march is characterized by the wide range of pro-life organizations and a large number of young people who travel long distances to participate. The former corporal faithfully embraced the challenge of marshaling an army of compassionate, selfless and committed people who march on Washington to protest the preventable tragedy of abortion. Undoubtedly, millions of lives have been touched by Nellie's extraordinary leadership, and countless preborn children have been saved.
In her letter to marchers in 2008, she wrote, "A tiny child may rightly expect that each American shall protect our born and preborn neighbors against human rights violations throughout our beloved land."
Even in the worst of weather and in poor health, Nellie emceed the march with uncommon dedication. Because of her leadership, the infamous 1973 Roe v. Wade decision has been marked annually with a somber remembrance that gives voice to the defenseless unborn and the women wounded by abortion.
Nellie was known for her straight talk and professionalism. Over the years, presidents, senators and members of Congress addressed the marchers at Nellie's invitation. In the early '80s, she pointedly asked President Reagan, who had just spoken to the marchers by phone, to proscribe taxpayer funding for abortion in the District of Columbia. Reagan agreed, and the policy was changed.
No matter whom she addressed -- young marchers in the crowd or presidents of the United States -- Nellie's message was clear, unambiguous, empathetic and proudly pro-life.
In her words,"We believe that abortion -- the intentional killing of even one innocent preborn human baby at any stage of development -- must be eradicated from our culture. Most of all we believe, as do all of us marchers, that someday we shall succeed for our beloved country."
The March for Life refuels the passion of pro-life Americans dedicated to the safeguarding of the weakest and most vulnerable.
Nellie's March has been -- and for as long as necessary will be -- a profoundly important and necessary public witness for life. It is a serious challenge to those who are in denial that abortion is an act of violence that ends the lives of children and hurts women.
Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, is co-chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus.