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At 84, Pro-life Leader Nellie Gray Marches On
Dave Jolivet
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Friday, January 22, 2010
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FALL RIVER, Mass. (CNS)—Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley once said some consider Nellie J. Gray the "(Rev.) Martin Luther King Jr. of the pro-life civil rights movement."

"But to me," he added, "she's ... the Joan of Arc of the Gospel of life."

There are many other words to describe this 84-year-old champion of the unborn, but none are more accurate than "mother of the March for Life." For more than 35 years, Texas native Nellie J. Gray has been working unceasingly to end the slaughter of unborn children in the United States. And like any good mother, she sacrifices everything to protect her children.

Gray served as a corporal in the Women's Army Corps during World War II. She later earned a bachelor's degree in business and a master's in economics. She was an employee of the federal government for 28 years, working for the State Department and the Department of Labor, while attending Georgetown University Law School. Gray found herself practicing law before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a telephone interview with The Anchor, newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, Gray said she wasn't a Catholic as a child, but "I had elements of the Catholic faith in my life." As a young woman, she encountered a priest who brought to light what the Catholic Church was about and he tutored her until she joined the church.

Gray said that in 1973 when the Supreme Court handed down its Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion virtually on demand, "I knew abortion was wrong, but I really didn't pay much attention to the ruling. ... I didn't think anyone would take it seriously."

Eventually Gray realized the ruling was being taken very seriously. There was a tugging at her heartstrings to do something about it, but she wasn't quite sure what. "I was preparing to retire soon, and was thinking about establishing my own practice," she said.

Later that year she retired from her professional life and dedicated her efforts to the burgeoning pro-life movement—all on a volunteer basis.

Gray helped found and later became president of the March for Life in the nation's capital first held Jan. 22, 1974.

"I received a call from the Knights of Columbus," she recalled. "I didn't even know who they were, but they explained their stance against abortion and needed a place to meet to discuss plans for a march. That place was my living room. About 30 people gathered there and they asked if I could help get speakers for the event since I knew Capitol Hill well.

"What I couldn't get was a master of ceremonies for the event," she said. "Politicians didn't want to get involved in a march, and people at that time weren't interested in marches after the civil rights movement and other things. That left the emcee job to me."

An estimated 20,000 people joined in that first March for Life. Since then, hundreds of thousands of pro-life advocates have descended on Washington for the event.

"Following the march, we had about $400 left over and we were trying to decide where we should donate it," Gray said. "One Knight said we need another march next year, so it went in the coffers."

The March for Life was incorporated in 1974 with Gray as president. "It was then that we established the life principles that would guide the movement," said Gray. "A group of us put them together while in a New York airport. We concentrated on 'thou shalt not kill,' but we agreed the principles should concentrate on the positive, not the negative."

Set in the context of the Declaration of Independence, the life principles demand equal care for the unborn child and the mother, with "no exceptions, no compromise."

Gray, who has attended each of the 36 marches, has seen the number of pro-life supporters grow, particularly with young people. "Many young people don't know that one-third of their generation, that's 50 million people, have been killed through the evil of abortion," she said.

Gray said what keeps her motivated is the millions of unborn children killed by abortion each year. "The feminist movement has manipulated popular opinion with language like 'pro-choice' and a 'woman's right to privacy,'" she said.

"After fighting against evil in World War II, I get very upset that we have Americans trying to justify abortion," she added. "Somehow a juggernaut of evil has grown in this country, including Catholics who vote for pro-choice candidates. We will never win this fight until this juggernaut is exposed and eliminated. I just don't know how we're going to do it."

Larry Cirignano, former executive director of Catholic Citizenship, a grass-roots education organization in Massachusetts, has been working closely with Gray for more than a year.

"Many priests cite the March for Life as the reason for their choice of vocation," he told The Anchor. "Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life says the march was what inspired him to join the priesthood and make the life issue his calling."

"As a colleague in national pro-life leadership, Nellie is always an inspiration to the rest of us," Father Pavone said. "Her determination is seen, for instance, in how, last year, despite the fact that she fell on the day of the March for Life and was in the hospital that night, she nevertheless was present at an all-day meeting of national leaders the very next morning, with a patch on her head."

Cirignano also credits Gray's efforts for inspiring other pro-life leaders, such as Judie Brown, president and founder of American Life League, and "every person who has ever prayed outside an abortion mill or worked in a center and saved a baby.

"She has inspired all of these people and the annual gathering has been a boost in the arm to continue to fight and challenge to grow," he added.

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