The Long March for Life

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People walk up Constitution Avenue headed toward the US Supreme Court while participating in the 47th annual March for Life in Washington on 24 January, 2020. PHOTO: CNS, Gregory Shemitz, Long Island Catholic

As the world reacted to the US Supreme Court overturning the Roe v. Wade decision last week, my thoughts turned to Nellie Gray. Nellie was a US lawyer, a convert to Catholicism and the organiser of the first ever March for Life, held on 22 January 1974, a year to the day after the Roe decision was handed down.

A key figure in America’s history of right-to-life activism, Nellie gave up her legal career after Roe to devote herself entirely to the cause. She is also credited with popularising the terms ‘pro-life’ and ‘preborn.’

Organisers estimated that 20,000 marchers attended the first March for Life in 1974. Media reports put the numbers at 5,000. As with most pro-life events, the truth is probably somewhere a lot closer to the organisers’ estimate than that of the media.

The March for Life was not supposed to be an annual event. Pro-life advocates believed that the US Congress would see the obvious flaws in the Roe decision and legislate to correct the error.

“Nellie would have been 70 years old and had been in retirement for two decades with no measurable or meaningful social, political or judicial progress made during that time …”

Congress didn’t act immediately and so it was decided that the March for Life would become an annual event. I can’t say for certain, but I can imagine that when making the commitment to hold the march annually, Nellie would have believed it would only take a few years before Congress would step in. We now know that wasn’t to be!

Numbers grew year on year after 1974, but there was nowhere near the 500,000-plus who have attended in recent years. Indeed, the March for Life’s own website gives a vague estimate of “up to 100,000” for each march in the 21-year period from 1977-1998.

Some of these years were reported to be quite low, with just 10,000 attending in 1987 due to the wild weather, and the National Park Service (not the media) officially estimating 45,000 attendees in 1995.

I often think about the organisers and that 1995 March. It was now more than 20 years since Roe had been handed down, Nellie would have been 70 years old and had been in retirement for two decades with no measurable or meaningful social, political or judicial progress made during that time, and the number of people attending seemed to have flat-lined.

Nellie Gray addresses the 2009 March for Life rally on the National Mall in Washington on 22 January. Photo: CNS/Bob Rolle
Nellie Gray addresses the 2009 March for Life rally on the National Mall in Washington on 22 January. Photo: CNS/Bob Rolle

They could have been forgiven for packing it in and deciding the time and effort and expense of holding an annual march was not worth it. They could have understandably backed away from their other pro-life efforts as well. No one could have blamed or judged them.

They didn’t give up, though. They kept marching through the literal and figurative winter of the stranglehold of the culture of death.

And on 24 June 2022, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the eve of the Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, and on what would have been Nellie’s 98th birthday (she died in 2012), the Supreme Court of the United States overruled Roe and declared that the US Constitution did not confer a right to abortion. It took almost 50 years, but it happened!

Here in NSW, we might be tempted to give up. Our extreme abortion laws only passed NSW Parliament in 2019 and our extreme euthanasia and assisted suicide laws just several weeks ago.

“We have to commit to the fight to protect human life for as long as it takes to see these awful laws repealed.”

We fought hard against each of these laws and no one could really blame or judge us for taking a break. After all, it is clear that a majority of our MPs are anti-life, as are the media and the public in general.

But this is when we need to be like Nellie and her team. We have to commit to the fight to protect human life for as long as it takes to see these awful laws repealed. We must be prepared to persevere through a decades-long winter of hostility or indifference from the public and the politicians.

Some of us, like Nellie, will die without seeing any demonstrable change in the law or in public opinion.

Our task is not necessarily to see the fruits of our efforts, but to continue the fight so that generations yet unborn will know that there is a fight to be had; that they will not simply accept a culture of death as normal because there is no one objecting. We fight and teach our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to do the same. The anti-life laws in NSW will be repealed, my friends. It may take lifetimes of work, but it will happen because the culture of death is ultimately sterile. It is the pro-life movement that is fruitful.

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