Nellie Gray, founder of the largest pro-life event in the US, the annual Washington March for Life, died on August 14, aged 88. Although I knew about the March for Life I confess that I had never heard of her. A friend kindly sent me the link for an interview Nellie gave to Mother Angelica of EWTN in 1994 and so I have now learnt something of this indomitable woman, described after her death as a “Joan of Arc” figure in the pro-life movement. Fr Frank Pavone, founder of Priests for Life, credits his own priestly and pro-life vocation to joining the March for Life as a teenager. He relates that “she was a tireless warrior for the unborn and her motto was no exceptions, no compromises”.
Nellie Gray’s motto made me sit up and pay attention. What she meant was that she would have absolutely no truck with “strategies” to save the lives of some preborn babies – but at the expense of other babies’ lives. To do a “trade off” that would grant exceptions, such as women whose babies were handicapped or who were pregnant as the result of rape or incest, was, in her view, to surrender the principle that every preborn baby had a right to life and to collude with wrong-doing. In her interview with Mother Angelica she emphasised that “you cannot do evil that good may come”.
In that interview Nellie said she had been present as a young serving officer at the Nuremburg trials. As she said, “crimes against humanity” had been committed and the US served judgment on the Germans. What appalled her was that this same America was now committing a wholesale crime against the humanity of the unborn. She pointed out that the incremental approach, where some abortions were conceded by pro-life strategists in the hope that this figure would gradually be reduced, had been proved a failed policy; once you accept that “it’s all right to kill some babies” you have lost your case, in law and in morality.
The interview between Nellie Gray and Mother Angelica confirmed my own standpoint on abortion law reform: that to bargain for some lives at the cost of others – and the latter are always the most vulnerable babies – is to surrender the principle that every life is of equal value; and judging from the history of the pro-life movement it doesn’t work. I was converted to this standpoint by reviewing Colin Harte’s book, Changing Unjust Laws Justly. Colin, who had supported David Alton’s proposed upper limit Bill of 1988, had himself been converted after meeting Alison Davis, who was then running the disabled branch of SPUC. Alison, who has spina bifida, is a fiercely eloquent reproach to those who would concede a disability exception clause in the drafting of pro-life bills.
Another convert to the recognition that “gestational laws”, as they are sometimes referred to, do not work in principle or in practice is John Smeaton, director of the SPUC. In an interview with Angela O’Brien on LifeSite News in July this year, he courageously admitted that he had been wrong in the past to support an upper limit bill. “After the upper limit of 24 weeks was instated [in 1990], the number of late abortions actually increased because the majority of politicians had voted to introduce new and broad exceptions to the abortion law,” he said. He has changed his mind in the face of strong opposition from other pro-lifer groups, and echoes Nellie Gray’s own words: “You cannot vote for intrinsically unjust legislation and you cannot campaign for it.”
I recently blogged about the late Dr Jerome Lejeune, the world-famous geneticist who discovered the extra chromosome that causes Down’s syndrome. He was devastated when he realised that his discovery was being used, not to find a cure for the syndrome, but to abort these babies. “If I do not protect them I am nothing,” he told his family. What would his response have been to the strategic approach that allows for upper limits and exception clauses?
My own position has recently been described on Twitter as “stupid”, “naive”, “misguided” and “untenable” by those who stubbornly cling to the mistaken belief that they will win this debate by bargaining over human lives. Nellie Gray was adamant that such a policy could not work; so is John Smeaton. More and more people are coming to accept this position; as James Hanink wrote in his essay Abortion, Prudence and Solidarity: “If a ‘reform’ proposal excludes some human beings from protection, it is intrinsically unjust and attacks the law’s very foundation. A law that excludes the disabled from protection is such a law.”
Some readers of my blog will know I have a daughter who has Down’s syndrome: is it stupid, naive, misguided and untenable for me to want justice for her: the right to life in law?