As hundreds of thousands of marchers descend upon Washington this week, the question on many minds is: “When will Roe v. Wade at last be overturned?”
But Bill Devlin, one of the founders of the March for Life, cautions that a simple overturn of Roe could actually lead to a worsening of abortion problems in our nation if pro-lifers aren’t alert to the fundamental issue involved.
Register correspondent Sue Ellen Browder recently talked with Devlin at his home on Long Island about the March for Life, how it all began, what the march has sought to achieve for the past 40 years, and what an overturn of Roe would mean for pro-life forces and the nation.
You were there in 1973 when the seed of the idea for the March for Life was first planted. How did that happen?
The right-to-life movement did not make abortion a national issue. It became a national issue when the Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision. Before the decision, only a few states — such as New York, Colorado and a few others — had legalized abortion; and, in some states, there was no perceived need for pro-life organization.
But out here on Long Island, pro-lifers were pretty active; and, as the first-year anniversary of Roe began to approach, people were getting restless. It was already late summer. We felt it was important to do something on Jan. 22 to protest the decision, but no plans were in the offing, and time was getting short. So we started reaching out to activists in other counties and neighboring states.
Nellie Gray was president of the March for Life from its founding to her death last year at the age of 88. How did you meet Nellie?
We needed a contact in Washington, D.C. Nellie had a townhouse up on Capitol Hill, and when we called her, she invited us to come to her house for a meeting. About 15-17 of us gathered from several states, including Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and New York. We met in Nellie’s dining room on a mid-October weekend in 1973.
The March for Life committee came into existence at that meeting. It was entirely a grassroots movement. The meeting itself was very important, because we came in there with nobody really knowing what was going to happen.
Was everyone on the committee Catholic?
Many were, but not all of us.
How was Nellie chosen to head the March for Life?
Nellie had been a Department of Labor lawyer for many years, and she’d just recently retired, expecting to start her own law firm. She never did do that. Instead, she took on the March for Life as a full-time job, 24/7, without compensation.
She was a resident of D.C. She knew the bureaucracy and how it worked. And she was there, available for the logistical kinds of things, getting permits, equipment rentals, etc. So the heavy lifting fell to her. The night of that first meeting, we all recognized that she was the lynchpin of this thing if it was going to work.
What do you remember most about Nellie?
Two things. First, she never stopped stressing the "life principles": “No compromises; not even a little bit of abortion.” Second, although she didn’t live to see her public-policy objectives realized, she left an invaluable legacy as a prophetic witness for the dignity and value of human life.
What are the "life principles"?
They are seven principles we developed that collectively state the purpose of the March for Life, and every pro-lifer should know and defend them. The principles state that it is the duty of each individual and of society operating through its laws to protect each human life, from fertilization to natural death, and if the lives of two human beings are mutually endangered, all available ordinary means and reasonable efforts should be made to save both lives. If one or both should die, so be it. But the guiding principle was that the law shouldn’t predetermine whose life can be sacrificed to save the life of another human being. Such decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis, trying if possible to save both the mother and the child.
You said over the past 40 years some right-to-lifers have argued that it’s better to compromise with abortionists than to demand a “total” pro-life win.
Nellie would have nothing to do with that mentality. In a statement for the 1976 March for Life, Nellie wrote, “Perhaps 99% of political issues can be compromised: Right to life is not one.” Likening abortion to slavery, she declared, “The abortionist wants to kill human beings; the master wanted to own human beings. … Compromising with abortionists will not save lives; it will merely deliver the death penalty for preborn children, produce a generation of mothers- and physicians-turned-killers, and enkindle the crisis created by abortion in America.”
Even very well-intentioned people have failed to grasp the gravity of compromise on the life issue.
Did Nellie express any concerns about the future of the March for Life before she died?
Her concern was the hope that the March for Life Committee would remember to continue emphasizing the life principles. She knew from experience that if Roe v. Wade were overturned, many battle-weary pro-lifers might be tempted to adopt a “we won; game over” mentality. But Nellie knew that a simple return to the pre-Roe v. Wade legal status is not a victory for life.
Roe v. Wade made abortion a national issue. But overturning Roe will not make the abortion issue disappear: It will just turn the battlegrounds back to the states. Many right-to-life leaders, including many clergy who have influence on official policy, would very likely perceive a judicial overturning of Roe v. Wade as “the long-awaited pro-life victory.”
It would be beneficial in that it would probably result in fewer abortions. But overturning Roe will not address the central issue of legal abortion: Is there a natural right to life or does the right to life exist only by the will of the people and their political leaders? Overturning Roe would not in itself address this central question. It would simply shift the question from federal to state policymakers.
Register correspondent Sue Ellen Browder writes from Ukiah, California.