Following the Footprints of Nellie Gray
Jeanne Monahan, the new March for Life president, hopes to build on predecessor’s legacy.
WASHINGTON — From 2008-2009, Jeanne Monahan worked in the Office of Global Health Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Yet, for the next three years, she actively worked against the HHS — and the rest of the federal government — in opposition to the HHS mandate requiring religious institutions to provide health-insurance coverage for contraception and abortifacients.
In the midst of this fight in November 2012, Monahan was named the new president of the March for Life. The march annually draws more than 400,000 pro-life advocates to march on Capitol Hill to lament the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and to work for the repeal of legalized abortion and the building up of a broader culture-of-life America.
This year’s march, which will take place on Jan. 25, 2013, will be the first under Monahan’s leadership, although she has extensive experience in pro-life work that has prepared her for this moment.
Monahan’s work on pro-life and pro-family causes has led her to testify before Congress, appear in dozens of national television and radio interviews and publish articles on the editorial pages of magazines and newspapers across the country. At the age of 40, she is one of the new generation of pro-life leaders, bringing new energy and ideas to the cause.
Born in 1972 — the year that Roe v. Wade was argued before the Supreme Court — Monahan grew up with four siblings in a military family. Her father’s Air Force career required the family to move around throughout her childhood, taking her to Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Missouri and Virginia.
While she was raised Catholic and her family was actively involved in parish life, it was not until high school that she began to seriously engage her faith. "After that, everything changed for me, and God and his direction for my life became much more important," recalled Monahan.
This would soon lead her to study psychology at James Madison University in Virginia. "I was fascinated by the mystery of the human person and by a person’s emotions and psychology," said Monahan. "I also had a very soft spot for people who underwent some sort of abuse, and I wanted to help these people heal."
Realizing that the Church was the key to fully understanding the human person, Monahan became torn between studying theology and psychology. "In my process of discernment, I sat in on graduate-school classes on both of these topics. When I attended a class at the John Paul II Institute, I had what I would describe as a deep movement of the Holy Spirit. It was a mysterious experience and hard to put into words, but, essentially, I knew in my heart that it was where I should be."
Upon completion of her master’s in theological studies at the John Paul II Institute in 2002, Monahan moved to Michigan to serve as the associate director of the Cardinal Maida Institute in the Archdiocese of Detroit. There, she taught Catholic adult-formation courses, most notably on the dignity of women and John Paul II’s theology of the body.
After three years of educational work within the Church, she moved back to Virginia and began work for the Bush administration at the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2006, where she worked in HIV/AIDS prevention as an abstinence adviser. A year later, she was transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, where she continued abstinence-related work.
But following the 2008 presidential election, Monahan soon began to perceive a conflict between her faith and the agenda of the Department of Health and Human Services under the new Obama administration. She could not accept a pro-abortion presidential administration’s push to provide widespread contraception to all women through their labeling of contraception as "preventive care" — essentially equating pregnancy to a disease.
"Working in the office of the secretary at HHS during the Obama administration proved to be a challenge to my pro-life and pro-family views," Monahan said. "After some time in this role, I began praying for guidance and seeking job opportunities outside of the government that would allow me to more freely work to promote what I know to be real, true and good. Around this time, I learned that the Family Research Council (FRC) had an opening for someone to do pro-life public policy. I applied for the job and was hired."
A Consequential ‘Yes’
As the director of the Center for Human Dignity at the FRC, Monahan worked to promote human dignity through pro-life research, national advocacy and serving as a public spokeswoman for these causes.
It was through Monahan’s position at the FRC that she was asked in June 2012 to join the board of the March for Life. Little did she know that her simple "Yes" to this invitation would soon lead to a new full-time job.
The March for Life began in 1974, a year after the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion in Roe v. Wade. Established and organized annually by pro-life activist Nellie Gray, the march has become one of the largest pro-life events in the world. When Gray died at age 88 in August 2012, the board of the March for Life turned to Monahan to continue Gray’s efforts, naming her as its president in November 2012.
While Monahan’s former superior at the FRC is sad to see her leave, he is confident that she will succeed in her new appointment.
"Jeanne is an exceptional professional. She brings an unusual balance of diligence, passion and good judgment to her tasks," said Robert Schwarzwalder, senior vice president of the Family Research Council. "Jeanne is very creative, and rather than waiting for something to respond to, she looks for opportunities to make the case for life in the public square."
Added Schwarzwalder, "She is also brave, willing to go into very uncomfortable situations — whether in testifying before Congress or at the Institute of Medicine — where she advocates for the unborn before unfriendly audiences. Jeanne left FRC well-loved and deeply respected, and we rejoice that she is now applying her formidable skills to the March for Life movement."
Though her appointment came as a surprise, Monahan is eager to continue Nellie Gray’s great pro-life legacy. "Only by standing on Nellie’s shoulders can we look to build and grow the march in different, positive directions," she said.
For Monahan, these new directions will include efforts to "make the march rally more youth-friendly, engaging and brief." In addition, Monahan wants to return to a prior strategy of having participants lobby their legislators personally while they are in Washington about the need for pro-life legislation.
"We have gotten away from this powerful yet critical democratic piece to the peaceful protest," noted Monahan.
Monahan and the board of the March for Life also envision "developing more fully the educational side of our mission," she said. "We plan to move in a direction that will involve impacting culture for the good every day of the year."
In announcing Monahan’s appointment as president, the March for Life’s board chairman, Patrick Kelly, described her as "a strong pro-life advocate who will continue the strong leadership of Nellie Gray and bring us closer to a culture of life."
Monahan hopes she can help achieve that pro-life vision — and render her new job obsolete.
Commented Monahan, "As we approach the somber 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the ensuing march, my strongest hope is that we will very soon no longer need a March for Life — that everyone involved in this event will work himself or herself out of a job."
writes from New York.
- January 13-26, 2013