Pro-Life Pioneer Dead at 84

Eleanor McCormack was the first woman running for president who qualified for federal matching funds. She used them for TV ads about abortion.

"Ellen" McCormack
"Ellen" McCormack (photo: Courtesy EWTN News)

MERRICK, N.Y. — She was the first American woman to qualify as a candidate for federal financing and Secret Service protection when she ran for president in 1976. So you might have expected that Ms. Magazine would have mentioned her passing away March 27 in Avon, Conn.

But the feminist journal ignored the death of Eleanor “Ellen” McCormack, the Long Island Catholic housewife who ran in 18 Democratic primaries to educate the public about legal abortion.

McCormack, a mother of four who suffered from heart disease and was advised to abort her last child to protect her fragile health, ended up winning 22 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. She generated a war chest that totaled $525,580, made up of small contributions. McCormack’s ability to qualify for federal campaign funds (totaling almost a quarter of a million dollars) made it possible for a nascent but energetic pro-life movement to launch a series of national television ads that presented the case against legal abortion and sought to document the humanity of the unborn child.

Her political coup angered abortion-rights supporters. At the 1976 Democratic National Convention, which ended up nominating Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, feminists picketed her. They objected to the use of federal matching funds for a “single issue” candidate as a violation of the intent of Federal Election Campaign Act amendments enacted in 1974.

“After Roe v. Wade, all of us in the pro-life movement felt we had to do something,” recalled the March for Life’s founder and longtime leader, Nellie Gray. “At that time, the pro-life movement was very young, and it was very active. We were pleased that we had someone of the personal and professional stature of an Ellen McCormack put all her energies into the campaign.”

Gray disputed the suggestion that McCormack’s candidacy was merely a “vehicle” for the pro-life movement to get its message out to the public. “At that time, you would not have found anybody on her campaign who didn’t think she was going to win. They viewed it as serious business.”

But Bill Devlin, an artist on Long Island and a longtime member of the Coalition for Life, acknowledged that McCormack’s candidacy served a very specific purpose. “This was an opportunity to present the case for defending life. Ellen emerged as the person best suited under the circumstance to play this role,” said Devlin.

On Long Island, McCormack was part of an active community of pro-life Catholics that banded together in the late 1960s to block the advance of legal abortion in New York state.

McCormack was married to Francis McCormack, who would later be appointed deputy inspector of the New York Police Department. Ellen cared for their four children and participated in a women’s book group based at the Cure d’Ars parish in Merrick, N.Y., where the participants poured over G.K. Chesterton and other Catholic authors.

When a young parish associate, Father Paul Driscoll, shared information about efforts to enact legal abortion in the state, the book group morphed into a grassroots political movement, speaking out, collecting signatures, traveling to the state Capitol in Albany to lobby politicians — and swapping babysitting duties.

Before McCormack’s candidacy, some Long Island activists had already run for public office. They failed to win a majority, but gained enough traction to generate political clout, creating alliances with local politicians who wanted the “swing” votes of social conservatives.

“The New York activists knew one another because they had all fought against abortion in Albany, ultimately securing the passage of a pro-life bill, only to have it vetoed by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller,” recalled Gray.

“They had years of hard knocks, and Ellen McCormack was part of that. She was a lady with the right look about her. Other pro-life leaders in the New York group could have run for office, but they didn’t. The whole community worked for her.”

Secret Service at Mass

In part, McCormack’s presidential campaign was the brainchild of a savvy pro-life attorney, Gene McMahon, who sought to break down the barriers that blocked the advancement of the pro-life movement and its message.

After amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act made it possible for candidates to win federal dollars for their campaigns, McMahon perceived a golden opportunity to leverage federal dollars for the cause. “Equal access” requirements would also force television stations to accept pro-life ads they had previously rejected as too controversial.

The television commercials were produced by industry professionals. Decades before ultrasound images fueled a sea change in American views about abortion, the advertisements explained that the unborn child was a living human being with a beating heart.

In one commercial, McCormack and Dr. Mildred Jefferson — the first black woman to earn a medical degree from Harvard, the first woman admitted to the Boston Surgical Society, and a founder of the National Right to Life Committee — discussed the brutal details of two abortion procedures and examined the tiny feet of an unborn child.

The presidential campaign “allowed Ellen to travel across the country. There was a lot of exposure, and millions of people saw the ads. Some were denying that the unborn child was a human being,” said Bill Devlin.

“The ads changed people’s minds,” noted Jane Gilroy, a fellow activist who accompanied McCormack on the campaign trail. “During that time, we’d get a letter or a phone call that really encouraged us. And at different campaign stops, we’d meet people who had traveled over a day just to show their support.”

Despite the hard work of campaigning, the candidate rarely spoke of her health problems, said Gilroy, the author of a 2010 book, A Shared Vision: The 1976 Eleanor McCormack Presidential Campaign, published by Outskirts Press. “After our first campaign trip to New Hampshire, she told me that we would have to fly, instead of drive, but that was about it.”

Gilroy recalls the spectacle of the Secret Service detail accompanying the candidate to daily Mass and even following her up to the altar rail for Communion. Over the years, the agents kept in touch, said Gilroy, and one “even wrote a poem about her.”

In 1976, Congress passed new rules for receiving federal campaign funds that created further obstacles for presidential candidates like McCormack. In 1980, she ran as the Right to Life Party’s presidential candidate and did not apply for the money. 

Amid an era that identified legal abortion as the centerpiece of the women’s rights agenda, the achievements of pro-life women like Ellen McCormack and Mildred Jefferson were rarely acknowledged.

Today, many pro-ife Americans have never heard of McCormack’s presidential campaign, a testament, in part, to the monolithic dominance of a politically liberal media elite during her candidacy. Contrast that phenomena with the Internet-assisted clout of 20-something pro-life activist Lila Rose, who almost succeeded in defunding of Planned Parenthood this year.

“McCormack should be extolled by feminists, but abortion was the litmus test,” concluded Jane Gilroy. “It was ironic: She was a ‘single-issue’ candidate, but they were more single issue than she was.”

Eleanor Rose Cullen died on March 27, at the age of 84. She was survived by her four children and 11 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Her funeral took place at the Cure d’Ars Church, where that Catholic book club had given her her start in politics many years earlier.

Register Senior Editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.