Remembering Ellen McCormack

Pro-life pioneer Ellen McCormack, who ran for president in 1976, died March 27.

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 March 27 passing away in Avon, Conn.

But the feminist journal ignored the death of Eleanor “Ellen” McCormack, 84, 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.

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.

Eleanor Rose Cullen was survived by her four children, 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.

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.”

Today, many pro-life Americans have never heard of McCormack’s presidential campaign, a testament, in part, to the monolithic dominance of an antagonistic 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 the 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.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.