Aug. 13, 2013
Miss Nellie Gray passed away one year ago today. Yet her memory remains vivid in the minds of all who knew her. She began the March for Life following the infamous Roe v. Wade ruling of January 22, 1973.
The March for Life is an amazing phenomenon, almost without precedent in American history. What other public demonstration has been cited in Supreme Court opinions as evidence of the Court’s own errors? Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to the annual return of tens of thousands of pro-lifers toWashington’s streets to tell his colleagues they are wrong.
It is one of life’s ironies that Nellie was a Gray. For in Nellie’s world, there were no grays. Nellie dealt with questions of right and wrong on a daily basis. Killing the most innocent, the most vulnerable among us was wrong, is wrong, and will always be wrong.
I had many occasions to talk with Nellie Gray. On some of those occasions, I must admit, Nellie and I were on opposite sides. I supported the Hatch Amendment of 1983.
That proposed constitutional amendment would have set aside the lethal logic of Roe v. Wade, freeing the Congress and the state legislatures to enact protective legislation. I thought it was the right thing to do. As a Lutheran Christian, I was persuaded to work for this amendment by the Catholic Bishops.
There is heavy irony here. Nellie Gray, a devout Catholic, was militantly opposed to the Hatch Amendment. It did not go far enough, she argued passionately. It did not restore fully the right to life of unborn children. It would have permitted liberal states to continue the slaughter of innocents. Nellie Gray was never about compromise.
I tried to reason with her. I even quoted Lincoln. Lincoln faced the bitter opposition of some staunch abolitionists to the reconstruction constitution of Louisiana. The abolitionists said it did not go far enough in extending full civil rights to the freedmen. Lincoln was a statesman who had to deal with unyielding realities on a daily basis.
Lincoln responded to his hardline critics, using a homely farm metaphor. He likened the Louisiana constitution to an egg: “We shall sooner have the chicken if we do not smash the egg. Let it hatch.”
Lincoln endorsed the Louisiana draft constitution in his last public statement. Hearing Lincoln speak from the White House second floor window, John Wilkes Booth said that Louisiana constitution went too far and he resolved to murder the Emancipator.
“Let it hatch.” What a phrase. But now, so many years later, I realize with painful recognition that Nellie was right to oppose the Hatch Amendment. We would get only one chance to amend the Constitution—if that was our chosen path—and we could not amend it while sacrificing the core principle: We are all created equal and any measure we approve cannot constitutionally concede the alienation of that inalienable right to life.
By not taking a position on that core question, the Hatch Amendment failed to engage the hearts and minds of tens of millions of pro-life Americans. We are opposed to Roe because it usurps the powers of Congress and the states to protect innocent human life. But if, as has happened inBritain andFrance, the legislatures voted to permit the killing of innocent human beings, it would be no less wrong.
If slavery is not wrong, Lincoln said, then nothing is wrong. We can echo that: If abortion is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.
It is no wonder that our government is going broke. Thomas Jefferson pledged “a wise and frugal government” whose purposes were limited but clear. “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government,” he wrote.
When our government gives billions of our tax dollars to Planned Parenthood, and that evil enterprise kills millions of unborn children, can we be surprised that our government faces bankruptcy? Human capital economists teach us that those victims of homicide might each have earned a million dollars in a lifetime. Let’s tell the Republicans: Save the Unborn Millionaires!
Remembering Nellie, I cannot help thinking of that famous scene in A Man for All Seasons. The rich and powerful Duke of Norfolk is trying to get Sir Thomas More to go along with King Henry VIII’s divorce. Sir Thomas won’t give in.
“And will you forfeit all you have, which includes the respect of your country, for a belief? … And who are you? A lawyer and a lawyer’s son. We [the nobles of England] are supposed to be the proud ones, the arrogant ones. We’ve all given in. Why must you stand out? … It’s disproportionate.”
Sir Thomas More went to the scaffold for his beliefs. And today, he is revered as a saint by the Catholic Church and respected by millions for standing out, for not giving in.
Nellie stood out. She did not give in, either. For that, we all owe her respect.