The March for Life — held each January on the anniversary of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion — is reported to have drawn as many as 70,000 activists in any given year since its inception in 1974. The figures do not include the counterprotesters who often converge on Washington at the same time.
March for Life protesters traditionally wear red and carry red roses — a symbol of what is known within the movement as “the pre-born child” — and sometimes refer to the event as “Nellie’s March,” in honor of its founder.
“This is the land of the free, the place to come for advancement. . . . How is it that a country built on this would kill babies?” she told The Washington Post in 1993. “I don’t understand slavery. I don’t understand the Holocaust. I don’t understand abortion.”
Miss Gray, a career woman and a Democrat, was working as a Labor Department lawyer when the Supreme Court handed down the landmark abortion ruling in Roe v. Wade.
Horrified by the decision, she left work at 48 — a decision that cut her retirement benefits in half — and began a second career in the forefront of the abortion debate.
As she told the story, she and about 30 other activists gathered in her home on Capitol Hill in the fall of 1973 to plan a demonstration for the following January.
“We just thought we were going to march one time and Congress would certainly pay attention to 20,000 people coming in the middle of winter to tell them to overturn Roe vs. Wade,” she once told the Religion News Service.
When that did not happen, Miss Gray soldiered on. Her basement, cluttered with buttons and banners, became the headquarters for a movement, often distributing news releases printed in red ink.
Her prominence, until the end of her life, is explained by her longevity and doggedness. Once, during President Ronald Reagan’s first term, she reportedly declined to meet with him with other protesters in the Oval Office because he had opted not to attend her rally, sending his secretary for health and human services instead. (In 1985, just after he was sworn in for his second term, Reagan became the first U.S. president to address the annual rally.)
Miss Gray’s philosophy was “no exceptions, no compromise,” and she referred to some of her detractors as “feminist abortionists.” She held the view that life begins at conception and opposed abortion in all circumstances, including in cases when the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy or in instances of incest or rape.