Ellen McCormack’s 1976 presidential campaign offers today’s pro-lifers a valuable example of incrementalist strategy.
Ellen McCormack was one of the most well-known pro-life activists of the 1970s. She was a wife, a mother, a homemaker, and a two-time presidential candidate. Although her name might be unfamiliar to young pro-lifers, many pro-lifers of an older generation fondly recall her 1976 campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. This campaign is nicely chronicled in Jane Gilroy’s new book A Shared Vision. Gilroy gives some well-deserved attention to the accomplishments of a pro-life pioneer. She also details a presidential campaign that, despite taking place 36 years ago, still contains important lessons for today’s pro-life activists.
Gilroy paints the early history of the pro-life movement in New York, where Ellen McCormack was born and raised. New York became a hotbed of pro-life activism in the late 1960s, when feminist groups including NOW and NARAL launched an organized effort to liberalize the state’s abortion laws. This motivated many well-intentioned, but politically inexperienced people to join the pro-life cause. A Shared Vision chronicles how these new pro-life activists lost their innocence very quickly.
Gilroy vividly describes how many of these newly minted pro-life activists felt they could persuade state legislators to oppose abortion by simply showing them pictures of unborn children in various stages of development. While some of these legislators privately expressed sympathy for the pro-life cause, they feared the feminist groups who at the time were better organized and more experienced. Indeed, in 1970 New York became one of only a few states to legalize abortion prior to the Roe v. Wade decision. Interestingly, many legislators who voted in favor of the bill to legalize abortion still thought they could win support from pro-life voters.
Over time, pro-lifers became much more savvy–thanks in no small part to Ellen McCormack’s efforts. As a founding member of New York’s Pro-Life Action Committee (PLAC), she pledged to withhold support from legislators who supported legal abortion and to recruit pro-life candidates to run against state legislators who were not supporting pro-life bills. These efforts paid some dividends. In 1972, both chambers of the New York state legislature voted to repeal New York’s liberal abortion law. Unfortunately, the ban was vetoed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Nonetheless, pro-lifers had nearly enough strength in the state legislature to override the veto.
The most fascinating part of the book details Ellen McCormack’s run for president. During the 1970s, many rank-and-file Democrats were pro-life. But going into the 1976 election cycle, no major Democratic presidential candidate expressed consistent opposition to abortion. Many leading Democrats, including Jimmy Carter, Sargent Shriver, Birch Bayh, Lloyd Bentsen, and Hubert Humphrey, typically offered vague or conflicting statements on the issue. Sometimes they would say on the record that they personally opposed abortion and disliked the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade. But no Democratic presidential candidate would commit to supporting a Human Life Amendment or any other legislative strategy to protect the unborn.
Still, a pro-life candidate running in the Democratic presidential primaries could raise the salience of abortion and force the other candidates to clarify their position on the issue. A pro-life presidential candidate could also highlight the unwillingness of many congressional Democrats to support a Human Life Amendment to the US Constitution. Finally, since television stations were legally required to sell airtime to candidates seeking federal office, a pro-life presidential candidate could run ads that would be seen by millions of viewers. Pro-life television ads had been used very effectively during a 1972 referendum campaign that would have legalized abortion in Michigan. Early polls showed citizens favoring the pro-abortion measure by a 57-37 margin. However, after the television ads were run statewide, the referendum was opposed by 61 percent of voters.
Starting in December 1974, the Pro-Life Action Committee began to seek a presidential candidate. They originally asked Nellie Gray. She declined because running the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, required her full attention. They then asked Ellen McCormack. McCormack was an attractive and articulate proponent of the pro-life cause. Moreover, as a founder of PLAC, she had plenty of experience volunteering in local campaigns. She also penned a newspaper column titled “Who Speaks for the Unborn Child?” and successfully organized the 1971 Women’s March for Life in New York City, which drew over 10,000 participants. McCormack at first declined the PLAC’s invitation to be the presidential candidate, but after considering the alternatives and talking it over with her husband, she agreed to run in the Democratic presidential primaries in 1976.
The mainstream media’s reaction to McCormack’s candidacy was telling. Volunteers raised over $5,000 from small donors for McCormack’s campaign in each of 20 different states–the equivalent of raising over $20,000 per state in today’s dollars. As such, Ellen McCormack became the first female presidential candidate to qualify for federal matching funds. Still, her campaign initially received little attention from mainstream media outlets–many of which incorrectly reported that no pro-life candidates were seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
The reaction of the Democratic Party’s leadership was even worse. The fact that McCormack’s campaign was using federal matching funds to run pro-life television commercials outraged many party leaders and the Federal Election Commission. They went so far as to change the election rules during the primary campaign with the specific intent of denying Ellen McCormack additional federal matching funds. Still, her pro-life commercials were seen by tens of millions of viewers that spring.
Gilroy thoroughly details McCormack’s performance in each primary state–describing how she often received more votes than other Democrats with more money and better name recognition. Gilroy shows that the presidential campaign of Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN) suffered when Bayh only fared slightly better than Ellen McCormack among Boston voters in the Massachusetts primary. Similarly, the candidacy of Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp was damaged when he finished behind McCormack in his home state of Pennsylvania. Gilroy also explains how McCormack’s campaign succeeded in raising the salience of the abortion issue and eventually received coverage from Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. Walter Cronkite even mentioned her candidacy while anchoring for CBS News Radio.
The book’s one shortcoming is that Gilroy fails to spend much time describing whether and how McCormack’s candidacy affected either the Democrats’ or the Republicans’ internal debates about sanctity-of-life issues. From the book, it is unclear whether McCormack’s campaign caused any of the leading contenders for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination to clarify or modify their position on abortion. Gilroy also does not report on any interactions between McCormack and the other Democratic presidential candidates at debates or candidate forums. What’s more, McCormack’s candidacy was likely hurt by the fact that many pro-lifers were eager to support Ronald Reagan’s primary challenge to Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination. Gilroy makes no mention of this.
In the end, Ellen McCormack’s campaign exceeded expectations. She ran in 18 primaries and received over 200,000 votes, 1.4 percent of the total votes cast. Her success in the primaries earned her 3 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention. At the convention, she received both a nominating speech and a seconding speech. When the results were tallied, she received 22 votes from the convention delegates. Her campaign educated many people about abortion and demonstrated that a sizeable contingent of Democrats was willing to support a single-issue pro-life candidate.
Gilroy’s account of McCormack and her campaign offers current pro-lifers important lessons. Pro-life circles have always seen a tension between incrementalists and absolutists. This tension was especially high during the 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, many pro-lifers felt that they only had a short time in which to change abortion policy. Some thought the increasing numbers of women who had abortions after Roe v. Wade would increase the number of individuals with personal reasons to support legal abortion. And during the 1970s, a number of opinion surveys consistently showed that support for legal abortion was growing and strongest among young people. As such, some simply thought incremental efforts would accomplish too little too late.
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McCormack, however, preached patience. As one reads the book, one gets the strong impression that she believed the fight to end abortion would take a long time, and that long-term efforts would eventually bear fruit. She consistently encouraged her supporters to celebrate small victories. If a third-party pro-life candidate did not win, but convinced a pro-choice candidate to change his position on abortion, she considered that step a victory. Similarly, if a statewide pro-life candidate was unsuccessful, but thousands of viewers had the opportunity to see pro-life ads on television, that was also a success. She thought these small, incremental gains would be necessary to keep people motivated during what could be a long and sometimes thankless struggle.
Indeed, Ellen McCormack planted many seeds that continue to bear fruit. In its early years, the pro-life movement was short on resources and received precious little attention from the mainstream media. As such, articulate volunteers and single-issue candidates like McCormack had to keep voters and the general public informed. McCormack’s numerous campaigns–for president in 1976 and 1980, and for lieutenant governor of New York in 1978–raised the salience of sanctity-of-life issues and gave countless campaign workers and volunteers valuable experience. The pro-life movement unfortunately has devoted few resources to chronicling its own history. Thus by giving pro-life pioneer Ellen McCormack some overdue recognition, Gilroy has done her readers a fine service.
LifeNews.com Note: Dr. Michael New is a political science professor at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He is a fellow at Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. This first appeared in Public Discourse.