Rest in Peace, Dr. Carolyn Gerster

Charles A. “Chuck” Donovan  

A great champion of the unborn, Carolyn Gerster, M.D., a founder of both Arizona Right to Life and the National Right to Life Committee, has passed away. Dr. Gerster truly was a woman of valor. She was trained as a cardiac electrophysiologist and she understood with a passion the medical truths about the beginning of human life and its transcendent value. I first met her when I was hired as a legislative assistant by NRLC in 1978. Tall, graceful, brilliant and blessed with the ability to move audiences, everyone from laypeople to legal experts to legislators, Dr. Gerster was a natural choice to lead NRLC during years when it grew dramatically in size and influence. She ultimately served as NRLC’s international vice president, traveling the globe and reaching audiences on six continents. And she did so with a modesty of approach that ultimately could not disguise her knowledge and accomplishment.

When I left NRLC in 1981 and went to work for President Reagan, I experienced in a new way how impressive she was in marshaling analysis and evidence. In that difficult first year in the White House, the President nominated a prominent Arizona legislator and state jurist to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor. Reagan had pledged in his run for the White House to name only judges committed to the sanctity of human life. As subsequent events have proved once again, judges once appointed have a way of following their own lodestars. But Dr. Gerster had known and observed O’Connor in the Arizona legislature. She knew her socially as well and called her a “gracious and a gifted lady,” terms that fit Carolyn Gerster as well. But she also knew, and argued persuasively in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 1981, that Mrs. O’Connor’s record as a legislator was strongly pro-choice. Judges should not – and sometimes do not – vote their personal policy preferences, but Dr. Gerster was persuaded that the evidence of O’Connor’s actual views was enough to disqualify her from the High Court. Dr. Gerster’s rebuttal of a Justice Department memo more or less whitewashing O’Connor record was stellar, an example, characteristic of her, of never putting politics before principle.


Justice O’Connor was ultimately confirmed, of course, and despite initial rulings that reflected an understanding of the self-contradiction that Roe v. Wade represented, she ultimately acted to preserve a constitutional right to elective abortion. The dispute over O’Connor led to a public break with Reagan in which he criticized Gerster as “vindictive.” Believing he had broken a glass ceiling in naming a woman to the Supreme Court who was a judicial conservative, Reagan was stung by the criticism. Several of his more liberal aides relished the equivalent of a “Sister Souljah” moment when the President could illustrate his independence from conservative interest groups. Other senior aides were concerned about O’Connor’s lack of a record on social issues in a judicial context, but there were plenty of legal minds around the new President who felt she represented the best mix of conservative legal philosophy and confirmability.

Dr. Carolyn Gerster

Dr. Carolyn Gerster

But this note is about Carolyn Gerster, and not the courts or the Reagan years. Knowing her as I did, the last thing one would consider her was “vindictive.” Her firmness was real but her personal kindness was overwhelming. She could only speak and write the truth as she knew it. She was a woman of surpassing conviction, a pioneer in advancing women in medicine, a fit leader for a national and international cause, a tender mother of five boys and defender of the weak and vulnerable. She was an inspiration, and with her passing America has lost a model for her season – and for all seasons.


Chuck Donovan is president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.


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