NEW YORK — Receiving on Saturday what is arguably the most prestigious pro-life prize in the U.S., Harvard Law professor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon used the occasion to honor the legacy of other women who have shared in championing the cause of human life.

Glendon was awarded the Evangelium Vitae medal by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, an annual prize “honoring individuals whose outstanding efforts have served to proclaim the Gospel of Life by steadfastly affirming and defending the sanctity of human life from its earliest stages.”

The award is named after Saint John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical by the same name.

In introducing Glendon, Carter Snead, director of the Center for Ethics and Culture, praised her decades of pro-life work for having “consistently battled destructive forces against women, children — born and unborn — and the family in modern society with extraordinary grace, clarity, and compassion.”

In addition to being the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University, Glendon became the first woman to represent the Holy See at an international conference, leading the 1995 delegation to the U.N. Women’s Conference in Beijing, where she successfully led the efforts against enshrining abortion as an international human right.

She previously served on the President’s Council on Bioethics and is past president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

At a mass prior to the award dinner, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend extolled Glendon’s witness to the cause of human life as evidence of her communion with Christ.

“Professor Mary Ann Glendon’s intelligent and courageous witness to the Gospel in her profession and in her generous service of the Church is undoubtedly a fruit of her communion with Jesus,” he said. “Professor Glendon knows and believes that without Christ we can do nothing. Without Christ, our efforts to promote life would not bear fruit.”

Snead hailed both Glendon’s professional and personal commitments for being “entirely at the service of building a civilization of life and love.”

(Credit: photo by Peter Ringenberg/University of Notre Dame)

In accepting the award, Glendon recalled the late Revered Richard John Neuhaus’s description of the pro-life movement as the “most broad-based, the most diverse, the most sustained expression of citizen participation America has ever seen.”

“Yet, despite that great diversity, the pro-life cause has often been portrayed as indifferent to women’s concerns,” said Glendon.

She reflected on the ways in which America quickly changed in the period between the 1960s and the 1980s where “nearly all of the causes that had once been important to me had become almost unrecognizable.”

Glendon lamented that in addition to the legalization of abortion, conservationism had become linked with population control and the Civil Rights movement had forgotten Martin Luther King’s commitment to human life at its most nascent stages.

“The Civil Rights movement, which had every reason to be concerned about who would suffer most from abortion and euthanasia, but who seemed to have forgotten that unborn children and the frail elderly were part of Reverend King’s ‘Beloved Community’ included people at the frail beginning and endings of life,” Glendon said.

These rapid societal changes led Glendon and a group of other women to form the organization Women Affirming Life in 1990, with a stated commitment to being “pro-life, pro-woman, pro-child, and pro-poor.”

Five years later, when the pope penned Evangelium Vitae, Glendon said they were “ecstatic,” because the encyclical had given expression to everything they were fighting for in their work.

She used her acceptance speech to applaud the other founding members of Women Affirming Life — Frances Hogan, Barbara Thorp, Marianne Luthin, and Sister Christine Salvatori — all of whom were on hand for the occasion.

“The pro-life movement was built from the ground up by men and women from all races, nationalities, religions, and walks of life,” Glendon said. “And that is the secret of the progress it has made in the places where it counts the most: in the hearts and minds of American men and women.”

“It is no small achievement what they have done, despite fierce opposition from the mass media, the entertainment industry, and a host of elite opinion leaders,” she added.

In some respects, Glendon’s acceptance of the award brings her full-circle from 2009 when she refused to accept the University’s Laetare Medal, the highest honor in the American Church, citing the University’s decision to award an honorary doctorate on the same occasion to then-President Barrack Obama.

Glendon then criticized the University for violating the U.S. bishops’ policies which bar Catholic institutions from providing awards to those who “act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles,” in this case, Obama’s support for abortion rights.

Yet, if that incident momentarily put her at odds with the University, she used her time at the dais on Saturday to emphasize that the Evangelium Vitae award dinner was a very different occasion.

“Today, Our Lady’s University has smiled on the rank and file of the great human rights cause of our time,” Glendon concluded. “For that, I can only say: Thank you, Notre Dame.”