In Memoriam: Dr. Carolyn Gerster

“And finally, let it be said of us that, in the midst of death, we brought life, and to all life, we brought love.”

Carolyn Gerster MD 2Those words, as remembered by National Right to Life Vice President Tony Lauinger, from an address given nearly 40 years ago by Dr. Carolyn Gerster summarize a philosophy of life she fully embraced and beautifully articulated in word and deed.

Dr. Gerster, National Right to Life’s fifth president, died in her Phoenix-area home, Thursday, January 28. She was 88.

To tell the story of Carolyn Gerster’s involvement and leadership of National Right to Life is, in many ways, to tell the story of National Right to Life itself. Dr. Gerster was there for 43 of the 48 years of the organization’s existence, first as Arizona director from 1973-2011, and then as Honorary Director from 2011 until her death.

When National Right to Life, which had been operating as an unincorporated organization from 1968 to 1973, began the process of reorganizing as a not-for-profit corporation in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions, the board of directors appointed a 5-member executive committee to lead this historic effort.

Those members added an additional four members, among them, Dr. Gerster. (By the time she joined the National Right to Life executive committee, she was already a veteran pro-life activist, having co-founded Arizona Right to Life in 1971.)

Over the course of the next 43 years, Dr. Gerster would serve in a number of leadership positions for National Right to Life: Executive Vice President (1973-1975), Chairman of the Board (1975-1978), President (1978-1980), Vice President for International Affairs (1980-1999) and Vice President for Medical Ethics (1999-2011).

Additionally, Dr. Gerster was National Right to Life’s very own in-house emergency physician. She never traveled without her medical bag and was always cheerfully on call at every meeting of the Board of Directors and every national convention to attend to anyone in need of medical assistance.

Many board members, staff, and convention attendees have a “Dr. Gerster story. ” Few, however, know that Dr. Gerster was responsible for saving the life of fellow National Right to Life board member Felicia Goeken of Illinois. Mrs. Goeken suffered a massive heart attack following the March for Life in 1984. As the story goes, when the paramedics went to lift Felicia into the ambulance, Carolyn refused to stop CPR, so they loaded both of them into the ambulance and sped off to the hospital.

The same devotion and dedication she showed to Felicia that evening by never leaving her side, was the same devotion she brought to the cause of life. For almost 50 years, Dr. Gerster was a tireless advocate for unborn children and their mothers, the elderly, and the medically dependent and disabled.

She spent countless hours away from home, traveling all over the country to speak before right-to-life groups, at universities, and to testify before state legislatures and the United States Congress.

Her devotion and dedication to National Right to Life, Arizona Right to Life, and the entire pro-life movement was remarkable. But they become awe-inspiring when you discover that she did all of this while she and her husband, Dr. Josef Gerster, raised five sons and maintained a thriving internal medicine and cardiology practice in Phoenix. As her obituary notes,

Carolyn and Josef were married in February of 1958, in Portland, Oregon, and moved back to her childhood home of Phoenix in 1959, where they built a life, started a practice, and raised five sons. Over the next fifty-plus years, she pursued life with a passion and devotion that was extraordinary. She excelled as a physician, and became a member of several professional organizations, including the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association, and she served on the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners from 1987-1992.

Though her health prevented her from physically attending National Right to Life meetings and conventions in recent years, her legacy and spirit of dedication, compassion, and love were ever-present.

Carolyn Gerster lived as she preached. She brought a passion for life wherever she went, and to every life, she brought love.

And for her life, and for all that she did on behalf of Life, we are forever grateful.