Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Kennedys and Abortion

From The Bridgehead:
Since that fateful day in 1963, the tragic and glamorous Kennedys have entered into the political pantheon of those doomed to die young, with lives unfinished and questions unanswered. Teddy Kennedy, who died an old man in 2009, was the only Kennedy brother who did not perish violently: Oldest brother Joe Kennedy was killed in action in World War II, and Robert F. Kennedy was murdered five years after John in a California hotel, just after winning that state’s primary on what might have been his path to the presidency. The murdered Kennedys—martyred, in the eyes of their devotees—have become figures onto which people project their fondest hopes and questions of “what if,” despite inconvenient historical realities. 
I discovered this devotion several years ago when I wrote a column on abortion in the lives of famous people, noting that one of JFK’s mistresses, Judith Campbell Exner, reported aborting a child she conceived with the president the same year he was shot. Some people responded with defensive incredulity to the idea that JFK would have been having an affair, in the first place. One elderly woman informed me angrily that JFK’s well-documented infidelities must have been made up, because the president had a bad back. This particular rebuttal was a tad ironic, since Marilyn Monroe once purred that she thought she made the president’s “back feel better.” 
But it is interesting to look back at the Kennedys as the political family that straddled eras—a Catholic clan where the men chased skirts, the women were expected to raise the children, and the ruthless pursuit of power was the family business. Many have wondered what the Catholic Kennedys would have thought about abortion, a subject that was just beginning to surface in the Sixties and would begin to tear the country apart in the Seventies. As abortion was not an issue during the Kennedy presidency, there is only one comment we know of that JFK made referencing it, in relation to population control: “Now, on the question of limiting population: as you know the Japanese have been doing it very vigorously, through abortion, which I think would be repugnant to all Americans.” 
Interestingly—especially when you consider Senator Ted Kennedy’s later opposition to Supreme Court nominees who opposed abortion and his willingness to go to great extremes to slander good men like Judge Robert Bork in order to keep them off the bench—the 35th president of the United States does have something of a judicial pro-life legacy. It was JFK who appointed Byron White to the Supreme Court, and it was Justice White that wrote the dissent in 1973’s tragic Roe v. Wade case that, with Doe v. Bolton, legalized abortion in all fifty states. Justice White’s dissension, in which he was joined by Justice William Rehnquist, is the only sane part of the entire ruling. The Kennedy who put White on the court did not live to see the Kennedy who became known as the “liberal lion” of the Senate condemn pro-life judges as dangerous misogynist bigots. 
Of course, Teddy Kennedy wasn’t always an abortion extremist—that came with time. In fact, back in 1971, the young senator wrote a letter to a Massachusetts constituent expressing quite a different view: “While the deep concern of a woman bearing an unwanted child merits consideration and sympathy, it is my personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized—the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old…Once life has begun, no matter at what stage of growth, it is my belief that termination should not be decided merely by desire.” 
So what happened? How did Ted Kennedy transform from a man who wrote that letter to the man who would viciously attack Supreme Court nominees for holding those precise views? Sadly, the Wall Street Journal revealed some years ago that it was a concentrated effort by a number of Catholic theologians to convince the Kennedys that support for abortion was acceptable. By convincing the Kennedy scions that it was moral to support abortion, these liberal priests had a tremendous impact on American politics: The Kennedys led the way for other public Catholics to claim that there was no contradiction between their professed Catholicism and their support for legal abortion (Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi—the list goes on.) This came as welcome news to many politicians, as the Democrats became aware that the abortion lobby was willing to sink a lot of cash behind candidates that would serve their interests—and that even pro-life Catholic priests and bishops were increasingly withdrawing from the public culture wars, thus decreasing the chance that they would come out and publicly condemn a pro-abortion Catholic Democrat. 
In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported, in “some cases, church leaders actually started providing ‘cover’ for Catholic pro-choice politicians who wanted to vote in favor of abortion rights. At a meeting at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Mass., on a hot summer day in 1964, the Kennedy family and its advisers and allies were coached by leading theologians on how to accept and promote abortion with a ‘clear conscience.’ The former Jesuit priest Albert Jonsen, emeritus professor of ethics at the University of Washington, recalls the meeting in his book The Birth of Bioethics. He writes about how he joined with the Rev. Joseph Fuchs, a Catholic moral theologian; the Rev. Robert Drinan, then dean of Boston College Law School; and three academic theologians, the Revs. Giles Milhaven, Richard McCormick and Charles Curran, to enable the Kennedy family to redefine support for abortion.” (Read more.)

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