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Sen. Kennedy, Abortion, and the Party of the Little Guy

September 1, 2009


Sen. Kennedy, Abortion, and the Party of the Little Guy

By Rev. Robert Barron

The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy has unleashed for me a flood of memories and triggered a number of rueful meditations. I come from a family of intense Kennedyphiles. Both of my parents—Irish and Catholic to the bone—deeply admired the Kennedy family. My mother was especially fond of Rose, the pious and energetic matriarch of the clan. Magazines and newspapers reporting the assassination and funeral of President Kennedy were cherished keepsakes in our home when I was growing up; and the murder of Sen. Robert Kennedy (when I was eight) is one of the most vivid and poignant memories of my childhood. For my father, the Kennedys represented the continuation of the great Democratic tradition stretching back through Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Harry Truman, FDR, all the way to Al Smith. One of my earliest political memories was joining in with my father in lustily booing Richard Nixon as he appeared on the TV screen accepting the nomination of the Republican party at their 1972 convention in Miami. My father just didn’t care for Republicans, seeing them as the representatives of the interests of the rich. Democrats, he often told me, stick up for the little guy, the oppressed, those who fall through the cracks of the society. And they were, he argued, the politicians most in line with the instincts of the Catholic social teaching tradition. My uncle Tommy, another died-in-the-wool Democrat, often worried that, as my father moved into the upper middle class, he might commit the unforgiveable sin of voting Republican!

Now that’s the political background out of which I came. My own thinking evolved in response to the “malaise” of the Jimmy Carter years and the success of Ronald Reagan’s embrace of the free market and his principled opposition to Communist ideology. But I will confess that much of my father’s fierce Democratic sensibility remained in me, especially as I deepened my appreciation of the Catholic Church’s social doctrine in regard to the poor and the disenfranchised. I suppose you could say that I was, like a lot of people in my generation, a bit eclectic in my politics, drawing inspiration from both sides of the spectrum. As my thinking continued to develop, the greatest problem I began to have with the Democratic party finally had nothing to do with economic theory or even with geo-political strategy; it had to do with abortion. I understood very well the arguments of feminists and women’s rights advocates concerning freedom of choice, but I just couldn’t buy them, since the choice in question was the option to snuff out an innocent life. When the Democratic party embraced abortion-rights as a plank in its platform and eventually as a non-negotiable principle, I found myself on the horns of a dilemma: how could I reconcile my father’s party of the little guy with the party that was allowing for abortion on demand?

And this brings me back to Ted Kennedy and the Kennedy legacy. I think it is safe to say that, over the past thirty years, there has been no stronger and more consistent advocate of abortion rights than this late “lion of the Senate.” But it was not always so. In 1971, just two years before Roe v. Wade, Sen Kennedy responded to a man named Tom Dennelly of Great Neck, N.Y. who had written to the senator expressing his views on the matter of abortion. Here is how Kennedy responded: “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.” And he went on: “when history looks back at this era it should recognize this generation as the one which cared for human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family, and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.”

For my money, that’s one of the best and most theoretically consistent defenses of the pro-life position ever articulated. And it came quite appropriately from the leader of the party of the little guy. In 1971 anyway, opposition to abortion was a naturally Democratic position, whereas today a pro-life Democrat is practically an oxymoron, and almost every major Democratic politician, locally or nationally, feels obligated to parrot pro-choice ideology if he wants his party’s nomination.

Edward Kennedy was in many ways a great and significant legislator. In regard to civil rights, nuclear disarmament, protecting the interests of the disabled, health care reform, etc., his achievements are substantive indeed. But his reversal of position on the most compelling moral issue of the day is, I think, an indication of a fatal inconsistency at the heart of Democratic politics. And it goes a long way to explaining why people like me, who are by tradition predisposed to vote for the party of the little guy, balk, hesitate, and protest.