For faithful Roman Catholics, the thought of yet another pro-choice Kennedy positioned to campaign for the unlimited right to abortion is discouraging. Yet if Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of Catholics John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, is appointed to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton, abortion-rights advocates will have just such a champion.
Ms. Kennedy was so concerned to assure pro-abortion leaders in New York, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported on Dec. 18, that on the same day Ms. Kennedy telephoned New York Gov. David Patterson to declare interest in the Senate seat, "one of her first calls was to an abortion rights group, indicating she will be strongly pro-choice."
Within the first week of her candidacy, Ms. Kennedy promised to work for several causes, including same-sex marriage and abortion rights. In responding to a series of 15 questions posed by the New York Times on Dec. 21, Ms. Kennedy said that, while she believes "young women facing unwanted pregnancies should have the advice of caring adults," she would oppose legislation that would require minors to notify a parent before obtaining an abortion. On the crucial question of whether she supports any state or federal restrictions on late-term abortions, Ms. Kennedy chose to say only that she "supports Roe v. Wade, which prohibits third trimester abortions except when the life or health of the mother is at risk." Presumably Ms. Kennedy knows that this effectively means an unlimited right to abortion -- including late-stage abortion -- because the "health of the mother" can be so broadly defined that it includes the psychological distress that can accompany an unintended pregnancy.
Ms. Kennedy's commitment to abortion rights is shared by other prominent family members, including Kerry Kennedy Cuomo and Maryland's former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Some may recall the 2000 Democratic Convention when Caroline and her uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy, addressed the convention to reassure all those gathered that the Democratic Party would continue to provide women with the right to choose abortion -- even into the ninth month. At that convention, the party's nominee, Al Gore, formerly a pro-life advocate, pledged his opposition to parental notification and embraced partial-birth abortion. Several of those in attendance, including former President Bill Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, had been pro-life at one time. But by 2000 nearly every delegate in the convention hall was on the pro-choice side -- and those who weren't simply kept quiet about it.
Caroline Kennedy knows that any Kennedy desiring higher office in the Democratic Party must now carry the torch of abortion rights throughout any race. But this was not always the case. Despite Ms. Kennedy's description of Barack Obama, in a New York Times op-ed, as a "man like my father," there is no evidence that JFK was pro-choice like Mr. Obama. Abortion-rights issues were in the fledgling stage at the state level in New York and California in the early 1960s. They were not a national concern.
Even Ted Kennedy, who gets a 100% pro-choice rating from the abortion-rights group Naral, was at one time pro-life. In fact, in 1971, a full year after New York had legalized abortion, the Massachusetts senator was still championing the rights of the unborn. In a letter to a constituent dated Aug. 3, 1971, he wrote: "When history looks back to this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared about 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."
But that all changed in the early '70s, when Democratic politicians first figured out that the powerful abortion lobby could fill their campaign coffers (and attract new liberal voters). Politicians also began to realize that, despite the Catholic Church's teachings to the contrary, its bishops and priests had ended their public role of responding negatively to those who promoted a pro-choice agenda.
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 and Catholic college professors 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" (Oxford, 2003). 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.
Mr. Jonsen writes that the Hyannisport colloquium was influenced by the position of another Jesuit, the Rev. John Courtney Murray, a position that "distinguished between the moral aspects of an issue and the feasibility of enacting legislation about that issue." It was the consensus at the Hyannisport conclave that Catholic politicians "might tolerate legislation that would permit abortion under certain circumstances if political efforts to repress this moral error led to greater perils to social peace and order."
Father Milhaven later recalled the Hyannisport meeting during a 1984 breakfast briefing of Catholics for a Free Choice: "The theologians worked for a day and a half among ourselves at a nearby hotel. In the evening we answered questions from the Kennedys and the Shrivers. Though the theologians disagreed on many a point, they all concurred on certain basics . . . and that was that a Catholic politician could in good conscience vote in favor of abortion."
But can they now? There are signs today that some of the bishops are beginning to confront the Catholic politicians who consistently vote in favor of legislation to support abortion. Charles J. Chaput, the archbishop of Denver, has been on the front lines in encouraging Catholics to live their faith without compromise in the public square. Most recently in his book "Render Unto Caesar," Archbishop Chaput has reminded Catholic politicians of their obligation to protect life.
The archbishop is not alone. The agenda at November's assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops included a public discussion of abortion and politics. The bishops' final statement focused on concern about the possible passage of the "Freedom of Choice Act," and referred to it as "an evil law that would further divide our country." The bishops referenced their 2007 document, "Faithful Citizenship," which maintains that the right to life is the foundation of every other human right. In it, they promised to "persist in the duty to counsel, in the hope that the scandal of their [Catholic congregants'] cooperating in evil can be resolved by the proper formation of their consciences."
Whether the bishops truly will persist remains to be seen. New York's Cardinal Edward Egan, for instance, has not publicly challenged Ms. Kennedy's pro-choice promises. This is unfortunate. Until the clerics begin to counter the pro-choice claims made by high-profile Catholics such as Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden and, now, Caroline Kennedy, faithful Catholics will continue to be bewildered by their pastoral silence.
Ms. Hendershott is a professor of urban studies at The King's College in New York. She is the author of "The Politics of Abortion" (Encounter Books, 2007).
02 JANUARY 2009