Over a two-week span in August, a pair of Kennedy siblings passed away. On Aug. 25, Senator Edward (Teddy) Kennedy died at the age of 87. Since the 1960s, he had been lionized by an adoring media in part because he was a Kennedy, but also because he advanced an unabashedly liberal agenda. Upon his death, he was given a full public funeral Mass despite his pro-abortion advocacy, scandalizing faithful Catholics and other pro-lifers. On Aug. 11, his older sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, passed away at the age of 88. The feting of her remarkable life – which was, in many ways, one much more worth celebrating – was more muted. Like so much in our culture, society’s opinion-makers got this one exactly backwards.
Both Kennedys began their public lives in the 1960s affirming the pro-life position. In 1971, Teddy Kennedy wrote a letter to an abortion supporter in which he said that “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.” Unsurprisingly, he was an early critic of Roe v. Wade. But, by the 1980s, he had completed the political journey that so many pro-life Democrats – Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Joseph Biden, Dennis Kucinich, to name a few – followed, ending up as staunch and uncompromising proponents of abortion. In the 1980s, he single-handedly derailed pro-life judge Robert Bork’s chance to sit on the Supreme Court with demagogic attacks on the esteemed jurist, warning that Bork’s America would include a return to fictitious back-alley abortions. In the 1990s, he voted to uphold partial-birth abortion and, in his last quarter-century of Senate service, Kennedy compiled a 100 per cent pro-abortion voting record.
While Kennedy’s advocacy for the poor, universal health care and other big government projects was often rooted in the religious conviction that we need to take care of the least among us, his sister’s concern for social justice was fuller, because it was all-encompassing. She fought for the dignity of all human beings. She was an advocate for those with mental disabilities and in the 1960s, helped found the Special Olympics. Furthermore, as a feminist deeply involved in women’s issues, she never relented in defending the unborn.
Her husband, Sargeant Shriver, was the last unabashedly pro-lifer on a Democratic ticket, as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972. The couple fought the Democratic party over its post-Roe support of abortion and was instrumental in the last serious attempt to insert pro-life language into the party’s platform in 1992. Eunice led a petition asking the Democrats to consider “a new understanding” of abortion that did “not pit mother against child,” but supported “policies that responsibly protect and advance the interests of mothers and their children, both before and after birth.” The Democrats rebuffed the attempt to bring moral sanity back to the party.
Considering how often Democrats and the liberal movement would follow Ted Kennedy on issues – from universal health care to occupational safety, from welfare to the environment – it is tempting to wonder if the political landscape would be radically different if Kennedy had remained pro-life. George Wiegel reports that the late pro-life Congressman Henry Hyde told him he once said to Kennedy, “Ted, if you’d take leadership of our movement, we’d sweep the country.” Perhaps so. But he didn’t.
The country is worse off for Kennedy’s support for abortion and his embrace of the culture of death. Thankfully, the United States and the world had the example of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who, in contrast, showed us what a culture of life looks like.