Eunice Kennedy Shriver died less than two weeks before her brother Edward, beginning a month of tributes to the Catholic left’s first family that reached a crescendo when Senator Kennedy was laid to rest. But there was a difference between the two Kennedy siblings that was seldom mentioned in the encomiums: Mrs. Shriver’s Catholic liberalism did not always subordinate her Catholicism to her liberalism.
Consider abortion. Eunice Kennedy married Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr., who in 1972 was the last pro-life candidate to grace a national Democratic ticket. Their partisan and family loyalties sometimes led them to support pro-abortion politicians like son-in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger and a certain candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” Yet starting with the “One Million for Life” campaign to recruit one million adoptive parents, they both continued actively to oppose abortion throughout their lives.
In 1992, the Shrivers joined with Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey in the last serious effort to nudge the Democratic Party away from pro-abortion extremism. They signed a statement urging their party’s convention to adopt “a new understanding” of the issue, “one that does not pit mother against child” but pursues “policies that responsibly protect and advance the interest of mothers and their children, both before and after birth.”
When a national pro-choice group used the image of President John F. Kennedy to urge Catholic bishops to stifle their pro-life advocacy, Mrs. Shriver wrote a letter to the New York Times taking strong exception. She was an advisory-board member of the Susan B. Anthony List—an organization dedicated to electing pro-life women to Congress—and was honored by an organization called Feminists for Life. Both Shrivers were members of Democrats for Life of America.
Earlier in his political career, Ted Kennedy agreed. In a memorable 1971 letter to a pro-life voter, Senator Kennedy wrote that “the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our society places on human life.” He considered his pro-life views consistent with liberalism’s desire to protect the weak from the strong: “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.”
But unlike other disadvantaged groups liberals profess to protect, human beings in the earliest stages of development cannot vote. Which brings us to another key difference between Ted Kennedy and Eunice Kennedy Shriver: He had to face the voters of a very liberal, mostly nominally Catholic state. Consequently, he quickly changed his position on abortion once Roe v. Wade made it a national litmus-test issue.
Could Ted Kennedy have survived politically if he had stayed true to his pro-life beliefs, as his sister did? Thomas Dennelly, the man who wrote the letter that elicited Kennedy’s pro-life response, hoped so. “I wrote it because I felt as a prominent Catholic family it would be politically important for Kennedy to oppose abortion so other Catholics would not back away from their position,” he told the National Catholic Register.
But almost every other Massachusetts politician has made the same judgment that Kennedy did. Although Mitt Romney reinvented himself as an abortion opponent for last year’s Republican primaries, he had never faced his state’s voters as a pro-life candidate. Joseph Malone was elected state treasurer as a pro-life Catholic in 1990, but he switched sides in anticipation of a run for governor.
Despite being the second-most Catholic state, Massachusetts hasn’t elected a pro-life governor since Democrat Edward King in 1978. Pro-life state Senate President William Bulger and House Speaker Thomas Finneran have been replaced with abortion supporters. The only pro-life statewide elected official is the auditor, whose position has nothing to do with abortion policy.
Support for legal abortion doesn’t even keep a Catholic politician from being fêted by the Archdiocese of Boston or celebrated at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica. Eunice Kennedy Shriver wasn’t an outlier just within her own family. Kennedy Catholicism is the religion of choice in her native state.
If Ted Kennedy has a lot to answer for, then so do his enablers and the Catholic constituents the late senator’s pro-abortion absolutism was meant to accommodate.