As the 1970s dawned across the United States, the unborn’s right to life remained relatively well protected. No state allowed abortion on demand, and about ten states had legalized it only for rare cases like rape, incest, and fetal deformity – understandable exceptions which even some pro-lifers support. But before the first year of the decade ended, no less than four states opened the flood gates, and declared abortion every woman’s right.
Hawai’i led the way. The saga of legalization in the 50th state is especially poignant because of the conspicuous roles played by men and women who are described as “devout Catholics” by historians. These “devout Catholics” were responsible for the bill’s passage, and for making Hawai’i (at least for a few weeks) the most dangerous place in America for an unborn baby.
Halfway across the world in Massachusetts, a Jesuit Priest named Robert Drinan launched a successful bid to become a US Representative. Few today in the pro-life movement know his name, but Drinan, more than anyone else, was the deadly fountainhead of ubiquitous pro-choice Catholic politicians that have plagued the world for the past half century. At first glance, he would seem to sound all the right notes, denouncing abortion as an unconscionable moral wrong, and demanding that the government not countenance such a brazen violation of human rights. But the devil (perhaps literally) lurked in the details.
Even before Mississippi passed the first liberalization of abortion in 1966, every state allowed the practice in the tragic cases when the mother’s life was endangered by the pregnancy. Thus the law, in a tiny number of cases, did in fact allow for unborn babies to be killed. Drinan, with feigned outrage, denounced this exception as legally condoned murder, but conceded that states were unlikely to eliminate the exception.
His conclusion about this state of affairs tortured logic and reason. Because states were unlikely to eliminate the life-of-mother exception, argued Drinan, the best way to remain faithful to Catholic teaching was to completely repeal all laws affecting abortion. With no laws about abortion on the books, the state is therefore not in any way condoning the practice.
Of course, without any laws about abortion, it would for all intents and purposes become legal without restriction. And although Drinan was never so stupid as to openly admit it, that was exactly the point. It was a fiendishly brilliant line of argument – it used ostensibly pro-life reasoning to bring about an extremely pro-choice state of affairs. Catholic advocates of abortion on demand could now cloak their disobedience as faithful application of church doctrine.
One such covert pro-choicer was Hawai’i state Senator Vincent Yano, who headed the Senate’s Public Health, Welfare, and Housing committee. The father of ten children, he projected the image of a faithful Roman Catholic. After reading Drinan’s work, he introduced a repeal bill, and publicly justified it using Drinan’s argument. John Scanlan, the local Bishop, immediately denounced the proposed legislation, but he was too late – other Catholics were already lining up on the pro-choice side. Among them were two prominent local nuns, Maureen Keleher, and Mary Heenan.
As the legislature debated repeal, it became obvious that some guidelines regulating legal abortion would be necessary, like a requirement that it be performed in a hospital. For Senator Yano, these regulations were a huge conundrum, because if passed into law, they would completely negate Robert Drinan’s argument. In conference, Yano fought against anything other than a pure repeal bill, but eventually he caved, and accepted the additional regulations. Tacitly, Yano admitted what was already obvious: the Drinan argument was nothing but a pathetic smokescreen.
After the bill passed the legislature, it went to Governor John Burns for approval. Another “devout Catholic” who attended Mass each day, he agonized long and hard about what to do. Eventually, he settled on allowing the bill to become law without his signature. He released a lengthy note explaining his decision.
I have declined to sign this bill after much study and soul-searching; after receiving competent advice from island and national specialists in law, medicine, theology, human rights and public affairs, and after sincere prayer to the Creator named in our Nation’s Declaration of Independence as the Source of our unalienable rights
It was telling that he cited the god of the Declaration of Independence rather than the God of the Bible. Much like the Second Continental Congress, which couldn’t be bothered with a God who might disapprove of race-based chattel slavery, Burns likewise found refuge in a man-made god created purely for political convenience.
I have made my decision. I stand by it. It is the decision of the Governor of Hawaii, not the private and personal whim of John A. Burns. It reflects my best judgment as Governor, made after consultation with the best minds in the State, in regard to what is in the best interest of all the people of Hawaii
Had Burns truly been concerned about the best interests of “all the people of Hawaii,” he might have considered the interests of unborn babies.
I have felt that in the heated debates over the abortion question, my reputation has been unfairly and seriously attacked, and sadly enough, by a number of my fellow Roman Catholics who do not appear to understand precisely the separate roles of State authority and Church authority
In a breathtaking display of hubris, Burns accused Bishop Scanlan, and the entire Roman Catholic hierarchy of not understanding the dividing line between church and state. In decades to come, Catholic politicians claiming to know more about Catholicism than Popes and Bishops would become an enduring theme.
There is reported to be ample evidence that traffic in illegal abortions is considerable in Hawaii – as well as in other jurisdictions covered by restrictive abortion laws. It seems to me that to continue a breach of the law because of a change in the public’s attitude on a moral question is inconsistent with the democratic philosophy that the rule of law should prevail at all times. If community standards have changed, we should then change the law rather than continue violating an outmoded law
In the world of Governor Burns, the right to life was apparently dependent on community standards. One wonders what other classes of people could have their right to life taken away should the community change its mind.
in the future a growing awareness of the dignity and value of human life will develop steadily among our young people as they discuss wars, capital punishment… I have a tremendous faith that what the future holds in store for Hawaii and the rest of our Nation is good
More than forty years, and fifty million legal abortions later, the Governor’s optimism has become laughable. In fact, it was Governor Burns himself who contributed to the devaluation of human life. As well as Senator Yano, Maureen Keleher, and Mary Heenan.
Four decades later, innocent lives are still paying the price for the good intentions of “devout” Catholics.