The 1971 Kennedy Letter, and the Tragic Mirage of Pro-life Liberalism

If you’ve been around the pro-life movement for a while, you’ve probably heard of the letter Senator Ted Kennedy wrote in 1971 defending the unborn’s right to life.

If not, read it for yourself right now.

Whether or not the letter really reflected Kennedy’s views at the time is unknown. On the one hand, it was almost certainly some staffer or intern who wrote the letter rather than the Senator himself. Furthermore, Kennedy proved a loyal pro-choice vote in Congress the moment the ink dried on Roe v. Wade, and there is also some good evidence that his pro-choice stance dates as far back as 1964. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that Kennedy’s office would bother writing such an extensive letter to a non-consituent if Kennedy did not strongly believe in what the letter said.

Regardless of the letter’s sincerity, I have always found it a very moving, and inspiring bit of writing. In just a few short paragraphs, the pro-life case is laid out clearly, lovingly, and convincingly. The very last sentence is especially poignant

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.

As I read these words, I think about the vision for America they express. It’s a liberal vision, to be sure, but one where the unborn are loved, treasured, and protected. It’s a vision animated by uncorrupted and unadulterated kindness, empathy, and selflessness. And tragically, it’s a vision which is now lost forever.

But for one brief halcyon moment in the early to mid ’70s, tenderhearted pro-life liberalism had a real chance to become a major ideological stream within America. In those days, liberal icon Jesse Jackson would frequently speak in favor of the right to life. In 1972 the Massachusetts legislature approved an amendment to the state constitution to make all abortion illegal forever. Such was the status quo of the abortion issue in the only state in America which voted for McGovern the same year. Even after Roe, one of the strongest voices for life in Congress was Senator Harold Hughes, an ultra-liberal Democrat from Iowa. For a time, the heavily Democratic state of Rhode Island included a pro-life plank in the state Democratic party platform, and the legislature once called for a US Constitution amendment to recognize the right to life.

This was just some of the “seamless garment” pro-life liberalism which was quite common during the 1970s. But time marched on, and the glorious illusion vanished. Sexual libertinism rapidly and irrevocably invaded and took over liberal thought. Love for our unborn neighbors was just one casualty, along with respect for religious freedom. Care and concern for the entire human community fell by the wayside. In its place came an angry and self-centered generation, scornful of self-abnegation, and seeking freedom from all responsibility.

I write all this as a longtime conservative – I’d still rather have lived in early ’70s Utah than early ’70s Massachusetts. And yet, a lot of conservatism’s facets, like its slavish devotion to capitalism, its knee-jerk hatred of all taxes, its jingoistic flag waving, and its seeming aversion to peacemaking can often sadden me. But, given the current state of liberalism, it’s not as if I have anywhere else to go.

I wish the liberalism of Kennedy’s 1971 letter was still around, and that it could be the chief ideological rival to contemporary conservatism. America would be a nicer, more loving, and more responsible place, and a lot of conservatives wouldn’t have to worry so much about losing at the polls. A lot more children would be around too.

But what’s lost is lost. And I don’t see it ever coming back. Sadly, pro-life liberalism will have to remain a bittersweet memory which grows more and more distant with each passing year.

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