60 Days of Life: Was JFK Pro-life?

On the fiftieth anniversary of his death it is hard to avoid stories about John F. Kennedy (JFK) so I thought I would add another one.  Most stories describe JFK as a devout Catholic, though most stories also highlight the former president’s extra-marital activities. 


The truth is during John F. Kennedy’s lifetime abortion was simply not the hot button issue it is today so there is little found that could point in one direction or another.  One book, JFK, Conservative by Ira Stroll did find this quote:


“Now, on the question of limiting population: as you know the Japanese have been doing it very vigorously, through abortion, which I think would be repugnant to all Americans.”


While the quote is far from conclusive the 35th President does have a major pro-life legacy – he appointed Byron White to the Supreme Court.  Justice White was the writer of the dissent in the tragic Roe v. Wade case that, with Doe v Bolton, legalized abortion at all stages.  Justice White dissension, where he was joined by Justice William Rehnquist, is the only sane part of the whole opinion.  Here is an excerpt:


With all due respect, I dissent. I find nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the Court’s judgment. The Court simply fashions and announces a new constitutional right for pregnant mothers [410 U.S. 222] and, with scarcely any reason or authority for its action, invests that right with sufficient substance to override most existing state abortion statutes. The upshot is that the people and the legislatures of the 50 States are constitutionally dissentitled to weigh the relative importance of the continued existence and development of the fetus, on the one hand, against a spectrum of possible impacts on the mother, on the other hand. As an exercise of raw judicial power, the Court perhaps has authority to do what it does today; but, in my view, its judgment is an improvident and extravagant exercise of the power of judicial review that the Constitution extends to this Court.


The Court apparently values the convenience of the pregnant mother more than the continued existence and development of the life or potential life that she carries. Whether or not I might agree with that marshaling of values, I can in no event join the Court’s judgment because I find no constitutional warrant for imposing such an order of priorities on the people and legislatures of the States. In a sensitive area such as this, involving as it does issues over which reasonable men may easily and heatedly differ, I cannot accept the Court’s exercise of its clear power of choice by interposing a constitutional barrier to state efforts to protect human life and by investing mothers and doctors with the constitutionally protected right to exterminate it. This issue, for the most part, should be left with the people and to the political processes the people have devised to govern their affairs.


Justice White returned to the issue thirteen years later in Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In Thornburgh Justice Harry Blackmun for the majority struck down various state abortion regulations reclaiming that abortion is a fundamental constitutional right. Justice White disagreed:


Abortion is a hotly contested moral and political issue. Such issues, in our society, are to be resolved by the will of the people, either as expressed through legislation or through the general principles they have already incorporated into the Constitution they have adopted. Roe v. Wade implies that the people have already resolved the debate by weaving into the Constitution the values and principles that answer the issue. As I have argued, I believe it is clear that the people have never-not in 1787, 1791, 1868, or at any time since-done any such thing. I would return the issue to the people by overruling Roe v. Wade.


For more on the opinions of the justices involved in Roe v. Wade I suggest reading Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade by American’s United for Life’s Clark Forsythe. It has incredible new insight into what went into one of the worst decisions in Supreme Court history.

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