Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

You could say that Eunice Kennedy Shriver was well positioned to side with justice over fashion, which she may have had too much of to value too highly. The outcast are outcast because most of us shun them, fearing contagion; she acted as if she was above contagion. What she was really above was the fear of it. She seemed to just assume that she could help people more than they could harm her. Few Americans have ever represented such a powerful combination of social authority and moral authority.

Her moral authority she earned, as a social worker and an advocate for the mentally disabled. Her social authority she mostly inherited—and applied to noble ends, at least one of which never promised much of a return on her investment. She must have known that signing up with the National Right to Life Committee, Feminists for Life, and the Susan B. Anthony List was likely to furrow brows among some of her family and friends—and to win her some new friends whom some old friends of hers would think (though perhaps never come right out and say) were beneath her.

In letters to the editor in the New York Times and in the Washington Post , she wrote gracefully in defense of “infants in the womb,” as she called them, and must have known that such language was unlikely to win the admiration of many readers in Manhattan, Georgetown, or Beacon Hill. So she spent some of her social capital. Of that she had a lot, and she could afford to spend some of it on this—to make a donation of it to the pro-life cause. It was a form of philanthropy. And in the process she set an example that like-minded Americans found attractive.

Surely the fuel to the smoldering fire that is the abortion controversy is a concoction of some highly charged ingredients—emotions relating to sex and the sexes, to children and childlessness, to youth and the bittersweet business of giving it up so as to bequeath it to the succeeding generation. Mixed in with all that deep, primal material, though, is some superficial middle-class anxiety that discourages us from approaching the problem head-on and fully engaging it. From movies and TV and the choice of words in newspaper articles, we gather that to be against abortion is to be poor, poorly educated, and in general poorly turned out—someone whom only a mother could love. We dread being cast in that role. We dread losing whatever respect others already have for us more than we actually respect ourselves and our right not to have been aborted. And so we mumble something about highly personal this and no easy answers that as we meditate on the Planned Parenthood fundraiser in the tony suburb and wonder whether that isn’t a club we’d like to belong to.

Against all that, Eunice Kennedy Shriver stood up and spoke truth to snobbery, making it easier for the socially anxious to declare themselves pro-life. Those who had been embarrassed of the company they would have to keep if they were pro-life could now nod in the direction of Mrs. Shriver and say, “I’m with her.”

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles