In bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., on Wednesday, President Obama recounted a favorite story of Kennedy’s:

There’s a story Ted Kennedy sometimes tells.  It’s about a boy who sees an old man tossing starfish stranded by a receding tide back into the sea.  “There are so many,” asks the boy, “what difference can your efforts possibly make?”  The old man studies the starfish in his hand and tosses it to safety, saying:  “It makes a difference to that one.”  For nearly half a century, Ted Kennedy has been walking that beach, making a difference for that soldier fighting for freedom, that refugee looking for a way home, that senior searching for dignity, that worker striving for opportunity, that student aspiring to college, that family reaching for the American Dream.  The life of Senator Edward M. Kennedy has made a difference for us all.

Reading the transcript of the president’s remarks, I couldn’t help reflecting that many unborn lives could have been saved had Kennedy chosen to apply this philosophy to the matter of abortion. It’s often forgotten that until the early 1970s, Kennedy expressed pro-life sentiments.

We can’t know the precise reasons why Kennedy shifted to becoming Catholic America’s best-known pro-abortion politician. A part of the reason may well have been that he concluded his Democratic Party had become so pro-abortion that he couldn’t do anything to stem the tide toward legalizing the killing of the unborn. What difference, Kennedy may have asked himself when he considered holding firm to his Catholic pro-life beliefs, would my efforts possibly make?

But in the nearly four decades since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in the United States, many unborn lives have been saved by various state and federal restrictions on abortion, and if a U.S. senator with as much influence as Kennedy had fought for more restrictions, there’s every reason to believe other unborn human beings would have been spared.

To those unborn babies, it sure would have made a difference.

This reflection gave rise in turn to other thoughts regarding the pro-life witness of a Canadian Catholic I worked with at a Canadian newsmagazine in the mid-1990s. Jim Demers was imprisoned several times for rescue efforts he undertook at Canadian abortion facilities.

I visited him in jail in Vancouver after one of those arrests, in December 1996. Jim had deliberately transgressed against the province of British Columbia’s so-called “bubble zone” legislation prohibiting pro-life advocacy on public property close to abortion facilities.

Jim got himself arrested in order to launch a challenge against Canada’s legalization of abortion, on the grounds that by permitting legal abortion Canada is in violation of its obligations as a signator to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. (The convention, which Canada played a leading role in drafting, states in its preamble that “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.”)

Unsurprisingly, a Canadian judge subsequently threw out Jim’s legal challenge. While Canada’s activist judiciary has been quick to rewrite existing law to incorporate damaging innovations like homosexual “marriage” into Canadian society, it has shown no interest in reconsidering the legal foundation of on-demand abortion.

So why did I think of Jim Demers when I read the president’s remarks on Wednesday about “making a difference”? Because of what Jim told me about his arrest while I was visiting him in prison in 1996.

Here’s what happened: As police were in the process of arresting Jim, a car that was passing by screeched to a halt. A woman jumped out and ran over to the policemen crying, “What are you doing? Why are you arresting him?”

The police told her Jim was being arrested for violating the provincial bubble-zone law.

The woman responded by telling them, “I know this man. He was here a few years ago, when I came here for an abortion myself. He talked to me and convinced me not to go through with the abortion and to keep my unborn son.”

She paused and pointed over to a little boy seated in the back seat of the car.

“That’s him, in the backseat. My boy is alive today because of this man.”

Whenever someone suggests that pro-life advocacy is pointless in a pro-abortion jurisdiction like British Columbia — whenever someone asks, “What difference can the efforts of men and women like Jim Demers possibly make?” — I think of that little boy sitting in the backseat of his mother’s car as Jim was being arrested for his pro-life witness at the Vancouver abortion facility.

It made a difference to that one.