The Story Behind Kennedy’s Pro-Life Letter

A photograph of a portion of the pro-life letter Sen. Edward Kennedy wrote in 1971.
A photograph of a portion of the pro-life letter Sen. Edward Kennedy wrote in 1971. (photo:

Long Island, N.Y., resident Thomas Dennelly is the Catholic American who wrote to Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1971, asking the famous U.S. senator where he stood on the question of abortion.

In Kennedy’s letter of reply to Dennelly, he strongly affirmed a Catholic, pro-life conviction about the sanctity of unborn human life, from the moment of conception forward. Unfortunately, Kennedy abandoned this pro-life conviction in his subsequent legislative career, instead becoming the most prominent Catholic politician in America to dissent from the Church on abortion.

The Daily Blog interviewed Dennelly today about why he wrote the letter to Kennedy and the consequences of Kennedy’s subsequent flip-flop on abortion.

Why did you write your letter to Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1971?
I wrote it because I felt as a prominent Catholic family it would be politically important for Kennedy to oppose abortion so other Catholics would not back away from their position. That’s essentially what I said. He was going to be in the vanguard, in the forefront of it.

As it was, he did a flip-flop, and a lot of Catholic politicians followed what he did.

At about the same time, I read a letter in the local paper, from a relative of a very prominent local entertainer. And he wasn’t responding to anybody; he just said “pro-lifers are talking mumbo-jumbo” when they talk about the nature of the unborn human fetus.

So that got me very upset. So I wrote back to the paper, and I said, “Does he really think that the heartbeat begins at 18 days, and brain activity at 43 days, and all internal functions are fully operational before the end of the first trimester, or does he really believe this is all ‘mumbo-jumbo’?” And then I signed it.

That was the beginning of my writing in support of the pro-life position.

What specifically did you say to Sen. Kennedy in your letter?
That the children were counting on his political talents to protect them until they were born — don’t let them down. Something to that effect.

What did you think of his reply to you?
I was happy because it was totally pro-life. Everyone who is pro-life was impressed with the letter that I shared with them. And that’s why seven years later, in 1978, when he voted on the Hyde Amendment I think it was, and he voted for money for poor people to have abortions, I wrote to him a second time. I said, “You know, in 1971 you gave the most outstanding response to why the pro-life position is so important to our society. Now, you’re voting for money to mothers who can use the money to have their children’s lives terminated legally.”

And he responded again. And he said something I don’t understand to this day. He said the mothers can do two things with [the federal funding Kennedy had voted for]: They can get medical care until the baby is born and they are free of debt, or else, if they’re going to have an abortion, nothing can stop them. Because that was after Roe v. Wade and, consequently, they’re going to have it anyway.

I wasn’t convinced of his logic.

When did you make the 1971 letter public? What did you hope to accomplish by doing this?
I sent it to the National Right to Life News about 15 years ago, and they made it, I believe, a front-page article in their publication. I also sent it to other people. I just wanted to have a record of it.

In your judgment as a Catholic and as a pro-life advocate, how much damage resulted to the pro-life movement and to the Catholic Church in America as a result of Sen. Kennedy’s abortion flip-flop?
I think, since he came from, I believe, the most prominent Catholic family in our nation, I think he gave an invitation to Mario Cuomo, to George Pataki, to all the other Roman Catholics who are governors or what have you, to follow suit. Because if Ted Kennedy can come out and, as you said, do a flip-flop on abortion, why can’t Cuomo and the other Roman Catholics?

I think the implication is that Kennedy was the vanguard for tempting all these Catholics, particularly in the Democratic Party, but also some segments of the Republican Party, as well. And if Kennedy had not come out [pro-abortion] and had used his God-given talents and accepted the indisputable scientific truth that the child is scientifically a human from conception, I don’t think you would have had this avalanche of Roman Catholic elected officials following him.