The Powerful Witness of James Lane Buckley’s Eloquence in Defense of Life

COMMENTARY: Catholics in the United States owe the one-term senator, who died at 100 years old, a tremendous debt of gratitude.

James L. Buckley
James L. Buckley (photo: Public domain)

Former one-term U.S. Sen. James Buckley died Friday, Aug. 18, at 100 years old. 

Catholics in the United States owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Buckley, a Catholic from New York, and Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Baptist, were the first two senators to introduce Human Life Amendments designed to overturn Roe v. Wade. 

Helms’ amendment was the Senate version of the first Human Life Amendment, introduced roughly a week after Roe, by Catholic Rep. Lawrence Hogan, R-Md. The Hogan-Helms Amendment was modeled strongly on the language of the 14th Amendment, ensuring it applied conception. It also banned euthanasia.

Buckley’s amendment, in its first version, focused more directly on abortion, initially only allowing procedures necessary “to save the life of the mother.” Some Catholics, initially confident of the amendment route, were concerned the amendment might not square with the double-effect principle. Some legal scholars voiced concern that abortionists would bend “life” (as they did “health”) into extremely broad exceptions. Buckley subsequently introduced a second version, which permitted procedures necessary “to prevent the death of the mother.”

The New York senator worked to bring a constitutional amendment to the floor. Yielding to pressure, Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., eventually held subcommittee hearings, only to kill all amendments in September 1975, after Democrats increased their congressional numbers in the post-Watergate election.

One powerful witness of Buckley’s eloquence in defense of life can be found in his statement on the Senate floor when he announced his constitutional amendment. Together with accompanying documentation, it takes up 19 pages in the May 31, 1973, Congressional Record. Rereading it more than 50 years later, one sees that Buckley’s efforts were not throwaway rhetoric to placate constituents but the views of a thoughtful public servant who believed what he said. 

“… [A] constitutional amendment was the only way to redress the damage wrought by the Court. …. [T]he Court’s decisions, unfortunately, leave those who respect human life in all its stages from inception to death with no other recourse.”

Criticizing Roe:

“… [T]he Court’s opinions in these cases requires that one attempt to follow a labyrinthine path of argument that simultaneously ignores or confuses a long line of legal precedent and flies in the face of well-established scientific fact.”

On the persistent misreading of the scope of Roe: 

“… [T]he full import of the Court’s action is as yet incompletely understood by large segments of the public and many legislators and commentators. It seems to be rather widely held … that the Court authorized abortion on request in the first six months … leaving the states free to proscribe it thereafter. But such is far from the truth. … [A] woman may at any time … have an abortion provided only that she can find a physician willing to certify that her ‘health’ requires it; and as the word ‘health’ is defined, that in essence means abortion on demand.”

One could multiply quotes, but the fact is, at the beginning of an almost-half-century slog until a majority of the Supreme Court reversed Roe, Buckley presciently foresaw much of how that decision would acclimatize America to a culture of death. 

But, apart from his legislative efforts on abortion, Buckley was instrumental in shifting the politics of abortion. That, in part, resulted from his election.

Buckley’s 1970 election to the Senate was a surprise. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller appointed Republican Charles Goodell to fill the Senate seat of Robert Kennedy after his 1968 assassination. Goodell’s voting record was solidly liberal. Democrats tapped Richard Ottinger. Buckley stepped into the race on the Conservative Party line, arguing that average New Yorkers, in an era of rising crime and social unrest, had no real choice between Goodell and Ottinger. 

Rockefeller, in control of the New York Republican Party, pulled out all stops for Goodell. Earlier in 1970, Rockefeller turned New York into something of an abortion “sanctuary,” legalizing the procedure through the 24th week of pregnancy (six months), one of the most liberal regimes at the time. The governor deemed that “reform” as a signature achievement and vetoed the state Legislature’s 1972 repeal of that law. 

In the late 1960s, conservatives were growing restive in a Republican Party they saw (especially after the 1964 Barry Goldwater defeat) as institutionally too liberal and out-of-sync with America’s “Silent Majority” (a Nixon theme). Ronald Reagan’s election as California governor in 1966 (and reelection in 1970) put a new face on the conservative movement, something eastern Republicans in states like New York intended to stop.

James Buckley’s upset election to the Senate began changing that equation. Although New York Republicanism held him at a distance (the state’s senior senator, Jacob Javits, voted against admitting him to the Senate Republican caucus), Buckley and Nixon launched a series of politicians running as “R/C — New York.” It stood for “Republican Conservative”; but, as political analyst Michael Barone pointed it, it also generally indicated the legislator’s religion: Roman Catholic.

That process eventually tipped the national Republican Party solidly into the pro-life camp, sidelining pro-abortion elements in the party like Rockefeller or Sens. Bob Packwood of Oregon, Charles Percy of Illinois, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts and Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. 

The drawback was that Democrats were growing more firmly (though not initially openly) pro-abortion, turning what should have been a bipartisan issue into a partisan split. One example: Study Hyde Amendment votes in Congress since 1975 to see the progressive shrink of pro-life representation among national Democratic legislators. 

Some argue that national Republicans have occasionally taken pro-life voters for granted, talking the talk without walking the walk. One must admit, however, that but for Mitch McConnell’s efforts to seat pro-life conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court, Roe might still be in force. Yet whatever one might say about particular legislators, the most cursory survey of James Buckley’s service shows him to be a leader in the right-to-life fight. 

The late Congressman Henry Hyde, author of the amendment that bears his name, once remarked that, on judgment day, when a soul is totally alone before God, he believed “there’ll be a chorus of voices that have never been heard in this world but are heard beautifully and clearly in the next world — and they will plead for everyone who has been in [the pro-life] movement. They will say to God, ‘Spare him, because he loved us!’” If that’s true — and I hope it is — imagine the 65 million voices that may have welcomed James Buckley.

John Grondelski was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.