Last week I had the extraordinary privilege of meeting one of the true pioneers of the pro-life movement. Unlike most of those who were shocked into action by the 1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton Supreme Court decisions imposing abortion on demand on the country, the man I met was actually in a position to do something more than speak out, protest, and write his congressman. At the time, he was the Conservative U.S. senator from New York – that’s right, the state has a viable Conservative Party – who sought an immediate legislative remedy to the Supreme Court’s infamous overreach.
I speak of the Honorable James L. Buckley, a pivotal figure in the pro-life movement from the very beginning, who is not well-known by the activists of today. He was honored on October 18 in New York City with the “Great Defender of Life Award” at the annual banquet of the Human Life Foundation, publisher of The Human Life Review. Senator (and later Judge) Buckley has indeed lived up to his title of “Honorable” through a career of public service, rarely grabbing the spotlight for himself, always looking for both the principled stand and the winnable strategy, and leaving a legacy of integrity that today’s politicians of both parties would do well to study and emulate. Among his many distinctions is the fact that he served in all three branches of government. In addition to his six years in the Senate, he was an under-secretary in the State Department, and later a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., the nation’s most prestigious, from 1985 till his retirement in 2000.
He was also the key to the Reagan administration’s 1984 “Mexico City Policy” of denying overseas funding to organizations that perform abortions, a policy that has been revoked and restored by presidents along predictable party lines.
Buckley, age 89, was born into the affluent Catholic family that produced his more famous younger brother, the late William F. Buckley, founder and editor of the conservative journal National Review. James was a Navy man serving in the Atlantic during World War II, and then went to Yale Law School. He practiced law and helped his father with the family oil business before being drawn into politics when his brother made a quixotic run for Mayor of New York in 1965. James served as his younger brother’s campaign manager, coining the slogan, “He’s Got the Guts to Tell the Truth! Will You Listen?” Not a slogan that would fly in today’s atmosphere of political pandering. The elder Buckley ran for the U.S. Senate on the Conservative ticket in 1970 and won in a three-way race, serving one term, from 1971 to 1977. His reelection bid was defeated by Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
After the Court’s decisions of January 22, 1973, Senator Buckley sprang into action, introducing a Human Life Amendment to undo the wrong of abortion on demand. He knew a constitutional amendment was a long shot, but he also knew that one branch of government could not let the other violate the basic right to “Life and Liberty” put forth in the Declaration of Independence. Introduced on the Senate floor May 31, 1973, the Amendment reads, in part:
With respect to the right to life, the word 'person,' as used in this article and in the Fifth and Fourteenth articles of amendment to the Constitution of the United States, applies to all human beings, including their unborn offspring at every stage of their biological development, irrespective of age, health, function, or condition of dependency.
Receiving the “Great Defender of Life” Award, Buckley humbly stated that many other individuals were far more deserving, who have stood on the front lines of the pro-life movement for decades. “I had the opportunity to speak out on a national stage on a few occasions,” he said, “but others have been working hard day after day.”
He observed that for many years after the 1973 decisions, the landscape for life was bleak, but in recent years the tide has seemed to change, so that a small majority of Americans describe themselves as pro-life. He recalled that a legislative aide of his used to say that if a woman’s womb were transparent, abortion would soon be outlawed. Today, Buckley continued, a window to the womb is provided by ultrasound technology, and this view of the humanity of the unborn has pushed opinion in the pro-life position.
Pro-lifers have always have had truth on their side; now that truth is visible, and can no longer be denied, he concluded.
The senior statesman of the pro-life movement told pro-lifers that they have every reason to be optimistic if they continue their efforts with hope, prayer and commitment. Let us all thank, and pray for, this great man of our times.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.