Today is West Virginia's Democratic primary, almost fifty years to the day when it was touted as the bellwether on whether a Roman Catholic could be elected president. That primary, held on May 10, 1960, came a day after the Food and Drug Administration's approval of the birth control pill -- two days in May that show just how impossibly inverted American politics can get in a relatively short period of time. For when West Virginians handed Kennedy a 60.8% victory and thus proved to the country that they were no bigots, it was only after the Democrat promised and promised again not to restrict their access to birth control.
That's right: the conservatives demanded their right to choose.
Catholic opposition to birth control was one of the most oft-cited policy areas latched onto by the anti-papal Protestants. Though President Eisenhower also opposed exporting contraception to third world countries where population growth allegedly outstripped American aid, the fear was that a President Kennedy would restrict its use further -- domestically, even. Asked about birth control measures before Congress, JFK told a Bethany College student, "I may be opposed to birth control as a member of my church, but I have no desire to impose my views on others." Another voter asked what he would do if faced with a political directive on birth control from his Archbishop. "I simply would not obey it," Kennedy said.
Dick Goodwin would later claim that JFK's remarks on Catholicism that day ("Is anyone going to tell me that I lost this primary forty-two years ago when I was baptized?") were totally off the cuff. According to the New York Times, the senator even cracked a joke about whether "Congress might make birth control compulsory." The audience of seven hundred students took it in good humor. Just imagine the outrage such a joke would prompt from conservatives today.
Though it wasn't only the right that feared a de facto theocracy, one where the Vatican would have the final say in the Oval Office. In July 1960, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger said she would "find another place to live" if Kennedy were elected. "In my estimation," she said, "a Roman Catholic is neither a Democrat nor Republican, nor American nor Chinese; he is a Roman Catholic."
Sanger later cut Kennedy some slack, but the conservatives were more persistent. Even after his famous "the church does not speak for me" speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association that September, a conservative Protestant outfit demanded a complementary statement from American bishops promising that "the Roman Catholic Church will not attempt to force its teachings about medical practices and birth control on citizens of other beliefs."
In the years that followed, Kennedys in politics still faced skepticism and taunts about Catholic opposition to birth control. It appeared in at least two major newspapers that Ethel and Joan Kennedy were in the Supreme Court gallery for the arguments in Connecticut v. Griswold. But just as the Kennedys were rethinking their position, the increasing availability of the pill and the change in social mores it spawned had conservatives revising their demand that birth control be unrestricted.
Makes you wonder what they'll be saying in another fifty years?
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