Shriver died Aug. 11 at the age of 88 and is perhaps best remembered as the founder of the Special Olympics. But while she was a lifelong advocate of the intellectually disabled she also was an abortion opponent, and she saw her two positions as being closely aligned.
More than four decades ago -- before the Supreme Court issued its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion -- Shriver began fearing that if abortion was legalized and prenatal testing was used, then disabled unborn babies would be the target. Sadly, Shriver was right: An estimated 90 percent of Down syndrome babies are aborted each year.
She wasn't quiet about her pro-life views and consistently promoted adoption. In the summer of 1992 Shriver and her husband, Sargent Shriver, joined other pro-life leaders in signing a full-page New York Times ad that argued America should not "abandon the principle of respect for human life." "We can choose to extend once again the mantle of protection to all members of the human family, including the unborn," the ad stated. It ran during the Democratic National Convention, which was held in New York City.
She also is credited with helping get U.S. Catholic bishops fully on board the pro-life movement in the 1960s.
"No one more than Eunice Kennedy Shriver understood better the power held by the most vulnerable in our society," Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization for pro-life female politicians, said in a statement. Shriver once served on the group's advisory committee. “She fought for those hidden in the shadows of life, while acknowledging that they teach us far more than we could ever offer them. She was consistent in her championing of every vulnerable human life."
Shriver, the sister of former President John F. Kennedy and current Sen. Edward Kennedy, was "deeply influenced" by the fact that one of her sisters, Rosemary, was mentally disabled, according to the 1998 book "Wrath of Angels" by James Risen and Judy L. Thomas profiling the cultural battle over abortion.
"By the mid-1960s," the book states, "Shriver began to fear that the new abortion reform campaign represented a threat to the mentally retarded. Reformers were making the case that legal abortion, coupled with prenatal testing, could help families avoid having children with serious birth defects. Shriver saw that argument as callous and cold, the mark of a society that believed in disposable human beings, and she saw abortion reform as an early step on a slippery slope toward eugenics and euthanasia."
Risen and Thomas also argue that America's Catholic bishops were not "stirred to action" on the issue of abortion until Shriver "arrived on the scene." Her name gave the pro-life movement instant recognition. In 1967 she arranged for the Kennedy Foundation and the Harvard Divinity School to co-sponsor a conference on the issue of abortion. Although it included people from both sides of the spectrum, most were pro-life. Shriver had the conference transcribed and placed in the form of a book, called "The Terrible Choice," which she and her husband gave to Catholic leaders, Risen and Thomas reported.
Her husband was one of the last pro-life Democrats on a major presidential ticket, serving as vice presidential candidate in 1972 alongside Democratic nominee George McGovern, who was pro-choice. President Richard Nixon won that year in a landslide.
Interestingly, Edward Kennedy -- now a staunch supporter of abortion rights -- was quoted in a 1971 Massachusetts Catholic Conference package of materials as being pro-life. Kennedy said he would never "support the hard society wherein a child in the womb could be victimized legally," according to Risen and Thomas.